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The Love Behind the Rules | Mary Beth Bonacci on Benedict XVI and His First Encyclical

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I got a call a few weeks ago from a newspaper in New York, wanting to interview me about the Pope’s new encyclical. The phrase "the Pope’s new encyclical" actually sounded rather strange to me, almost as if I’d forgotten that any Pope after JPII would actually be writing encyclicals. Of course, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was a brilliant theologian and a prolific writer. It only makes sense then that, as Pope Benedict XVI, he would continue that tradition.

And, in Deus Caritas Est, he has.

The reporter I spoke with, along with many others in the press and elsewhere, was surprised that the Holy Father would choose for his first official Church document a simple topic like love. After all, he could have chosen any one of the current, contemporary, controversial topics with which the Church is grappling — homosexuality, euthanasia, stem-cell research. Why love?

The answer seemed crystal clear to me. This is a man who spent over twenty years as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His role at the CDF was essentially "doctrinal watchdog." He had to look at the myriad applications of Church teaching to contemporary circumstances. He had to say, "You can do this, but you can’t do that." He had to be the enforcer. He had to be all about the rules.

It was my theory that this wonderful, loving, pastoral man is saying "Finally!" Finally he has the opportunity to go beyond the "rules," to explore the heart of the Christian message, which is the Heart of God — love. "Deus Caritas Est" is Latin for "God is Love." That simple truth — the subject of all of those collages we made in CCD back in the ‘70’s — is the guiding principle behind all of those rules. And without understanding the love behind the rules we are, as St. Paul said, no more than "sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal."

Benedict XVI seemed ready to talk about the love behind the rules.

Turns out that I was right about the Holy Father's motivation. In fact, he recently gave an interview to the Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana in which he explained the central premise of the encyclical. He said that he wrote the encyclical to answer two fundamental questions. They are: "Is it possible to love God?" and "Can we really love our neighbor when he is strange or even disagreeable?"

It doesn’t take much of a scripture scholar to recognize these two questions as restatements of Christ’s "greatest commandment": "You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."

You can’t get much more basic than that.

He said he wanted to respond to the first question by saying that "Yes, we can love God, given that he has not remained at an unreachable distance but has entered and enters into our lives. Not only has he offered us love, above all he lived it first and knocks on the door of our hearts in many ways to elicit our response of love."

In a world infested by "New Age" philosophies, the message of a personal God who knows us and loves us is so, so important.

In response to the second question, about loving our disagreeable neighbors, "Yes, we can, if we are God's friends, if we are Christ's friends and, in this way, it becomes ever clearer that He has loved and loves us, though we often turn our gaze from Him and live according to other criteria," In other words, the ability to truly love comes only through relationship with Christ, and allowing Christ’s love to shine through us.

It did my heart good to see how Benedict XVI explored the abuses of "love" so prevalent in our world. He wrote at length about the beauty and meaning of God’s gift of sexuality, and how that meaning can only be fully expressed within the bonds of marriage.

My favorite quote of the entire document is found in the introduction, "Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere ‘command’, it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us." (This, amusingly, turned out to be the one part of the newspaper interview where I was misquoted as saying not "love is not a mere command", but instead "love is not a command." Kinda puts the wrong spin on it!)

This message is so important to us as Catholics. Whether or not we conform to the "rules", we tend to get caught up in them. Dissenters use their isolated understanding of isolated rules as an excuse to dismiss the entire teaching authority of the Catholic faith. The more conscientious of us are prone to evaluating our own righteousness — and that of others — solely by our performance in "following the rules." Both groups tend to forget about the love — the beautiful, overwhelming, inscrutable love of God — that enlightens and enlivens those "rules."

Yes, God is love. And apparently, our Holy Father recognizes that the world desperately needs to be reminded of that fact.

• This article originally appeared on RealLove.net on February 8, 2006.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

• God's Eros Is Agape | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• First Musings on Benedict XVI's First Encyclical | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
• Some Comments on Deus Caritas Est | Mark Brumley
• Did I Read the Same Encyclical as the NYTimes? | Carl E. Olson

Other IgnatiusInsight.com Articles by Mary Beth Bonacci:

The Horrible "H" Word
Teens, Sex, and Real Love | Interview with Mary Beth Bonacci
There's More to Prayer Than "Saying Our Prayers"
Was Pope John Paul II Anti-Woman?
JPII, Why Did We Love You?
A Hero Goes to His Reward
Some Atrocities are Worse than Others
Parents Love the Chastity Girl
The Attack on Abstinence

Mary Beth Bonacci is internationally known for her talks and writings about love, chastity, and sexuality. Since 1986 she has spoken to tens of thousands of young people, including 75,000 people in 1993 at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. She appears frequently on radio and television programs, including several appearances on MTV.

Mary Beth has written two books, We're on a Mission from God and Real Love, and also writes a regular, syndicated column for various publications. She has developed numerous videos, including her brand-newest video series, also entitled Real Love. Her video Sex and Love: What's a Teenager to Do? was awarded the 1996 Crown Award for Best Youth Curriculum.

Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate in Communications from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is listed in Outstanding Young Women of America for 1997. Her apostolate, Real Love Incorporated is dedicated to presenting the truth about the Church's teaching about sexuality, chastity, and marriage.

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