When Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical came out, the media were a bit confused. They, along with eager conservatives, were expecting the new pope to line up the ecclesiastical howitzers and mow down dissenters in crisp, staccato prose.
Instead, they got Deus Caritas Est, “God Is Love.” Had the pope gone soft? Even daft? Too old to fight? What gives?
Given the press deadlines, the demand for immediate comment left all too many journalists just time enough to concoct a newsy-cutesy headline, tear a few soundbite-sized morsels out of the text (and out of context) during lunch, and quick-cook an article for immediate release.
Judged by the results, it was hard to get an angle on an encyclical that appeared to have no edges, a mereround and happy affirmation of love. Even worse, it seemed to some on the left that he’d actually joined their side. Liberal Bishop Francis Deniau, the prelate of Nevers in eastern France, soon piped to the press that Benedict’s affirmation of sexual love might just be a surprise papal wink to nudge a reversal of the Church’s ban on contraception.
Well, they didn’t call him the “Panzer-Kardinal” for nothing. Deus Caritas Est is a declaration of war, and it is loaded with ammunition—much of it stealth in design, and of such power that the Church under Benedict XVI will certainly be the Church Militant. For while on the surface Benedict only seems to be offering a theological platitude, that “God is love,” hidden to the hasty eyes of the press, buried in the intricacies of his philosophical and theological analysis, obscured from all but those initiated into Benedict’s inner circle, he really is declaring that God is love.
It will become clear—as we dig into the encyclical— that a more dangerous and constructive idea for our culture could not be imagined. It’s a brilliant strategy on Benedict’s part to hide so explosive a truth under a simple truism.
Nietzsche Contra Bendict
It was quite surprising to have Benedict open with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s charge against Christianity. “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink,” Nietzsche quipped;“he did not die of it but degenerated—into vice.”
It was not surprising that, soon after the encyclical’s release, all too many prominent Catholics joined Nietzsche in the chorus. “The Church, with all its rules and prohibitions, has poisoned eros, natural and carefree sexual desire,” they chanted, “and the most potent toxin in its doctrinal brew is the ban on contraception.”
Included in the choir was Bishop Deniau, who took Benedict’s qualified affirmation of sexual eros in the encyclical to be an opening of the door for an unqualified celebration of sexual desire. Time to revisit the whole Pope Paul VI Humanae Vitae thing, he intoned, and embrace the good sense of the papal commission that recommended that the Church throw in its lot with the contraceptive culture. “The analyses made by the first commission in 1966, which did not condemn contraception, are worth being reviewed and debated,” Deniau said.
That a bishop would so cheerfully chime in on the side of Nietzsche gives us some notion of the thicket of troubles facing Benedict. Indeed a case could be made—and apparently Benedict is making it—that at the heart of the Church’s troubles, fomenting rebellion even among bishops, priests, religious, and laity, is a fundamental disagreement about eros, and who or what is poisoning it.
In his first encyclical—one which in a strong sense defines and declares what his pontificate means for the Church and the world—our pope has wisely chosen to answer Nietzsche’s charge.
Benedict Contra Nietzsche
Benedict’s counterattack is disarmingly simple and charmingly direct. It is not Christianity but modern culture that has poisoned eros by exalting personal, sensual pleasure. The unhappy result is that eros is “Deiectus merum ad ‘sexum.'”
The English translation of the encyclical renders Deiectus merum ad “sexum” as “reduced to pure ‘sex,’ a most unfortunate mistake, since in its current debased condition sex is anything but pure. Benedict is far more subtle and exact in the Church’s native tongue. The Latin adjective merus comes from the noun merum, wine that is unmixed with water, and hence (in antiquity) only drunk by the intemperate—drinking for the sake of drunkenness. Deiectus comes from the verb meaning “to hurl down,” “to throw down,” even “to kill.” Our contemporary focus on sexual pleasure as pleasure hurls eros down, nearly kills it, and makes us into sexual drunkards.
In regard to sexuality, we might say that our culture is merely erotic because it sees nothing more to eros than eros. Such a brutish flattening of sexuality brings not gain but a “slipping down and diminishing of human dignity.” In exalting eros it makes eros “ebrius et immoderatus ,” “drunk and immoderate.”
If eros by itself is unmixed wine, Benedict reminds us that it is still wine, and wine is good. He therefore affirms eros in the strongest terms. Love between man and woman, “where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness,” presents “the very epitome of love,” such that “all other kinds of love immediately seem to fade in comparison.”
Ahh, sighed the chorus, now the pope’s got it! And what could be more baneful than throwing water upon such unmixed erotic bliss?
The problem, the pope replies, is that “eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.” The entire argument of Deus Caritas Est is packed into this single reply.
Against the notion that eros unbound is eros free and natural, Benedict makes the countercharge that eros unbound binds us to self-destruction. Eros needs to be disciplined and purified because it represents only a half-truth.
The half-truth, embraced by our culture as the whole truth, is that we are bodily creatures. For a host of reasons (and it is not an angelic host), the West over the last 400 years has ever more passionately thrown itself into the arms of materialism, the belief that bodily reality is the only reality. Following upon the belief that there is nothing more to the human being than the body—that, indeed, “souls” are a fiction of unenlightened, unscientific primitives—comes the belief that there is nothing more to eros than the unmixed wine of bodily pleasure.
Contra Nietzsche, the West is dying in a drunken bacchanalia of this materialist reading of eros. It represents, for Benedict, a woeful loss of our true humanity precisely because it denies that we are bodily creatures with souls: Animals, yes, but animals made in the image of God.
And nothing could more aptly describe the West’s bleary, weary, and frantic divinization of sex than this: It is soulless. Empty-eyed, because the eyes are the windows of the soul; aimless, because it aims at everything, having nothing more to hit than bodily pleasure; lifeless and mechanical, because it denies that the soul gives life to the body, and hence to eros; all-consuming, because consuming is all it knows.
To cure this spiritless malaise, Benedict offers the truth: Bodily pleasure is an essential aspect of the body-soul union that truly and properly defines our sexuality and our entire being, but if it is made the essence of eros, it becomes the nemesis of eros. Eros, to be eros, must be ensouled, otherwise it contains only a half-truth that destroys even what truth it has. The whole truth is contained in the union of body and soul, and there is no escape from the whole truth by taking either half.
Should he [man] aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness.
The restoration of eros demands that we reject both the gnostic denial of the reality and goodness of the flesh and the materialist, Epicurean denial of the reality and goodness of the spirit. Each age, it seems, is marked by its own characteristic lapse into one extreme, one error or the other.
We live in a hidebound age, an age bound to the pleasures of its hide, an age of Epicurean hedonism if ever there was one—and it is against the drag of this Charybdis that Benedict must steer the Church.
The point of steering away from hedonism isn’t to escape the body but to return to the truth that humanity is essentially defined by this strange union of animality and something like divinity.
It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves; it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both grow together [coalescent] does man become fully his own self. By this one way alone, love—eros—has the strength to grow to the maturity [maturescere] of its own true greatness.
But then the pope adds something very odd and very ancient: “Man truly becomes his own particular self when his body and soul are united most intimately.” Only this union can love. Yet this attempted union is not achieved without struggle. Eros is not docile, but ornery. The “dispute [concertatio] of eros” must be overcome, and eros is “truly conquered” only when “this union [of body and soul] is achieved.”
The dispute of eros? The English translation of concertatio as “challenge” no doubt confused more than it clarified, because it loses the aspect of antagonism within eros that Benedict assumes must be conquered. The verb concertare means to strive eagerly, often in verbal disputes; hence the noun concertatio means a contest in words, a wrangling, a dispute. It is as if the body is arguing against the soul, dividing each “self” into factions, eagerly striving to make the case to the self that the self is, after all, only a body, and that bodily pleasure is the highest satisfaction and perfection.
As wonderful, natural, and good as eros is, then, it contains a spirit of rebellion, an aftershock of original sin that brings eros to assert itself against the true, human union of body and soul. Nietzsche attempted to rarify this spirit of rebelliousness of the flesh into a spirit of rebellion itself—a Promethean “against-ness” set against the spirit. He therefore represents the greatest corruption of eros, a divinization of intoxification.
But for all that, Benedict makes clear that eros must not be denied. Eros needs discipline and purification, so that unmixed wine doesn’t lead us into the Bowery gutter of history along with other lost, decrepit, and enervated civilizations.
The Elixir for Eros
What, then, must be mixed with eros? In a word (a very strange word for most of us) eros needs agape. “Theos agape estin ,” declares the Greek of 1 John 4:16—”God is love.” In Latin, “Deus caritas est,” the name of the encyclical. The first words of Benedict’s first encyclical quote the First Letter of John: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
God is love, agape. Not eros? Eros needs agape? Eros needs God? No wonder Nietzsche was gnashing his teeth at Christianity. It was Nietzsche who famously declared that God was dead. If St. John and Benedict are right, then it was Nietzsche’s atheism that poisoned eros, not Christianity, and this atheism was rooted in the modern West’s denial of any reality beyond brute matter. No amount of Dionysian celebration of eros by itself in a godless cosmos could save Nietzsche from lapsing into madness and spending the last decade of his life in an asylum.
Perhaps, then, Benedict begins with Nietzsche as a prophecy. “I am a disciple of the philosopher Dionysus,” declared Nietzsche in Ecce Homo, “I should prefer to be even a satyr to being a saint.” That is, he would prefer to be less than human than to submit to the reality of a spiritual realm, for that would entail the submission of his will to God.
“Ecce Homo,” declares Benedict, bringing Nietzsche onto the encyclical’s stage. “Behold the Man. Behold what you are becoming. Behold the West lapsing into erotic Dionysian madness.” And—pity the pope; feel his cross—he must deliver this message in the midst of the West’s bedlam culture, preaching sainthood to a society of satyrs.
Satyr or saint? The complete extremity of opposition, and hence the starkness of the choice, might give us some sympathy with Nietzsche. With eros, there is no happy and comfy medium, no fence-sitting. It is either-or, not both- and. Benedict makes this painfully clear in his antidote to poisoned eros. “By contemplating the pierced side of Christ,” the pope maintains, “we can understand the starting-point of this encyclical letter: ‘God is love!”
Not exactly good news for the eros intoxicated. But what does it mean?
It means, oddly enough, that Nietzsche was, in a sense, right to fear God, to fear agape. Against many of his contemporaries, who had embraced a rather tepid Christianity where “God Is Love” meant “God Is Nice,” Nietzsche smelled death in the gospel. More properly, he recognized that Christianity demanded the crucifixion of eros, but it only promised its resurrection. That is the reason why Benedict repeatedly intones that the dehumanizing of eros can only be cured by discipline, purification, renunciation, and, finally, sacrifice.
Sacrifice. Crucifixion. Whoever seeks to gain eros will lose it, but whoever loses eros will preserve it. “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33).
In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection, the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfillment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.
We can have some human sympathy with Nietzsche’s attempt to make a garden out of Gethsemane, to build a castle in the dark night of the soul. Anything, rather than the cross. To trust eros, life itself, to a God one cannot see or feel; to fall into death, hoping for a miracle of life—a more than human trial for an all-too-human soul. Here, remarks Benedict, with the greatest possible understatement, we are on “the threshold of biblical faith.”
Eros Across the Threshold of Faith
The truth about eros is that, even as worldly love, it always strives to ascend to the eternal. That inherent desire for the eternal, in perverted form, results in the attempt to divinize eros itself, when the real goal of eros is to bring us—human beings made in the image of God, a union of matter and spirit—to the Divine. As the world was made by God out of love, so also the world is made to love God. Eros perverted loves the world, the flesh, as God; eros purified loves the world as a gift from God, and hence God above all as the giver.
That is why eros, worldly love, is “ascending love.” Agape is, by contrast, “descending love.” God as the Creator is not indifferent; creation itself is a great act of His love, of agape, of giving to the beloved. Nietzsche embraced the materialist notion of a cold, indifferent cosmos, belched out by chance, a godless and giftless giver of the burden of existence. He could not see agape in this cosmos, and so all that was left for him was eros without an object, the desire for divinity without the divine.
If creation is a great act of agape, then an even greater act of descending love is the descent of the incarnation. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16). Eros and agape meet in the crucifixion, because in a strange sense—the strangest possible—agape, the God who is love, has become eros in the incarnation.
The Great Wedding Feast of Eros and Agape
We recall that Benedict said that the love between man and woman, “where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness,” presents “the very epitome of love.” The epitome of love is marriage, where each desires the other with eros, and both desire to give themselves to and for the other with agape. The great joy of this union in marriage demands a wedding feast.
Even more, the union of eros and agape in the sacrifice of Christ demands a feast. And so, Jesus gives His act of self-sacrificial love “an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist,” and in this great feast, “we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving.” This fulfillment of all human desire is also the fulfillment of the Old Testament. “The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God’s presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift, sharing in his body and blood.” That is “how agape also became a term for the Eucharist: there God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us.”
Far from poisoning eros, Christianity not only affirms it, but elevates it beyond its wildest dreams. Nothing is lost; all is divinized.
If only the satyrs had ears to hear.