by Fr. Tissa Balasuriya

Pope Benedict XVI's much anticipated first Encyclical has been welcomed as evidence of a more congenial personality, of a less severe figure than his tenure as supervising Cardinal of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had suggested. The Encyclical consists of two parts:

I) "the unity of love in creation and in salvation history" (nos 2-18)

II) "Caritas the Practice of Love by the Church as a "Community of Love" (nos 19-42).

It is articulate, well reasoned, reflective, erudite. Its language, personal in style, conveys a sensibility firmly rooted in the Western intellectual tradition: philosophy, Biblical studies, and the classics are amply and dexterously referenced. And its message is highly appealing: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."

The reception to the Encyclical has been largely positive (especially considering that the Pope refrains from pontificating here on the divisive issues of sexual morality). He displays a personal understanding of the value and meaning of love in all its multifarious, interconnected complexity, as eros, philia and agape: of love as physical and sexual expression, of love as friendship, and as other-centered in care and service of the other. He links all these to God's love for individuals and humanity, revealed and expressed in Christ. In a spirit of compromise and understanding, he has apparently endeavored to reconcile mutually opposed positions.

Part I has been applauded by those concerned with issues of inter-personal morality. Here the Pope stresses that the excesses of modern life have to be purified and ennobled by Christian and rational values. Part II is very much centered on love as social charity.

While acknowledging a variety of viewpoints, the Encyclical remains firmly grounded in a traditional Western context. Adherents among the many strains of contemporary Christian theology may thus find much to take issue with here. Feminist theologians will object to its occasionally sexist language, along with its arguments with respect to reproductive rights. Liberation theology in the Latin American grain receives no acknowledgment of its unique contribution to the development of Christian teaching over the past several decades (e.g, love as it relates to compassionate activism and efforts at constructive social change). Proponents of liberation theology in its Asian and African incarnations will have much to say about their experience of the "Christian love" imposed on them through Western colonialism. Those seeking inter-religious dialogue may wish to remind the Pope that the traditional Christian interpretation of "God is love" seems not to have applied to them throughout much of Catholicism's history. And those concerned with inter-racial justice, global ethics, and ecology may also find fault with Christian theology and spirituality as they experienced it.

Love and Sexual Ethics

Love as eros and agape are said to be part of God's plan for human relationships. In modern times the Church has confronted many issues relating to family life and sexual morality. Among the most hotly contested of these is the regulation of procreation. The pivotal moment in this debate came with the July 1968 condemnation of contraception by Pope Paul VI. The Pope arrived at his position independently, whereas his predecessor Pope John XXIII had assigned a special commission to advise him. Pope Paul's argument was that natural law dictated a necessary link between the marital act and procreation. Observance of the natural law was necessary for salvation. The Pope claimed the power of interpreting the natural law as willed by God (no.4).

The Churches Magisterium is competent to interpret the natural law."

This kind of question requires from the teaching authority of the Church a new and deeper reflection on the principles of the moral teaching on marriage—a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation.

No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her Magisterium to interpret the natural moral law. It is in fact indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared, that Jesus Christ, when He communicated His divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law. For the natural law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men's eternal salvation." (Humanae Vitae no.40)

Paul VI's claim goes far beyond Jesus' New Testament teachings. How can the Church claim to be the authentic interpreter of natural law, which is itself not clearly known to humanity, even to its scholars? Much less that the observance of the natural law is necessary for men's [sic] eternal salvation? In this decision and instruction the Pope presents a theological judgment based on an unresolved philosophical argument regarding the object of sexuality and the marital act. He holds that the primary object of sexuality is procreation, and that therefore the possibility of conception should never be artificially pre-empted in the sexual act. That nature provides for infertile periods is God's Providence, but it is argued that human reason and free will have no right to interfere with the natural and normal consequences of sexual relations.

Even at the time, Paul VI's decision was considered controversial among members of the Catholic hierarchy. The conscientiously faithful were divided in their loyalty to the Church. Throughout the world, many Catholic families disregarded the Pope's instructions. Doubts emerged regarding the wisdom—even the prerogative—of the Church hierarchy to render judgments on such issues. Almost everywhere, average family size decreased; Catholic families by and large followed this trend.

The combination of the Church's teachings and its practices with respect to moral issues, including the denial of the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried, increasingly led Catholics to consider the Church's position burdensome and unacceptable. It became possible to question whether humanity's collective wisdom might not serve as a better indicator of natural law than the theoretical determinations of the Church hierarchy.

The past forty years has witnessed widespread alienation among Christians from the Catholic Church. Participation in the sacraments has decreased. The numbers electing to join the clergy as a vocation has drastically decreased. Seminaries and churches are shutting their doors forever, primarily in Western countries. The Catholic Church's teachings concerning artificial birth control (and divorce) is one of the main reasons for the laity's abandonment of the sacraments, from Baptism, Penance, and the Eucharist to Church marriage. It may be said that the ongoing de-churching of Christians coincides with the period after 1968. Many Asian families who cannot or do not observe the papal instructions concerning the use of contraceptives also tend to abstain from Penance and the Eucharist. The Church has become so conscious of this situation that confessors are advised not to press the issue with penitents, even if they intend to continue the practice of artificial birth control in the future. Many couples in the West and elsewhere simply ignore this papal teaching. Recently Cardinal Martini, who was a candidate for the Papacy at the April 2005 Conclave, requested that this particular doctrine be re-visited.

Benedict XVI indicates in his first Encyclical a greater sensitivity towards the question of human sexuality, ranging from love as self-centered eros, to love as other-centered agape, with God as the ultimate source of both. Given that the vast majority of humanity, including Catholics and many within the Church hierarchy, no longer support the Church's doctrine concerning birth control, it's not surprising that he would seek to re-examine Catholic Church's position on the use of artificial contraceptives. The situation is rendered even more important as many within the laity exposed to the risk of HIV/AIDS find themselves confronted with a difficult moral dilemma. Perhaps the Pope may appoint a competent commission to advise him in this regard. Some re-thinking already appears to be underway; the Vatican recently granted married couples permission to use condoms when one of them has AIDS.

Having opened an understanding window onto the world of human sexuality, the Pope might consider further attempts to heal a doctrinal wound that has been largely responsible for the exodus from the Church of so many of good will. It would be worthwhile for the Church leadership to reflect upon how often it has been obliged to learn lessons from the experience of common humanity—in the case of slavery, evolution, democracy, the rights of the working class, women's rights, and inter-religious relations. The Church can reasonably request strict adherence in matters clearly related to divine revelation. But for positions based on reason and natural law, it can hardly demand mandatory acceptance among the faithful. The Church's position on questions individuals may have to resolve for themselves deserve at least some reconsideration—for example, the remarriage of the divorced, and their participation in the Eucharist. These are issues that divide members of the Church hierarchy and the laity alike.

In this regard, it would reflect a measure of pastoral prudence to re-examine some of these teachings and practices—many of which have already been challenged by the laity's increasing awareness of human freedom, for instance, or women's rights—while continuing to emphasize the need to limit the excesses of human selfishness the Pope refers to in the Encyclical.

"God is love" in a Religiously Pluralist World

The Church is presented as the manifestation of the love of God through Jesus Christ. It develops the theme of the link of human love in its different dimensions to the love of God. What is unduly selfish in human love has to be purified in order to be the other-centered love taught and manifested by Jesus Christ.

A question arises as to why the Catholic Church, with its numerous saints of charity mentioned in the Encyclical, has throughout most of the 2,000 years of its history taught the exclusion of the majority of humanity from eternal salvation due to Original Sin, until the coming of Jesus Christ as unique and universal saviour of all humankind. In this there is a combination of the anthropology of the fall of humanity in Original, Sin beginning with the first parents Adam and Eve, and the traditional soteriology that salvation is only through Jesus Christ and membership of the Christian Church.

For over 1,500 years, since the time of St. Augustine at the Councils of Carthage in 418 and at Chalcedon in 451, the Catholic Church has claimed to be the unique means of eternal salvation. The Church taught that it was necessary to belong to the Church for a person to be saved. Baptism was said to be the unique means of eternal salvation.

The Encyclical speaks of the love of God for all humankind but does not deal with the contradiction between such a universal love and the implication of the traditional Christian doctrine that most of humanity will be damned—before Jesus Christ and even after him—since they don't belong to the Church and weren't baptized. This may not be the Church's position today, but it had been until the mid-twentieth century, with some room left for the baptism of desire.

Throughout its history, the Christian Church has maintained the doctrine of its exceptionalism and superiority, excluding openness to other faiths as possible paths to the good life on earth and salvation thereafter. Catholics were forbidden to participate in the religious worship of other faiths. These were considered false, superstitious, even the work of the Devil. Christian mission possessed no element of honest, frank, respectful dialogue with other religions. On the contrary, missionary zeal was linked to the Western invaders who thought they were following the God-given call to denounce false religions. That is how "God is love" was interpreted in relation to non-Christians. The Encyclical is rather simplistic in ignoring the long history of Christian spiritual arrogance. The rest of the world has not forgotten. The Christian God's preferential love of Israel presents another problematic representation of a God of love that is not intelligible to others. The Encyclical would seem to echo this exclusive love which at the same time is held to be a means of healing others:

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. (no. 9)

Such interpretations may be accepted in a Western Christian milieu and culture, but they fail to communicate that "God is love" to those of other faiths—Muslims, for instance. They reflect a chauvinism in the Christian representation of the divine, divinity being the object of meditation and spiritual reflection in most of world religions. Such doctrines have also led to inter-religious conflict and strife across the centuries, from the Crusades to the militancy of the present-day Christian Right in the United States to the so-called "clash of civilizations."

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2006, Vol. 56,  No 2.