Reflection on Deus Caritas Est
Bishop Rino Fisichella
Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, Auxiliary Bishop of Rome
The heart of the truth: love alone is credible
"God's love for us is fundamental for our lives, and it raises important questions about who God is and who we are" (Deus Caritas Est, n. 2).
Not only can this statement at the beginning of Deus Caritas Est sum up Benedict XVI's teaching on the fundamental topic of love, but also on the very identity of social, political and cultural life. It constitutes the foundation on which to build life, but at the same time can become a nerve centre for interpreting one's own existence.
Love, in fact, is a discovery of the self and an impelling force for the individual's ability to plan; without love we would live the drama of loneliness.
A misconstruction of love, however, would imprison the human being in a self-destructive illusion.
Nothing so much as love, therefore, induces reflection on the fundamental questions that revolve around the meaning of life and its profound significance.
In any case, the truth about the self cannot be dispensed from focusing on love, if it is to grasp the elements of a response that offers certainty and the ability to impress finality upon life. If we wish to arrive at a consistent response to the question: "who am I?", which sums up the essence of the real anthropological problem, we must necessarily extend it further to enquire what love is.
Two phases in the history of thought, if you like, confront each other precisely on these questions.
The first insists upon the discovery of the "cogito" to rationally identify the origin of all things: the second rediscovers the original gratuitousness of the gift, which is why it can affirm: "diligor ergo sum", I am loved, therefore, I am.
So it is that thinking about the human condition while neglecting the key to its interpretation leads to no conclusions capable of resolving the personal enigma. Benedict XVI rightly states that love is at the heart of the mystery and reveals its deepest secrets.
Full vision of love
Particularly in our day, however, the understanding of love is suffering from a pathology which, if not roundly denounced, risks deteriorating to the point of destroying reality itself. Two of its symptoms are particularly obvious.
The first reduces love to the emotional stage alone: "Love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvellous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love" (n. 17).
The second identifies love with the passion of the eros, as a flight from assuming responsibility, and in the end, pure instinct.
Although both conditions express natural and initial aspects of love, they are unable to advance any organic or satisfying vision. It is not rash to assert that at the root of this frequently unilateral and limited vision is one of the most dangerous and ambiguous evils of our time: cultural and ethical relativism.
This concept decisively undermines the correct understanding of love and, as a result, of man and his relationships with others and with God himself.
Today, relativism is the pivotal problem not only for faith but also for culture. Unfortunately, it lurks beneath the reassuring recesses of a train of thought that justifies every stand taken as a form of respect for the stances of others.
With the terms: "tolerance", "dialogue" and "freedom", etc., people seek not only to undermine at the core the concept of truth but the very fact that a single truth can exist. Relativism is offered as an ultimate solution to prevent anyone from presuming that he knows the correct route which everyone can follow in order to reach a coherent understanding of self and of the world.
Thus, there is a desire to prevent anyone from arrogating to himself, especially in a society that upholds pluralism and multiculturalism, the right to affirm a supremacy to the detriment of other positions. In a word, people prefer the doubt of opinion to the certainty of the truth, even if they do not affirm the existence of any single truth.
The positions they assume must therefore be relative to the individual person to permit the practice and growth of freedom for all. This position, some of whose aspects it would be interesting to evaluate and apply in the political sphere, becomes harmful in cultural horizons, especially when there is a wish to impose it upon the ethical option.
Love is given for ever
However paradoxical it may seem, it is precisely pragmatism that people use to bolster themselves, which makes relativism extremely weak and ineffectual in responding to the human condition. If everything is limited to individual knowledge and if it is impossible for man to attain transcendence, the possible existence of a love that is given for ever and can absorb the whole of a person's life is ruled out.
Even if the Pope does not directly mention relativism or its positions in Deus Caritas Est, he several times contests this ideology and responds to the objections on which it is based with profoundly speculative arguments and the force of his experience.
What first strikes the reader is the achievement of the person's intimate unification and that he is not left to the mercy of an unfortunate, unconvincing existential dualism.
"Man is truly himself", Benedict XVI writes, "when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved. Should he 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.... Yet, 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 dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature" (n. 5).
Immediately, two elements of considerable interest emerge from this statement: on the one hand, the limitations of an anthropological interpretation that seeks to prevent man from being open to the transcendent, hence, from having the indelible signs of God's presence impressed within him.
On the other hand, one can note the cultural weight that criticism motivated by a consumerist ideology bears, leading to the evaporation of any true understanding of love.
If the body is exalted and absolutized beyond every limit, it easily becomes a "marketable" object that can be bought and sold at will.
In this perspective, man's degradation is not only identifiable in his becoming a "commodity", but above all in the de facto renouncement of his freedom. Only to the extent to which he confronts the truth, in fact, can he have before him the real room to make important decisions with freedom, which deserve to be taken.
On this aspect, the cultural value contained in the pages of the Encyclical goes beyond the interest of believers alone to embrace all who have at heart the preservation of their cultural identity.
The various relativistic theses, especially in the ethical field, are untenable for those who as non-believers seek the truth intelligently and make freedom the goal of their commitment. Focusing on the topic of love can quite rightly foster fruitful dialogue with those who wish to rediscover the basic principles of ethics for a supportive and peaceful social coexistence.
Making sure that ideals such as truth, freedom and love are unified can be a common path which Christians and nonbelievers take together, seeking new ways to build the future without losing the typically religious roots of which the cultural fabric of the entire West is woven.
In this context, we discover the newness of the Christian concept that brings the theme of love to its maximum expression.
Having broken the circle which shuts the human being in on himself in a form of individual incommunicability that prevents relationships, the agape not only reveals the form of genuine love but also the goal to which the human being who loves, aspires.
Love, as revealed by Jesus Christ, shows history the truth about God himself, about man and about the relationship that binds them together. Love remains for ever a mystery to each one; but it is a characteristic of the mystery not to remain unknown but to be revealed and become comprehensible in the light of a greater mystery that enfolds and permeates it.
Without revelation, which culminates in the mystery of the passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, not only would God's mystery have remained in the shadows, but the true meaning of human love would never have been fathomed. It would have remained enclosed in the eros of the Greek myth, as an attempt to surpass oneself to penetrate the divine or, in religious symbiology, as the indefinite search for a human sentiment that asks to be satisfied.
Ultimate truth about love
The ultimate truth about love comes with Christianity. This fact does not give rise to arrogance or incite people to intolerance; rather, it is woven into the historical fabric and cultural context as the progressive development of a truth that dates back to the times of the creation.
The definitive connotation of love and its truth as a total gift of self to the beloved without asking anything in return finds on Golgotha the concrete form it had never previously attained.
Here, in fact, love became the ability to express in utter freedom the gift of an individual life for the sake of another.
Jesus' words re-echo with special significance: "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (Jn 10:17-18). As the Holy Father notes, it is not law that has the upper hand, but the gratuitousness of the gift.
One could say that precisely this expression covers the contemporary problems that have hatched in the hive of relativism.
Freedom is not primarily the product of a law imposed on others and society as a prerogative to draw them out of themselves. On the contrary, it is only achieved when the human being offers himself, giving up his own rights in order to give the greatest possible emphasis of the gift of love to the weakest and most innocent.
If love were not the sacrifice of the self for the good of the beloved, it would forever be submitting to the blackmail of doubt. It would be impossible to know for certain, in fact, if one loved the other for what he is or if one wanted to possess him solely by virtue of desire.
The boundary between love and selfishness is narrow. Only to the extent that one grasps the truth about oneself and accepts the truth about the person one loves does an authentic space of freedom open up that. "is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice" (n. 6).
If one day someone were to ask for a "definition" of love in a reasonable attempt to possess the object of its own investigation, then love would be destroyed for ever. It must continue to preserve the path of free giving that illuminates and stimulates people to trust through the abandonment of themselves to the mystery of the one who loves.
Especially today, it is quite right and good to reassert that love alone is credible. Of course, human love participates in that unsolvable contradiction that moves between the desire for eternity and the limit imposed by time; yet, it was precisely into history that the principle which enables us to enter eternity was introduced.
The truth about love is staked wholly on this possibility which is an offering: understanding that at the beginning there is always a free act with which God loves.
The essence of Christianity and its ultimate truth are condensed in this personal encounter between God, who is revealed as love in Jesus Christ, and man, who accepts this gift within himself and in entrusting himself to it, discovers that he is capable of true and unique love.
Love, therefore, endures as the last word God spoke about himself, and for this very reason constitutes the last word that gives meaning to the human being and his existence. Love alone knows love.
May this evident yet hidden truth become the aim of life as a commitment to make the beauty and newness of Christianity shine out in a world that seems to have forgotten the joy that comes from loving.
Weekly Edition in English
22 August 2007, page 9
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