Good Distinctions
Good Distinctions
"God is Love" (Deus Caritas Est), Part 1 of 2

"God is Love" (Deus Caritas Est), Part 1 of 2

Pope Benedict XVI's First Encyclical Explained


Outline of Deus Caritas Est by Pope Benedict XVI:

  • Introduction (1)

  • Part I: The Unity of Love in Creation and in Salvation History (2 - 18)

    • A problem of language (2)

    • “Eros” and “Agape” - Difference in Unity (3 - 8)

    • The newness of biblical faith (9 - 11)

    • Jesus Christ - the incarnate love of God (12 - 15)

    • Love of God and love of neighbour (16 - 18)

  • Part II: The Practice of Love by the Church as a “Community of Love” (19 - 39)

    • The Church’s charitable activity as a manifestation of Trinitarian love (19)

    • Charity as a responsibility of the Church (20 - 25)

    • Justice and Charity (26 - 29)

    • The multiple structures of charitable service in the social context of the present day (30)

    • The distinctiveness of the Church’s charitable activity (31)

    • Those responsible for the Church’s charitable activity (32 - 39)

  • Conclusion (40 - 42)

Pope Benedict XVI’s First Encyclical

An encyclical is a circular letter that the Pope writes to the whole Church. Pope Benedict XVI released the first encyclical of his pontificate on December 25, 2005. The title is Deus Caritas Est in Latin, which is “God is Love” in English. The official English title of the document is “On Christian Love.” The Pontiff believed that this message was both “timely and significant” in a “world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence (DCE, 1).”

My endeavor in this writing is to give an introduction to this marvelous encyclical from one of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century. When this letter came out, I was only fourteen years old and I definitely did not read it. But later on, in college, when I did read it, I was blown away. My love, gratitude, and appreciation for the late pontiff, may he rest in peace, has only continued to grow. I will be using the document itself as the blueprint for this resource. So, we will be touching on each section. This present work is not exhaustive; it will barely scratch the surface. But, hopefully, it will offer you easier access to the writings of Pope Benedict XVI. 

Note: all parenthetical citations are paragraph numbers from Deus Caritas Est unless otherwise stated.

Introduction (1)

The Pope begins his letter on Christian Love with one of the most profound descriptions of Christianity I have ever read. He says, 

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction (1).” 

This is the summation of all of the work of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger. Theological clarity was a gift of Josef Ratzinger, who always found a way to bring any conversation crashing back to Jesus Christ and our communion with Him and with others. Truly, this is the decisive direction to which our life is given: heaven, that communion with God and with others. And how do we get there? We encounter the person of Jesus Christ.

This theme of encounter and exchange is part and parcel of the Good News. In a world that associates God with vengeance or a duty of hatred and violence. The pope offers us an important reminder:

“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 (1).”

The document is split into two main parts: The first part is an exploration and the second part is concrete. Both are interconnected.


Part I: The Unity of Love in Creation and in Salvation History (2 - 18)

A problem of language (2)

In Part 1, Pope Benedict speaks to the unity of love in creation and in salvation history. He begins by addressing the problem of language. Anyone who has said the phrase, “I love pizza” can intuit the main problem. The word love, today, is frequently used and misused. As Benedict puts it:

“Let us first of all bring to mind the vast semantic range of the word “love”: we speak of love of country, love of one's profession, love between friends, love of work, love between parents and children, love between family members, love of neighbor and love of God. Amid this multiplicity of meanings, however, one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness. This would seem to be the very epitome of love; all other kinds of love immediately seem to fade in comparison. So we need to ask: are all these forms of love basically one, so that love, in its many and varied manifestations, is ultimately a single reality, or are we merely using the same word to designate totally different realities (2)?”

“Eros” and “Agape” - Difference in Unity (3 - 8)

In the New Testament in the Greek language, there are three main types of love: eros (sexual love between spouses), agape (unconditional love), and philia (fraternal love). Many scholars have drawn a sharp distinction between eros and agape to the point where the two seem mutually exclusive. Pope Benedict gives us a theological masterclass and shows the difference in unity of these two terms. He begins by saying:

“The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness (4).”

For the Ancient Greeks, the “divine madness” of eros needed to be purified. In many ways, it is seen as a corporeal type of love, a bodily passion. However, the Pope teaches that:

“ is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love —eros—able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur… Christian faith… has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing (5).”

At this juncture we begin to see that the Christian view of eros is less about divine madness and more about ascending to God and allowing Him to purify us. In the poetry of the biblical book of the Song of Songs, Benedict teaches us that two different Hebrew words are used: the first is insecure, indeterminate, and searching love. The other is closer to agape. He writes:

“Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice (6).”

Neither type of love is static. Love embraces the “whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time (6).” The philosophical and theological debate about the nature of eros and agape sees agape as a descending, oblative love and eros as an ascending, possessive or covetous love. Benedict argues that these two cannot 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 (7).”

We cannot always give, we must also receive. We can think here of the book of Exodus and of Moses going into the tabernacle time and again to dialogue with God, where only then could he emerge to be of service to the people.

The newness of biblical faith (9 - 11)

If we are to understand love, we have to understand the God of Holy Scriptures. Pope Benedict outlines the biblical faith and remarks on its “newness” as compared to other religions of the time in this next section.

He says:

“There is only one God… all other gods are not God, and the universe in which we live has its source in God and was created by him… Consequently, his creation is dear to him, for it was willed by him and “made” by him. The second important element now emerges: this God loves man (9).” 

So far, thus we have one God who loves man. This is peculiar. The gods of Greek mythology are horrendous and oftentimes downright demonic. Of course, they do not exist, unless they are merely personifications of nature or simply demons tricking men. But the one God is different. He is real. He is sovereign. The ancients began to grasp this first part: that God is the object of desire and love. But the second part, that He loves us, is particular to the Jewish People. As Pope Benedict eloquently explains:

“The divine power that Aristotle at the height of Greek philosophy sought to grasp through reflection, is indeed for every being an object of desire and of love —and as the object of love this divinity moves the world—but in itself it lacks nothing and does not love: it is solely the object of love. The one God in whom Israel believes, on the other hand, 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 (9).”

The love of God in the Old Testament is boldly erotic, at times, especially in the Prophets. They speak of betrothal and marriage and even see idolatry as adultery or prostitution. And so Benedict rightly points out that God’s love is eros but he shows that it is also agape because it is “bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is a love which forgives (10).”

Anyone who has read the Old Testament knows well that Israel breaks her covenant with God often. It is only right that God should judge and repudiate her. But what do we see instead of utter annihilation of mankind? Benedict answers:

“God's passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God's love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love… God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love (10).”

God loves us with a perfect passion, from the first moment of creation. In God, the love of eros is “thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape (10).” In this great mystery of God’s love, we have perfect ascending and descending love. When we enter into this love, we become one with the lover of our soul. “But this union,” Benedict says, “is no mere fusion, a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine; it is a unity which creates love, a unity in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become fully one (10).” 

He made us in His image and likeness. As a perfect community of Persons, God is perfect and sufficient in Himself. But we see that Adam, the first man, is alone. In his solitude, God fashions for Adam a helper: the first woman, Eve. Here we hear one of the most romantic lines in the whole Bible: Adam says of his new bride, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man (Gen. 2:23).”

Even in non-Christian religions we see shadows of this “completion” of man. In a myth related to us by the Greek philosopher Plato, man is originally spherical, complete, and self-sufficient. As a punishment for pride, Zeus splits him in two and thus man strives for his other half.

The Bible does not speak of punishment in Genesis chapter 2, but there is clearly the idea that “only in communion with the opposite sex can [man] become ‘complete’ (11).” Therefore, even erotic love, that is, eros, is rooted in man’s nature and it directs man towards marriage. There is no equivalence to this outside of the biblical literature, says Pope Benedict.

Jesus Christ - the incarnate love of God (12 - 15)

The Old Testament faithfully transmits the revelation of God to us, but it is incomplete. In the New Testament, in Jesus Christ, the love of God takes on flesh. As Pope Benedict puts it:

“In the Old Testament, the novelty of the Bible did not consist merely in abstract notions but in God's unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity. This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the “stray sheep”, a suffering and lost humanity (12).”

Jesus speaks in parables, but these are not mere words. He is the proof of God’s love. He literally shows us, in the flesh, the full revelation of God to man. In His death on the Cross, we see, as Benedict puts it, 

“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. 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8) (12).”

Flowing from the pierced side of Christ flows the blood of the Holy Eucharist and the water of Holy Baptism. And so it is the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian faith which draws us into Jesus’ self offering. In our Holy Communion with Him, “More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving (13).” The ancients perceived to some extent that what really nourishes man is the Logos, eternal wisdom. In the Eucharist, the Logos has truly become our food. Thus, the erotic imagery of marriage between God and Israel is realized in a “way previously inconceivable (13)” in the Holy Eucharist.

The Holy Eucharist also mystically takes on a social character “for in sacramental communion I become one with the Lord, like all the other communicants (14).” Thus, we begin to experience a foretaste of Heaven, which is union with God and union with all those men and women in union with God. Benedict writes:

“Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become ‘one body,’ completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself (14).”

Love of God and love of neighbor (16 - 18)

“Love of God and love of neighbor,” Benedict says, “have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God (15).” But this nature of love and its meaning in biblical faith lead Pope Benedict to two questions: 1) can we love God without seeing him? And 2) can love be commanded? The objections seem to be that no one has ever seen God, so how could we love Him? And love seems to be a feeling that is there or it is not, so how can it be commanded?

Yet, in answering these two questions, Pope Benedict artfully leads us back to loving our neighbor leads to love of God and vice versa. To the second objection, he says that “love of neighbor is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God (16).” He answers the first objection by saying: “True, no one has ever seen God as he is. And yet God is not totally invisible to us; he does not remain completely inaccessible (17).”

Pope Benedict reminds us that God is visible to us in a number of ways. He says,

“In the love-story recounted by the Bible, he comes towards us, he seeks to win our hearts, all the way to the Last Supper, to the piercing of his heart on the Cross, to his appearances after the Resurrection and to the great deeds by which, through the activity of the Apostles, he guided the nascent Church along its path. Nor has the Lord been absent from subsequent Church history: he encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist. In the Church's Liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives (17).” 

These are just a few ways that God makes Himself known to those who seek Him. Benedict does not leave us only with a litany of responses to the objection of an invisible and aloof God. He goes on to say:

“He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love. God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has “loved us first”, love can also blossom as a response within us (17).”

But this love is not merely a sentiment. God loves us and is unchanging. For mankind, love as a sentiment is a marvelous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love (cf. 17). So, what is love? Truly, it is a decision, an act of the will. As Pope Benedict puts it, referencing the Roman Sallust:

“Idem velle atque idem nolle —to want the same thing, and to reject the same thing—was recognized by antiquity as the authentic content of love: the one becomes similar to the other, and this leads to a community of will and thought (17).” 

This communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment. So, as we grow in love of God, our will and God’s will will increasingly coincide. In Benedict’s words:

“God's will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself (17).” 

We need here to take a moment to remember how Benedict begins this letter:

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction (1).”

So, what does this encounter with Jesus Christ, our God-man, do? Benedict beautifully paints us a picture:

“Love of neighbor is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look at this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave (18).”

More than merely being a more beautiful way of viewing the world, this love must be put into practice if we are to love God. As He has said to us: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me (Mt. 25:40).” Likewise, if we are not seeking to encounter God, we never see anything special in the other. As Benedict teaches:

“If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me (18).”

Pope Benedict ends part 1 of the letter by saying:

“Love of God and love of neighbor 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; through this unifying process it makes us a ‘we’ which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28) (18).”

Conclusion on Part I

In this first part of Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI teaches us about the unity of eros and agape in creation and in salvation history. He speaks of the ambiguity of our modern sense of the word “love.” He outlines the differences between eros and agape and how they become one in God. We see the unique “newness” of the biblical faith - the love of a personal God! We see how Jesus Christ makes the love of God visible and tangible. And we learn more about the double commandment of loving God and loving neighbor, resulting from a transformative encounter with Jesus Christ. In part II, we will continue walking through this masterpiece on Christian Love, which focuses on the Practice of Love by the Church as a “Community of Love.”

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