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Encyclical on love seen as Pope’s ‘compassionate’ conservatism

Theologian Hans Kueng
Pope Benedict XVI has won plaudits from what some consider an unlikely quarter for attempting in his encyclical to relate the spiritual and erotic aspects on love, delivering what one commentator labelled a "compassionate conservatism".

True the dissenting Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kueng was critical of what he said was Benedict’s failure in the encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" (Latin for "God is Love"), to tackle the issues of justice within the Roman Catholic Church such as the welcoming of divorced and remarried people in the church.

But in comments reported by the Agence France-Presse news provider, Kueng praised Benedict’s attempt in the document to link "Agape" [Christian love] and "Eros" [erotic love].

"Pope Ratzinger offers in an objective way a solid theological presentation between Eros and Agape, love and charity, and he is careful to avoid creating false oppositions. It’s a positive sign that I welcome," said Kueng, whose licence to teach Catholic theology was revoked by the Vatican in 1979 after he was critical of concepts such as papal infallibility and the virgin birth.

In the first part of the 72-page encyclical of 25 January Benedict takes issue with the idea the Church completely rejects the idea of eros, or erotic love, in favour of what could be seen as a higher, spiritual love. "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," writes Benedict.

And, he notes later, "Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life."

Fundamentally, says Benedict, "’love’ is a single reality, but with different dimensions * Yet when the two dimensions are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love." Neither does the Bible reject erotic love, Benedict underlines, noting that the Old Testament prophets, for example, use "boldly erotic images" to describe God’s passion for his people.

Still, Benedict’s insistence of the need to hold together the erotic and spiritual aspects of love means he is also critical of what he describes as Eros reduced to "pure ‘sex’", where "it becomes a ‘thing’ to be bought and sold". "Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere," he writes.

Benedict adds, "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."

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict had a reputation for being a stern authoritarian before his papacy.

Yet, some commentators have seen in the new encyclical an attempt to portray a softer, gentler papacy than critics might have predicted. For John Allen, the veteran Vatican watcher who writes for the US-based National Catholic Reporter, the Pope wants to show that ultimately, the church’s "yes" is to love. "The encyclical," wrote Allen after seeing a draft of the encyclical in advance of its delivery, "is Pope Benedict’s version of ‘compassionate conservatism’."

(c) Ecumenical News International

Photo : Theologian Hans Kueng