[VIEWPOINT]Examining what true love isAn official papal message that deals with important religious doctrines, ethics or rules is called an encyclical. An encyclical represents the official position of the Catholic Church because it is an important document in which the pope, an agent of God, adapts the teachings of Jesus Christ to today’s social and ethical problems.
Many people were surprised by Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical on the theme of love announced on Wednesday: “Deus Caritas Est”, which means “God is Love.” It was surprising because the theme and the content of the encyclical seemed very commonplace in the eyes of ordinary people. The first encyclical of a new pope usually reflects the style of that pope. Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Alois Ratzinger, was formerly a cardinal and prefect for the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, and he has severely criticized theology and theologians that strayed from the formal teachings of the Catholic Church. That is why people expected his first papal encyclical to be about hot issues like bioethics.
However the pope chose the much softer theme of love. Archbishop of Chicago Francis Eugene Cardinal George had an explanation. His explanation was that the pope’s softer loving side was not apparent when he was a prefect but love is the basis of all his actions.
The pope gave two reasons for choosing the theme of love for his first encyclical. The first was that the word love is overly spoiled and distorted today. He said that love is losing its original significance as it grows farther from the idea of altruistic self-sacrifice and devotion. The other reason was that in an age where hatred and greed have authority and even religion is misused for antagonism and conflict, we desperately need the love of the living God who loved us enough to die for us. The pope says that is why he chose to awaken people through this encyclical of the primary love that existed from the beginning, and bring back the original light of love, so that people could walk the right road of love.
The logic of the pope behind his purpose is fascinating. The encyclical stressed that eros between a man and a woman can sublimate into agape through the tie of marriage and a sacrificial attitude towards each other. When eros pursues only the pleasures of sex, it becomes decadent. The answer is to restore harmony and balance between the joy of eros and the altruistic love of agape. Such a restoration of balance depends on a healthy relationship with God and can be found on the road to understanding and carrying out the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. Eros then becomes love between partners bound together in marriage and sublimates furthermore to a universal charity that “loves people I do not even like or know.” This is what the meaning of love is throughout the first half of the encyclical.
The second half talked about the love the Catholic Church should practice. There were two key points. The first was that the church should practice love by doing charitable work and caring for the pain and hardship of people. The other was that such practices of the church should stem from a spiritual summons, not from political or ideological motives.
The first encyclical of the pope gave a huge topic of conversation to people nowadays who talk about love but have trouble finding real love. People easily talk about their love for God and others, but that love is perhaps the hardest to practice. The encyclical “God is Love” makes us thoroughly self-examine what our biggest task is right now.
* The writer is a priest and the president of the Catholic Times. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Chang-young