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Musings on Benedict XVI's First Encyclical | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Benedict has done for magisterial documents what J.R.R. Tolkein did for
literature: drawn on his immense erudition to express in clear and beautiful
language the longings of the human heart.
Who would have thought that the first encyclical of the "Panzerkardinal"
would have as a centerpiece the exaltation of the love of eros between
a man and a woman? Here is the man who has been portrayed for decades as
the great nay-sayer, the enforcer of doctrine, a successor to the Holy Inquisition.
But to those who have read his works, are familiar with his life, or have
had the privilege of knowing him, the encyclical is no surprise. He has
a penetrating intellect which always goes to the heart of the matter. He
has a sense of the poetry of life and of revelation, which gives his writing
clarity, depth and beauty. And he is someone who listens both to the living
and those whose thoughts come to us through their books and works of art.
Then from all that he's seen and heard, he's able to synthesize and organize
and present an idea or position in a coherent way that always illuminates.
I see this as a foundational encyclical. And I hope he has a long enough
papacy to build on this strong foundation. He has taken the very heart of
Christian revelation as a starting point, the central truth of the Christian
faith: God is love.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he would periodically
issue statements that were responses to controversial issues. By the very
nature of what he was doing, there was less willingness on the part of readers
to listen with an open mind when the principles behind a decision were being
elaborated. Here, he develops unpolemically the most fundamental of principles:
the human love of eros as an image of divine love.
He develops the historical understanding of this love and its transformation
in the light of Christian revelation in a way that is, at least on the surface,
uncontroversial. However, the consequences of what he says clearly are controversial.
For example, he maintains that Christianity did not destroy eros
(#4) but disciplined and purified it, restoring it to its true grandeur
(#5). "It is part of love's growth toward higher levels and inward purification
that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense:
both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the
sense of being 'forever'" (#6).
But this beautiful reflection implies a very controversial consequence:
genuine eros leads to an exclusive and permanent relationship between
a man and a woman. That is, it excludes homosexual unions, multiple wives,
divorce and remarriage, and promiscuity.
Later he shows that in the Biblical vision "eros is...supremely ennobled,
yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape"
(#10). The Biblical account shows that "eros is somehow rooted in
man's very nature...[It] directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is
unique and definitive. Corresponding to the image of the monotheistic God
is monogamous marriage" (#11).
In this encyclical, Benedict XVI both gets beneath and transcends the controversies.
He establishes a genuine "common ground" and shows how its "inner logic"
(a phrase which he uses often) leads to the same conclusions that the Catholic
Church teaches as authoritative.
I found it interesting to look at his citations. Within the text, he quotes
or alludes to Sacred Scripture frequently. But here is the exact sequence
of the authors he cites in the endnotes: Nietzsche, Virgil, Descartes, Gregory
the Great (two times), Aristotle, Pseudo-Dionysius the Aereopagite, Plato,
Sallust, St. Augustine (two times), Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch,
Ambrose, Julian the Apostate. Only then does he cite a recent ecclesiastical
document: the Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, issued by
the congregation for bishops in 2004.
He is speaking to bishops, priests, religious and the Catholic laity. But
he is speaking to all of humanity and he is speaking from the deepest wellsprings
of human culture. The document, like the man, is a distillation and expression
of a universal wisdom.
The professor has become a Pope. You note in the document many enumerations
of aspects or consequences of a particular thought. He will summarize at
the end of a section what he considers he has achieved in the foregoing
elaboration. He will speak of the "inner logic" of the subject he is treating.
And he will show the coherence of all the elements in a higher synthesis
(eros/agape; divine/human love; soul/body; love/service). That is
to say, it is truly "catholic".
I noted with particular interest that he has definitely taken stand in the
debate on the so-called "inclusive" language. The document in its English
translation is dominated by ordinary English usage: man, the generic masculine
pronoun, mankind, brethren. But he does use "he or she", "men and women",
where it is appropriate, though sparingly.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com pages:
Reflections on Benedict
XVI | An Interview with Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ
The Mass of Vatican
II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Author page for Pope
Benedict XVI/Cardinal Ratzinger
Fr. Joseph D. Fessio, S.J. is the founder of Ignatius Press.
He entered the Jesuit Novitiate in 1961 and was ordained a priest in 1972.
He completed his undergraduate work in philosophy at Gonzaga University
in 1966 and earned two Masters degrees (philosophy, theology) from
the same institution. He received a Doctorate in Theology in 1975 University
of Regensburg, West Germany, where his thesis director was Fr.
Joseph Ratzinger. Fr. Fessios thesis was on the ecclesiology of
Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Fr. Fessio taught philosophy at Gonzaga and the University of Santa Clara,
California and theology at the University of San Francisco before founding
the Saint Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco in 1976.
Two years later he founded Ignatius Press. He is now Provost of Ave Maria
University in Florida.
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