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The Future of Love: The erotic politics of Benedict XVI

13th February 2013

ResPublica's Chair of Trustees, Professor John Milbank, writes for ABC Religion and Ethics

The papacy of Benedict XVI, though sadly short, has been one of immense significance.

More than any other Pope in recent memory, he understood the deepest theological currents that lay behind Vatican II, and stood doggedly against a threatened revival of neo-scholastic conservatism by insisting on the co-belonging of faith and reason. Faith, for Benedict, requires reason to reach to the metaphysical heights, but reason must look to its fulfilment in the incarnation of the Logos itself. Likewise, natural law should once again govern our approaches to personal and public human existence, but our ethical lives are only complete in the light of the theological virtues.

By insisting with a new boldness on the role of these virtues even in the social and economic fields, he was able to produce the most radical and far-reaching social encyclical of the post-war period, Caritas in Veritate, in which he proposed a non-capitalist market founded on reciprocal exchange, while distancing himself from previous excessive enthusiasm for liberal democracy.

In his weekly doctrinal teachings, Benedict went yet further in the reinstatement of Origen as the instigator of the integral unity of Christian doctrine, Christian philosophy, Christian exegesis and Christian mysticism. He was brave enough to point to the dangers, at once authoritarian and anarchic, that lurk in the more voluntaristic theological currents of Islam – as a result, future Europeans will likely feel themselves very much in his debt. In his trilogy of books on Jesus of Nazareth, he soberly demolished some of the bizarre historical procedures of New Testament criticism, while in the field of liturgy he started to modify elements in the liturgical thinking of Vatican II which were actually out of step with theressourcement that most inspired the Council in general.

At the same time, Benedict sponsored new initiatives of debate with Islam and fresh overtures to the Eastern churches. In a novel way, he recognised the dignity of the Anglican spiritual and liturgical tradition and the rootedness of British constitutionalism in the deep Catholic past. It is possible that these moves also will bear significant fruit in the future. Contrary to his reputation with some, he tended gently to prise doors open rather than slamming them shut.

Perhaps above all, he had the wisdom, given our contemporary circumstances, to focus in his main encyclicals – those three issued and his projected final one – on the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. In each case, he expounded something specific to Christian revelation which yet has the greatest manifest relevance to all human beings. In each case, he also focussed on the essential, rather than the immediately controversial and ephemeral. This was especially true of his first encyclical on love: Deus Caritas est.

The centrality of love

Pope Benedict’s choice of love as the topic of his first encyclical exhibited his characteristic unswerving boldness combined with calm judgement. Love is the proper topic for the twenty-first century because in the personal field there is a crisis over its meaning, in the religious field there is an increasing substitution of violence for loving persuasion, and in the world at large the global tightening of human bonds is not accompanied by an equivalent increase of solidarity secured through the exercise of charity.

At the same time, love is the most perennial human need; Christianity is the religion which most places love at its heart and the Catholic Church is the corporate body which has attempted the largest systematic organisation of human love in response to the gift of divine grace. By bringing together the immediately pressing with the perennial, Pope Benedict attempted to convey with both simplicity and subtlety just how the Catholic faith is able to offer a surprising fulfilment of universal human aspirations towards a loving peace and harmony.

While the Pope’s teaching clearly stood in continuity with that of his predecessor, it is nevertheless marked by the fact Benedict is a theologian before he is a philosopher and a theologian in the lineage of the nouvelle theologie, which tends to stress the implicit yearning of reason towards faith and the completion of reason by faith, even within its own proper sphere of human understanding.

As a consequence, Deus Caritas est stressed the priority of the spiritual and the mystically theological over practical details, ecclesial programs and theoretical controversies. At the same time, the religious is linked, from the outset of the encyclical, to a warm humanism, easily understandable by all.

But nor was there any sign of backing away from John Paul II’s commitment to thinking through of the moral and political issues of our day. One glimpsed instead something like an accentuation of an insistence upon the relevance of the specific perspectives of faith to these issues, rather than merely a reliance upon sound reason and natural law (although the fundamental importance and non-constrained character of human reasoning is not, of course, denied).

Agape and eros

Correspondingly, there was in Deus Caritas est an increased emphasis on the Church itself as an agency of justice and charity, and on the Church itself as the final site of true human society – an emphasis fully developed in his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. For this reason, the encyclical moves from a general consideration of love in the first part to a consideration of the role of the diaconate in the second. While this is the driest part of the document, it is also perhaps the part that most invites interpretation.

A correct reading of the second part of the document requires one to bear in mind the full implications of the analysis of love in the first. Here again, somewhat more than his predecessor, Benedict demonstrated that he remains all too aware of recent debates in theology and philosophy about the nature of love, giving and friendship. Broadly speaking, these hover about the issue of whether love is primarily an agapeic self-oblation, or whether, to the contrary, it is an erotic reciprocity and mutual fulfilling of desire. In this encyclical, Benedict adroitly held a balance between both emphases, and in so doing completely undermined the claims of those who see Christianity as the enemy of erotic love.

In the face of the commodification of sex, and an illogical exaltation of homosexual relations to equal exemplarity with heterosexual ones, Benedict here makes heterosexual faithful union the central paradigm of love for human beings in a way that would surely have startled his nineteenth-century forebears. Indeed, he argued that unless agape is instanced in this mode of love and in other less acute instances of eros, it would be something merely abstract and without effect. For while agape is the descending love of God that is totally self-giving and self-abandoning, it is still also a preferential, fully erotic sort of love. God has elected all of humanity for his love; more specifically he has elected Israel and then Mary and the Church. The latter is the Bride of God the Son: hence the gospels are precisely, as Benedict never tired of saying, a “love story” – the story of God’s seeking out of his lost love, the highest possible romance.

But even within his own Trinitarian life, God is not just a free-giving; he is equally a constant receiving. Thus Benedict insisted that insofar as the Bible qualifies a Greek metaphysical presentation of the absolute with a personalist emphasis, it accentuates and purifies rather than abandoning the Greek concern with eros. As personal, God himself not only exhibits preference but also receptivity.

The Pope also cunningly turned the conventional tables in the case of human agape. To be sure, this concerns a love for the neighbour that must be self-sacrificial and include love for enemies and even the unknown. Yet how is such a superhuman and heroic love possible for us? Not because it is commanded. Rather, because its possibility is given to us insofar as it arrives along with our agape for God. But this love of God is overwhelmingly receptive and therefore has an erotic dimension: to love God is obviously not to meet his needs but rather is to encounter him in personal union that issues in a merging of will and purpose.

At the heart of the gospels, moving a subtle degree beyond the Old Testament in this respect, lies the absolute merging of the commands to love God and the neighbour, without priority given to one or the other. The source of inspiration for unstinting love of the neighbour lies in mystical union with God: yet Benedict rightly insisted that the only true mysticism is Eucharistic. Hence we encounter God only within the social body, only insofar as we also encounter the neighbour – and in a context of celebratory foretaste of the heavenly banquet rather than in a context of benefaction. Therefore, one might say, only in an “erotic” context.

Nevertheless Benedict also stressed that worship and ethics are entirely at one: it is part of the movement of Eucharistic worship itself for the body of the faithful to turn to active agapeic works of mercy. These, however, are not to do with a merely sacrificial devotion to “humanity in general.” Although the parable of the Good Samaritan insists that the far-one can be also the near-one, this is no abandonment of the importance of proximity, but rather the paradoxical insistence that proximity can abolish alien distance while conserving the distance of respect.

So agape is also eros. But for Benedict the inverse equally applies. In pagan religion eros was ecstasy, in the sense of mere self-intoxication which often involved the gross exploitation of women. By contrast, in the Hebraic Song of Songs the physically erotic is poetically intensified precisely because the erotic is now linked to preference for a single one, to fidelity and to commitment unto sacrificial death. Romance, one might say, is born here and not with the Greeks.

Nor – and here Benedict is particularly acute – does this represent any abandonment of ecstasy: rather the truly ecstatic is discovered in terms of a self-abandoning movement towards the other that is also a paradoxical self-realisation. Far from this being a banning of pleasure, it is rather the first discovery of real pleasure – including in a physical sense.

To put it bluntly: in his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI boldly declared that not only is the Catholic Church not opposed to sexual love, to the contrary it alone truly understands it and fully promotes it. In an epoch-making fashion, a Pope declared that the literal sense of the Song of Songs – in other words, its first intended meaning – is indeed what the naive reader would take it to be. The mystical meaning arises now only through a proper acceptance of the worth of this literal meaning; while, at the same time, the depth of the latter is lost if it is not read also allegorically – that is, as pointing to the mystical marriage between Christ and the Church.

The politics of charity

Difficult questions certainly follow here about the relative worth of celibate and married commitments and about the plight of those who appear to have an unalterable homosexual orientation – a plight that the Church now seems somewhat to concede. And these questions are linked to a deeper one: how to hold together such a strong affirmation of the sacramental centrality of married heterosexual love to a continuing challenge to the ways of this world such as was upheld by celibate vocations in the past. Perhaps the second part of Deus Caritas est is to be read as a response to such a concern.

Benedict quite strikingly placed a new stress upon the exercise of diakonia as constituting a third of the Church’s mission, alongside the sacramental and teaching vocations. Clearly, this diaconate is today increasingly exercised by the Catholic laity within a huge range of voluntary charitable and teaching vocations. Quite rightly the Pope expressed concerned that these functions, as much as clerical ones, be exercised as part of the Church’s specific ethos, rule and pedagogy, and do not occupy some sort of uneasy limbo between theological justification and secular ideology. It would thus seem to have been the Pope’s desire that a married Catholic laity carrying out ecclesial vocations should be able to stand outside the world, while being immersed wholly within the world. Obviously, this is the sort of challenge that organisations like Opus Dei have tried to meet – whatever one’s opinions about their success, their concern is unavoidable.

But it is this part of the encyclical that invited most controversy. The Pope strongly declared that the offering of welfare is a proper aspect of the Church’s own life and cannot be altogether handed over to the state. He also affirmed that this offering must not be directed by worldly ideologies and continued to excoriate Marxism for suggesting that the giving of charity might inhibit the demand for justice.

One can easily see how certain neo-conservatives might read this as sanctioning the privatisation of all welfare functions. Moreover, one might even say that the temptation offered by the Grand Inquisitor to the Church in our time – a temptation to which all too many Catholics have already succumbed – is to accept extreme free-market liberalism in return for increased Church power in the spheres of welfare, education and medicine.

But throughout his papacy, Benedict wholly refused such a temptation, in accordance with his general political orientation which includes an opposition to the Iraq war, nuclear weapons and the armaments trade, as well as a commitment to address environmental degradation, a determination to end global economic injustice and an insistence that the market must be regulated – though not wholly controlled – in terms of a hierarchy of truly human ends (a stance that condemns most modern “economics”).

Clearly, Pope Benedict was no ideological dogmatist of the Right about welfare. He consistently advocated collaboration with state and international agencies pursuing the genuine human good in every respect. Hence, his insistence on the diaconate is not to be read as lining up with a privatisation of welfare, but rather as a new and typically nouvelle theologie stress on the Church itself as the fulfilment of human society: with and yet beyond justice, the Church is the place of the exercise of charity.

State agencies can never displace ecclesial ones because what the human person needs is direct attention and appreciation of his uniqueness beyond the mere just granting of him his due – indeed, the Catechism of the Church, which Benedict oversaw prior to becoming Pope, teaches that charity cannot displace the demands of the poor for justice. Moreover, Benedict argued that even secular projects of justice will only reach fruition if they are infused by a grace-given sense of charity – that sense that through the Eucharist and in Christ we are becoming at one with an infinite and all-powerful love.


It should thus be apparent that the inseparability of agape and eros in the first part of Pope Benedict’s epocal encyclical acts as the hermeneutic key for reading the lessons on the diaconate in the second.

The ecclesial society of love exceeds the secular society of justice in part because it involves infinite concern for others beyond what is merely due to them – or rather, this is what is due to them, for perfect justice is charity. But it also exceeds just society in terms of a kind of extended eros: the true giver of charity, says Benedict, also receives love from the one he cares for. The personal bond that then emerges cannot be planned for, nor commanded: it rather arises by divine gift, by grace.

It is for this theological reason – and not for politically conservative ones – that Benedict has stridently opposed all secular “plans” for the improvement of the world. Of course, he has said, we should be trying to improve the world. However, this should never involve the sacrifice of present people to the future, not only because this would be wrong, but also because of the perfected harmonisation of people in truth and love – to which he devoted his last encyclical, Caritas in Veritate – cannot be planned, precisely because it is composed of a myriad of “erotic” as well as agapeic events. A truly radical politics would therefore involve longing for such a future, as well as the determination to work towards such a future through many particularities. But to suppose one already possesses the blueprint for such a future would be, as Benedict says, to suppress the most specifically personal dimension of human life.

In this way, more successfully than secular ideologies, the Pope has proved himself capable of linking the personal with the political. What humans yearn for is inter-personal love. But the extension of this through tempered measures of organisation committed to social justice and fraternity is the key to the arrival of a global loving community.

ABC Religion & Ethics Article

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