I assume we did. And this January 25th article does refer to "Benedict's first encyclical", which is "titled 'God Is Love.'" Sounds right. What confuses me (well, not really, but stick with me), first of all, is the article's headline: "Benedict's First Encyclical Shuns Strictures of Orthodoxy". Quick! — define the "strictures of orthodoxy" in fifty words or less. It sounds so ... strict. And harsh. Not to mention uptight and nasty. Does Ian Fisher, the author of the piece, say anything that might give us a clue into this curious phrase?
Pope Benedict XVI issued an erudite meditation on love and charity on Wednesday in a long-awaited first encyclical that presented Roman Catholicism's potential for good rather than imposing firm, potentially divisive rules for orthodoxy.
The encyclical, titled "God Is Love," did not mention abortion, homosexuality, contraception or divorce, issues that often divide Catholics. But in gentle, often poetic language, Benedict nonetheless portrayed a tough-minded church that is "duty bound," he wrote, to intervene at times in secular politics for "the attainment for what is just."
Ah-ha! So "orthodoxy" is apparently imposing, divisive, tough-minded, and obsessed with closely monitoring the sexual activities and marital situations of Catholics. In case readers missed these subtle clues, Fisher reinforces how vaguely disturbing orthodoxy is a bit later, again using the "d" word (that's "divisive," not "delicious"):
Before becoming pope, when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict was often seen as a divisive figure, lauded by conservative Catholics for his devotion to orthodoxy and criticized by liberal ones for not sharing their vision for a changing, more modern church.
But there is hope, Times readers are told, because "Benedict's elaboration on love and charity was largely praised across the church on Wednesday as a document that sought to express what is common to all Catholics." Yes, that's true — common to all Catholics who are orthodox. That is — to quote from Cardinal Ratzinger's Truth and Tolerance — to those who seek "to know and to practice the right way in which God wishes to be glorified" (pp. 124-5), which is how he defines "orthodoxy" in that book. And in that same book, he makes the key point that orthopraxy (right practice) flows from orthodoxy (right thinking). This is significant because the Holy Father begins Deus Caritas Est with this explanation of its contents:
For this reason, I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others. That, in essence, is what the two main parts of this Letter are about, and they are profoundly interconnected. The first part is more speculative, since I wanted here—at the beginning of my Pontificate—to clarify some essential facts concerning the love which God mysteriously and gratuitously offers to man, together with the intrinsic link between that Love and the reality of human love. The second part is more concrete, since it treats the ecclesial exercise of the commandment of love of neighbour. (par 1)
In other words, the first part presents an orthodox, theological reflection on the nature and meaning of love, while the second part explains how this love is to be practiced and lived. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Right thinking and right living. Holy thinking and holy living. Godly thinking and godly living.
Some of the news stories about the encyclical that I've seen are basically saying: 1) it's about love, and 2) it's not nearly as rigorous, theological, and orthodox as many thought it would be. That's true enough, on the surface. But the impression given (intentionally or not) is that this Pope might be far more lenient and open to "progress" and hip thinking. The Times reports:
Christian Weisner, spokesman for the German chapter of the liberal Catholic group We Are Church, called the encyclical "a sign of hope" that Benedict would prove to be a "human face for Christianity and for the Catholic Church. He said, however, that he hoped that the pope's emphasis on love would make him more open to opposing views. "Loving your neighbors also means loving critical theologians, he said. "He also has to apply these ideas within the church itself."
This is silliness. Worse, it is a silliness that appears to be based on the following logic: 1) The Pope wrote his first encyclical about love; 2) I think that "love" means letting me do whatever I want; 3) So the Pope should let me do whatever I want. But love does not make you "more open" to falsehood, and loving someone does not mean affirming them in falsehood. Among other things, Benedict explains, true love involves conforming our will to God, based in our realization that He not only desires the best for us, He is the only One who can fulfull our deepest needs and longing:
The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God's will increasingly coincide: 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. Then self- abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy (cf. Ps 73 :23-28). (par 17)
This is, not surprisingly, very Augustinian in tone, drawing as it does from The Confessions. Speaking of surprising (or, not surprising), I'm not sure why some are expressing such surprise at the topic and accessible style of Deus Caritas Est. Sure, some folks (at the Times!) probably thought the Holy Father was going to produce a long, mean-spirited rant about homosexuality, abortion, and the need for a 7:00 p.m. curfew. But Cardinal Ratzinger's books — even the dense and difficult ones — are nuanced, thoughtful, often pastoral (even when academic) and even (to borrow from Fisher) poetic. They are also clear and inviting, just as this encyclical is. And they are most certainly orthodox. But there is no "stricture of orthodoxy" to be found since that phrase is a semantic smokescreen and because orthodoxy is not narrow or restricting. As Chesterton famously wrote nearly a hundred years ago:
People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. ... It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom--that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. (Orthodoxy, chapter 6)
Finally, if there is any doubt about the type of love and charity that Benedict is writing about — and about the moral content and context of that charity — paragraph 39 of the encyclical sums it up very well:
Faith, hope and charity go together. Hope is practised through the virtue of patience, which continues to do good even in the face of apparent failure, and through the virtue of humility, which accepts God's mystery and trusts him even at times of darkness. Faith tells us that God has given his Son for our sakes and gives us the victorious certainty that it is really true: God is love! It thus transforms our impatience and our doubts into the sure hope that God holds the world in his hands and that, as the dramatic imagery of the end of the Book of Revelation points out, in spite of all darkness he ultimately triumphs in glory. Faith, which sees the love of God revealed in the pierced heart of Jesus on the Cross, gives rise to love. Love is the light—and in the end, the only light—that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practise it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world—this is the invitation I would like to extend with the present Encyclical.
So, I assume that I read the same encyclical as The New York Times. But it's safe to say we read it with different eyes, minds, biases and purposes. Cardinal Ratzinger has been one of my favorite theologians for many years. I doubt anyone at the Gray Lady will say that. And without pretending to be an expert on the work and thought of Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, I know that the Holy Father has produced his encyclical within the context of a Tradition, Church, and body of work so that he need not repeat every piece of moral teaching of the Church to reassure readers that those teachings have not been set aside or abandoned because he does not explicitly mention them. It is only in those who adhere to the strictures of sophistry who might make such a mistake, even if the mistake is purposeful and for an uncharitable end.