Benedict XVI’s Surprising Encyclical

Interview With Father Thomas Williams, Theology Dean

ROME, JAN. 25, 2006 ( Benedict XVI’s choice of “love” as the focus of his first encyclical will likely surprise both his supporters and critics, says a dean of theology.

Legionary of Christ Father Thomas D. Williams, a dean at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum university, talked with ZENIT about the importance, content and uniqueness of the Pope’s document, published today.

Q: In a word, why is this encyclical so important?

Father Williams: Vatican watchers emphasize the importance of a Pope’s first encyclical — a teaching letter of highest papal authority — as a reliable indicator of the tone and direction a given pontificate will take.

Benedict’s choice of “love” as the topic for this important statement flies in the face of critics’ characterization of Benedict as a hard-liner.

Q: But with so many practical concerns facing the Church, such as bioethical issues, ecumenical questions and terrorism, why would the Pope choose such an ethereal theme?

Father Williams: Obviously, the Holy Father considers the topic of love to be paramount. Remember that love of God and love of neighbor stand at the very heart of the Gospel message.

Love is the illuminating principle for evaluating other important issues, like the ones you mention. If we get love right, the whole orientation of our existence squares with God’s plan for our lives and the true good of humanity.

Q: What do you mean by “getting love right”?

Father Williams: Love has many different meanings and is easily cheapened and spoiled.

As Benedict acknowledges early on in his letter, 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.

Moreover, people often associate love with mere feelings that come and go, or with selfishness and desire.

In this letter Benedict insists that love means more than that, and eventually leads to the self-giving exemplified in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice.

Q: So love, in a Christian sense, has nothing to do with love as the world understands it?

Father Williams: Not at all. The Christian understanding of love embraces and uplifts more worldly or merely “human” notions of love.

In his encyclical, in fact, Benedict rejects a polarization of “eros” — desiring love — and “agape” — self-giving love — as if eros were pagan and agape Christian, and argues instead that these two types of love are intermingled.

“Eros,” he says, “is rooted in man’s very nature.” At the same time, to become fully human, “eros” must mature into “agape” — the Christian notion of charity or self-giving to others, modeled on Christ.

It isn’t enough for us to “feel” love, we must “choose” love as a free decision.

Q: Would you characterize this as a “theological” encyclical?

Father Williams: Benedict clearly takes a deeply theological and biblical approach to the topic of Christian love.

The rehabilitation of love, Benedict notes, requires a return to its divine origins. To understand the nature of love, we must look to God who is love itself.

At the same time, the letter is thoroughly “human.” Christian theology sees the human person as created in the image and likeness of God. Loving and being loved is the very meaning of human existence. Therefore, the rediscovery of love means the rediscovery of humanity.

Moreover, Benedict devotes the entire second half of the encyclical to the practical question of the Church’s charitable commitment to the poor and the vulnerable, as an essential part of the Church’s identity.

Q: Is there any significance with the timing of the encyclical?

Father Williams: Poetically, this encyclical coincides with Benedict’s nine-month anniversary as Pope, eliciting unavoidable comparisons with childbirth.

Benedict’s firstborn takes the form of a 71-page reflection, notably shorter than John Paul’s encyclicals, which regularly were double that length.

Though a small baby by modern standards, the encyclical tackles tough questions and makes up in depth what it lacks in breadth.

Q: Are there any major surprises in the document?

Father Williams: Since his election, Pope Benedict has proved a surprise for supporters and critics alike.

When Joseph Ratzinger was elected to succeed John Paul II as Pope last April, many expected a firebrand and ecclesiastical house-cleaner. This hasn’t been the case.

Today’s release of the Pope’s first encyclical letter will only further befuddle those seeking to pigeonhole Benedict as a doctrinal hard-liner and disciplinarian.

Benedict has used his first big teaching moment to convey a message of hope. Rather than an “everybody get in line” message, “Deus Caritas Est” focuses on the love of God that all of us are called both to accept and to imitate.

If, as many suspect, this first encyclical sets forth Benedict’s papal “mission statement,” we can expect more surprises as this pontificate continues.

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