In a world where religion and progressive thinking seem too often to be hopelessly at odds, there was a fresh breeze this week out of that most forbidding of citadels, the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI, greeted at his coronation eight months ago as an archconservative, issued his first encyclical on Wednesday, and it contained more than a few signs of an early spring thaw. The topic, appropriately enough, was love.
The encyclical, “God Is Love,” does not announce a revolution in church doctrine. There is no sudden easing of Catholicism’s famously repressive laws on reproductive choice, sexual identity or gender roles. But there is a first step, if one listens carefully.
The encyclical sets out frankly to reframe the discussion of love, sex and caring in a way that could make listeners, both Christian and non-Christian, rethink their own attitudes. The pope starts with the common-sense assertion that there are two kinds of love between people, namely the physical and the spiritual. He insists that the two types complement each other, that one is not complete without the other.
Yes, he admits, the Catholic church, “with all her commandments and prohibitions,” has let itself be identified over the years with the spiritual kind at the expense of the physical, that it’s been seen as “opposed to the body.” He’s out to change that.
Nor is he done with the confessions. In the second half of the encyclical, reportedly taken from a draft by his predecessor, Benedict discusses the public part of love, namely charity. The church, he says, has a duty to help the poor — but not as a way of spreading its own doctrines. “Love is free,” he writes. “It is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends.” That’s an important message for Christians to hear in these days of faith-based social service.
No less important, he reminds his followers — his primary audience, after all — that religion and politics ultimately don’t mix. The role of religion in public life is to help “form consciences in political life and stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice.” After that, the church should step back. “A just society,” the pope writes, “must be the achievement of politics, not of the church.”
Benedict was an enigma at best when he took over the reins of the largest organization in the world last year. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had been for two decades the forbidding guardian of unchanging church doctrine. Now, in his first doctrinal statement from the papal throne, he’s sent an unmistakable message that he means to set off in a new direction. Spiritual seekers and people of good will everywhere must wish him well as he embarks.