Love’s Ill-Fated Separation: the Eros-Agape Divorce

Father Cantalamessa Gives 1st Lenten Sermon

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 25, 2011 ( There’s an ill-fated separation going on within love itself, according to the preacher of the Pontifical Household. Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa says that “in the world we find eros without agape; among believers we often find agape without eros.”

The preacher illustrated this dangerous divide today in the Vatican when he gave his first Lenten sermon before Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia. The sermon is titled “The Two Faces of Love: Eros and Agape.”

Father Cantalamessa noted that his Lenten sermon series would continue with the aim of his Advent reflections: making a “small contribution” to re-evangelization efforts, “which at this moment is the main concern of the whole Church and in particular of the Holy Father Benedict XVI.”

In this context, the Capuchin pointed to a realm where “secularization acts in a particularly pervasive and negative way, and it is the realm of love.”

“The secularization of love consists in detaching human love in all its forms from God,” he said, “reducing it to something purely ‘profane,’ in which God is out of place and even an annoyance.”

Love can be defaced not only in “the world,” Father Cantalamessa continued. This theme is also important for the internal life of the Church: “Love suffers from ill-fated separation not only in the mentality of the secularized world, but also in that of the opposite side, among believers and in particular among consecrated souls. Simplifying the situation to the greatest extent, we can articulate it thus: In the world we find eros without agape; among believers we often find agape without eros.”

Eros without agape is a “love of conquest which fatally reduces the other to an object of one’s pleasure and ignores every dimension of sacrifice, of fidelity and of gift of self,” he said.

“[A]gape without eros,” meanwhile, “seems to us a ‘cold love,’ […] more by imposition of the will than by an intimate outburst of the heart, a descent into a pre-constituted mold, rather than to create for oneself something unrepeatable, as unrepeatable is every human being before God.”

These “acts of love addressed to God,” he said, “are like those of certain poor lovers who write to the beloved letters copied from a handbook.”


Father Cantalamessa explained that such an eros/agape separation is erroneous since the human being is “soul and body substantially united.”

“[E]verything he does, including loving, must reflect this structure,” the preacher affirmed.

Father Cantalamessa went on to outline a theological and philosophical background to this separation of agape and eros. He cited Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren, who interpreted Luther’s faith-works separation in an agape-eros light.

“The repercussion of this operation is the radical worldliness and secularization of eros,” the priest explained. “While in fact a certain theology was busy expelling eros from agape, secular culture was very happy, for its part, to expel agape from eros, namely every reference to God and to the grace of human love.”

Freud was at work in this, the Capuchin said, and in modern man, eros — or eroticism — comes to have an indissoluble bond with death.

“Love which by its nature should lead to life,” he said, “leads now instead to death.”


Father Cantalamessa acknowledged that it won’t be easy to reunite the separated faces of love, particularly in regard to the worldly error. “[W]e can however correct the theological vision that, unwittingly, fosters and legitimizes it,” he said. He added that this is what Benedict XVI did in “Deus Caritas Est.”

The preacher went on to sketch an “eros for the consecrated.”

He said that rescuing eros “helps first of all human couples in love and Christian spouses, showing the beauty and dignity of the love that unites them. It helps young people to experience the fascination of the other sex not as something torbid, to be lived taking cover from God, but on the contrary as a gift of the Creator for their joy, if lived in the order willed by him.”

A rescue of eros should also help consecrated men and women, the preacher confirmed.

“We are creatures, we live in time and in a body; we are in need of a screen on which to project our love which is not only ‘the cloud of unknowing,’ namely, the veil of darkness behind which God hides himself,” Father Cantalamessa said. “We know well the answer given to this problem: precisely for this reason God has given us our neighbor to love!”

But there is another element, he continued: “Before the brother that we see there is another that we also see and touch: It is the God made flesh; it is Jesus Christ! Between God and our neighbor there is now the Word made flesh who has reunited the two extremes in one person. It is in him, moreover, that love of neighbor itself finds its foundation: ‘You did it to me.'”

All this signifies, according to the preacher, that “the primary object of our eros, of our search, desire, attraction, passion must be Christ.”

“It is true that not even Christ is seen, but he exists; he is risen, he is alive, he is close to us, more truly than the most enamored husband is close to his wife,” he said. “Here is the crucial point: to think of Christ not as a person of the past, but as the risen and living Lord, with whom I can speak, whom I can even kiss if I so wish, certain that my kiss does not end on the paper or on the wood of a crucifix, but on a face and on the lips of living flesh — even though spiritualized — happy to receive my kiss.”

Father Cantalamessa affirmed that the “beauty and fullness of consecrated life depends on the quality of our love for Christ.”“Jesus is the perfect man; in him are found, to an infinitely higher degree, all those qualities and attentions that a man seeks in a woman and a woman in a man, a friend in a friend,” he said. “His love does not subtract us necessarily from the call of creatures and in particular from the attraction of the other sex — this is part of our nature that he has created and does not wish to destroy; he gives us, however, the strength to overcome these attractions with a much stronger attraction. ‘The chaste one,’ writes St. John Climacus, ‘is he who drives out eros with Eros.'”

None of this destroys the “gratuitousness of agape,” the Capuchin clarified. “Not at all, rather it exalts it. What in fact do we give God in this way if not what we have received from him? […] The love we give to Christ is his same love for us that we return to him, as the echo does the voice.”

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