God is Love
God is Love or Deus caritas est, subtitled De Christiano Amore (Of Christian Love), is a 2005 encyclical, the first written by Pope Benedict XVI, in large part derived from writings by his late predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Its subject is love, as seen from a Christian perspective, and God’s place within all love. Charity is one of the three theological virtues; and the other two (hope and faith) were treated in two successive encyclicals, one signed by Benedict (Spe Salvi) and one written substantially by him but signed by his successor Pope Francis (Lumen fidei). This text begins with a reflection on the forms of love known in Greek philosophy—eros (possessive, often sexual, love), agape (unconditional, self-sacrificing love), philia (friendship)—and their relationship with the teachings of Jesus.
The encyclical contains almost 16,000 words in 42 paragraphs. The first half is said to have been written by Benedict in German, his mother tongue, in the summer of 2005; the second half is derived from uncompleted writings left by John Paul II. The document was signed by Pope Benedict on Christmas Day, 25 December 2005. Some reports attribute the delay to problems in translating the original German text into Latin, others to disputes within the Vatican over the precise wording of the document.
The encyclical was promulgated on 25 January 2006, in Latin and officially translated into seven other languages (English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish). It is the first encyclical to be published since the Vatican decided to assert copyright in the official writings of the Pope.
The Latin title of an encyclical is taken from its first few words. This encyclical begins with a quotation from the Vulgate, First Epistle of John, chapter 4, verse 16 translated from the original Greek, Ὁ Θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν (Ho Theos agape estin). The Douai Bible translates this into English as “God is charity“, while in most contemporary English translations it reads “God is love” (since the word “charity” is derived from the Latin caritas, or “love”). The Latin version of the First Epistle of John uses the same formulation, Deus caritas est, at the end of chapter 4, verse 8 translating the same phrase in Greek.This second biblical reference is not mentioned in the encyclical.
In this encyclical, Benedict reflects on the concepts of eros, agape, and philia, and their relationship with the teachings of Jesus. Eros and agape are two of the various Greek words for love, each of which has a slightly different shade of meaning: agape is descending, oblative love in which one gives of oneself to another; eros is ascending, possessive love which seeks to receive from another; philia is the mutual love between friends.
For Benedict, agape purifies eros. The document explains that eros and agape are both inherently good, but that eros risks being downgraded to mere sex if it is not balanced by an element of spiritual Christianity. The opinion that eros is inherently good follows a school of thought in the Catholic Church known as the “Caritas tradition”, and contrasts with the view expressed, for example, by Anders Nygren, a Lutheran bishop, in his mid-20th century book Eros and Agape, that agape is the only truly Christian kind of love, and that eros is an expression of the individual’s desires and turns us away from God. These two positions have been an ongoing cause for debate in both Catholic and Protestant theology. The continuity of these two forms of love follows the traditional Catholic understanding, which is influenced by the philosophy of Plato, Augustine, Bonaventure and ancient Jewish tradition. The Nygren position was favoured by the Reformed theologian Karl Barth while the Caritas position was supported by the liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich.
The first half of the encyclical is more philosophical, tracing the meaning of the Greek words for “love”. In considering eros, Benedict refers to a line from Virgil’s Eclogues, Book X, line 69, “Omnia vincit amor, et nos cedamus amori” (“Love conquers all, let us also yield to love”), and the opinion of Friedrich Nietzsche that Christianity has poisoned eros, turning it into a vice. He refers to the conjugal love exhibited in the Song of Songs, and analyzes passages from the First Letter of St. John which inspired the title. The encyclical argues that eros and agape are not distinct kinds of love, but are separate halves of complete love, unified as both a giving and receiving.
The second half, based on a report prepared by the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, is less abstract, considering the charitable activities of the Church as an expression of love which draws its power from contemplative union with God. The second half also refers to the Church’s threefold responsibility: proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia).
The encyclical says that social justice is the primary responsibility of politics and the laity; the church itself should inform the debate on social justice with reason guided by faith, but its main social activity should be directed towards charity. Charity workers should have a deep prayer life, and be uninfluenced by party and ideology. Benedict rejects both Marxist arguments that the poor “do not need charity but justice”, and the merger of church and state functions (theocracy); rather, he encourages cooperation between the church, the state, and other Christian charitable organizations.
Paragraph 39 appears to be inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, reflecting in particular the last canto of “Paradise”, which ends before “the everlasting Light that is God himself, before that Light which at the same time is the love which moves the sun and the other stars”. The three concluding paragraphs consider the example of the saints, ending with a prayer to the Virgin Mary. The text mentions the name of Mother Teresa four times, the last as a “saint” (despite the fact that she was not yet canonised) in such company as Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, John of God, Camillus of Lellis, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Giuseppe B. Cottolengo, John Bosco, and Luigi Orione.
Deus caritas est, like the encyclicals of many previous popes, including Pope John Paul II, uses the Royal we in the official Latin text (“cupimus loqui de amore”). This is the text that appears promulgated in the Vatican’s official gazette of record, “Acta Apostolicae Sedis”. However, in accordance with a practice initiated in the pontificate of John Paul II, the unofficial versions prepared by the Vatican in 7 other languages use the singular (“I wish to speak of love”).
- Opening passage. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”. We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. (§1)
- Reasons for the encyclical. In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant. For this reason, I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others…. I wanted here—at the beginning of my Pontificate—to clarify some essential facts concerning the love which God mysteriously and gratuitously offers to man, together with the intrinsic link between that Love and the reality of human love. (§1)
- Fulfillment of the true nature of love. Eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized… On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift… Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God… Only in the way of contemplation will he be able to take upon himself the needs of others and make them his own. (§7)
- “The love which God lavishes upon us.” The one God…loves with a personal love. His love, moreover, is an elective love: among all the nations he chooses Israel and loves her—-but he does so precisely with a view to healing the whole human race. God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape… This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives… [I]n Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the “stray sheep”, a suffering and lost humanity… His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. Jn 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move. (§9-10, 12, italics added)
- Transition to Part Two. Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God. (§18)
- Summary on justice and charity, and the Church’s role. The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply… The Church’s charitable organizations, on the other hand, constitute an opus proprium, a task agreeable to her, in which she does not cooperate collaterally, but acts as a subject with direct responsibility, doing what corresponds to her nature. (§28-29, italics added)
- Urgent need. Prayer, as a means of drawing ever new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed…In the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbour but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service…It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work… A personal relationship with God and an abandonment to his will can prevent man from being demeaned and save him from falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism…Even in their bewilderment and failure to understand the world around them, Christians continue to believe in the “goodness and loving kindness of God” (Tit 3:4). Immersed like everyone else in the dramatic complexity of historical events, they remain unshakably certain that God is our Father and loves us, even when his silence remains incomprehensible. (§36-38, italics added)
- Charity and evangelization. Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism…But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. (§31)
- Summary of reflections on love. “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). This hymn must be the Magna Carta of all ecclesial service; it sums up all the reflections on love which I have offered throughout this Encyclical Letter. Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. (§34)
- Invitation of the Encyclical. Love is the light—and in the end, the only light—that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practise it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world—this is the invitation I would like to extend with the present Encyclical.” (§39)
- Love of God and Love of Neighbor. Two main questions arise from reflecting on the nature of love and its meaning in biblical faith: is it possible to love God without seeing him, and is it possible for love to be commanded? Before answering the question, it is quickly grounded that one must love their neighbor before they can love God, otherwise they are hypocritical. 1 Jn 4:20 says “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen”. We can, therefore, love God whom we cannot see by loving our neighbor whom we can see. Loving our neighbor is loving God. In the same manner it shows that love can be and is demanded of us. God demands that we love others before we love God so that our love is blameless and pure and not hypocritical.
- Conclusion of the Encyclical. The saints are the true bearers of light within history, for they are men and women of faith, hope and love…Outstanding among the saints is Mary, Mother of the Lord and mirror of all holiness….“My soul magnifies the Lord” (Lk 1:46). In these words she expresses her whole programme of life: not setting herself at the centre, but leaving space for God, who is encountered both in prayer and in service of neighbour—only then does goodness enter the world…The testimonials of gratitude, offered to her from every continent and culture, are a recognition of that pure love which is not self-seeking but simply benevolent. At the same time, the devotion of the faithful shows an infallible intuition of how such love is possible: it becomes so as a result of the most intimate union with God, through which the soul is totally pervaded by him—a condition which enables those who have drunk from the fountain of God’s love to become in their turn a fountain from which “flow rivers of living water” (Jn 7:38). Mary, Virgin and Mother, shows us what love is and whence it draws its origin and its constantly renewed power. (§40-42, italics added)
At an audience on 18 January 2006, Pope Benedict said that Deus caritas est would discuss the concept of love “in its various dimensions, from the love between man and woman to the love that the Catholic Church has for others in its expression of charity”. The Vatican, through the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, sponsored a conference in Rome to discuss the themes of the encyclical on 23 January and 24 January 2006, involving Liliana Cavani (director of films including The Night Porter and Ripley’s Game) and James Wolfensohn (former head of the World Bank).
The encyclical was published on the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul and on the last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Pope Benedict led an ecumenical prayer service at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, a traditional site for such celebrations, on the evening after the encyclical was published. Presiding at vespers, he said in his homily: “God is love. On this solid rock the entire faith of the church is based.”
- Speciale, Alessandro (4 July 2013). “The light of faith: origin, history and horizon of the christianism”. La Stampa. Turin. Retrieved 19 October 2013.
- Pope’s first encyclical is disquisition on love and sex (The Times, 25 January 2006)
- The pope needs a theologian? Former papal adviser reveals why(Free Republic, 1 January 2006, from Thavis, John, Catholic News Service, 30 December 2005)
- Love should not be confused with lust, says Pope (The Telegraph, 18 January 2006)
- Pope’s first encyclical on love and sex is lost in translation (The Times, 19 January 2006)
- Vatican ‘cashes in’ by putting price on the Pope’s copyright (The Times, 23 January 2006)
- 1 John 4:16 Multilingual at Bible Hub.
- Cloutier, David (2019). Ayres, Lewis; Volpe, Medi Ann (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology. Oxford University Press. p. 324. ISBN 9780191612145.
- Pope on divine love vs. erotic love (Chicago Sun-Times, 4 January 2006)
- Pope Points to “Divine Comedy” (ZENIT, 23 January 2006)
- Press release from Pontifical Council Cor Unum
- Pope says faith that God is love should help Christian unity work(Catholic News Service, 25 January 2006)
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia