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ENCYCLICAL-LOVE Jan-25-2006 (1,200 words) With logo posted Jan. 18 and photos and graphic today. xxxi

In first encyclical, pope calls for deeper understanding of love

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI called for a deeper understanding of love as a gift from God to be shared in a self-sacrificial way, both at a personal and social level.

The pope said love between couples, often reduced today to selfish sexual pleasure, needs to be purified to include "concern and care for the other."

Love is also charity, he said, and the church has an obligation to help the needy wherever they are found -- but its primary motives must always be spiritual, never political or ideological.

The nearly 16,000-word encyclical, titled "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), was issued Jan. 25 in seven languages. Addressed to all Catholics, it was divided into two sections, one on the meaning of love in salvation history, the other on the practice of love by the church.

The pope said his aim was to "speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in return must share with others." The two aspects, personal love and the practice of charity, are profoundly interconnected, he said.

The encyclical begins with a phrase from the First Letter of John: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." The pope said the line expresses the heart of the Christian faith, which understands the creator as a loving God and which sees Christ's death as the ultimate sign of God's love for man.

In today's world, however, the term "love" is frequently used and misused, he said. Most commonly, it is understood as representing "eros," the erotic love between a man and a woman. The church, from its earliest days, proposed a new vision of self-sacrificial love expressed in the word "agape," he said.

At times, the pope said, the church, with all its commandments and prohibitions, has been accused of poisoning eros or of being ready to "blow the whistle" just when the joy of erotic love presented itself.

But in modern society, he said, it has become clear that eros itself has been exalted and the human body debased.

"Eros, reduced to pure 'sex,' has become a commodity, a mere 'thing' to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man's great 'yes' to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will," he said.

Properly understood, he said, eros leads a man and woman to marriage, a bond that is exclusive, and therefore monogamous, as well as permanent.

While it is true that the happiness of eros can give people a "foretaste of the divine," eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide more than fleeting pleasure, the pope said.

The solution is to rediscover a balance between the ecstasy of eros and the unselfish love of agape, he said.

The key to regaining this balance, he said, lies in a personal relationship with God and an understanding of the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. He said Christ gives the ultimate lesson in "love of neighbor," which means: "I love even the person whom I do not like or even know."

The pope said there was an essential interplay between love of God and love of neighbor.

"If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God," he said.

"But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be 'devout' and to perform my 'religious duties,' then my relationship with God will also grow arid," he said.

The second half of the encyclical makes two main points:

-- As a community, the church must practice love through works of charity and attend to people's sufferings and needs, including material needs.

-- The church's action stems from its spiritual mission and must never be undertaken as part of a political or ideological agenda.

The pope said there was a connection between the commitment to justice and the ministry of charity, but also important distinctions. Building a just social and civil order is an essential political task to which the church contributes through its social doctrine, but it "cannot be the church's immediate responsibility," he said.

"A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church," he added.

"The church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the state," the pope said.

"Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice," he said. The church's role is to make the rational arguments for justice and awaken the spiritual energy needed for the sacrifices that justice requires, he said.

"Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs," he said.

The pope examined and rejected the Marxist arguments that the poor "do not need charity but justice," and that charity is merely a means of preserving a status quo of economic injustice. He said the church must help the needy wherever they are found, and he cited Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta as an example of love in action.

"One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now," he said. And charity will always be necessary, even in the most just society, he said.

In any case, he said, it is an illusion to think that the state can provide for all needs and fully resolve every problem.

"We do not need a state which regulates and controls everything," but a state that supports initiatives arising from different social forces, he said. The church is one of those forces, he said.

The pope said that those working for Catholic charitable organizations need to be witnesses of the faith as well as professionally competent in humanitarian affairs.

The church's charitable activities, he said, should not be seen as opportunities for proselytism, in the sense of imposing the church's faith on others.

"But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside," he said. Without proposing specific guidelines, he added: "A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love speak alone."

The pope said that prayer should not be forgotten as the church tries to alleviate the immense needs around the world.

"People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone. Piety does not undermine the struggle against the poverty of our neighbors, however extreme," he said.


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