THE POPE’S FIRST ENCYCLICAL : A MODEL SHIFT IN THEOLOGY
by Robert Brow (web site - www.brow.on.ca) Kingston, Ontario, February 2006
The Christian world was astonished by the first Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI . In Latin it was titled Deus Caritas Est which means GOD IS LOVE (January 25, 2006). At first sight the encyclical is no more than the exposition of a New Testament text. "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:1-7, 16).
Why then is this such a momentous model shift in theology? Christians have always known in theory that God is love. But this was often interpreted to mean that God will love us if we are baptized, submit to the Roman Catholic Church, confess our sins, and obey certain rules. In the Reformation Protestants got the idea that God will love us if we have faith, and/or make the right decision of faith. Others thought that God would love those who sufficiently loved God and loved their neighbor.
But what happens if we begin with the premise that God loves every single person in our world, including our enemies, and even those who never darken the doors of a church and behave abominably?
Evangelism has often been portrayed as a means of persuading people to become Christians of our denomination so that they will escape eternal damnation. But Pope Benedict made it clear that "Love is free, it is not practiced as a means of achieving other ends." And the encyclical added that "a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love."
The model shift also enables us to make common cause with many who call themselves atheists. Firemen faced almost certain death as they went into the nine/eleven inferno of the collapsing towers of New York. Their love did not ask if the victims belonged to the same denomination or whether they were good people who deserved to be saved. When miners are in danger deep underground, there is no lack of those willing to risk death as they lovingly go down to find them. Soldiers obey the Geneva Convention. In a fierce battle as soon as their enemies run up a white flag or have their hands above their heads, they are protected, their wounds treated, and they are lovingly taken care of till the end of the war in a prison camp.
This is after all what Jesus illustrated in the story of the Good Samaritan. He asked us to picture a Jew bleeding to death and a hated enemy whose love bound up his wounds. At great risk the Samaritan then took him to an inn and paid the bill from his own pocket.
If we are loved regardless, do we then conclude that anything goes? There is no right and wrong. Society can descend into chaos? The Old Testament points out that the LORD, who is totally loving, also acts as Judge. This means that he assigns consequences for humans and nations who oppress others. He intervenes to exercise justice for the poor and disadvantaged. Human experience points to the fact that love operates in a world of consequences. Drunkards end up in the gutter. Thieves go to jail. Those who sleep around are likely to get AIDS or VD. Gamblers ruin their family. The inconsiderate drive away their friends. Nobody believes a chronic liar. In some cases, as in the raising of children, our love may need to assign consequences, and God is far more loving than the most loving of parents.
What then is the point of Christian churches in this model of unconditional love? Churchgoing is not a means of persuading God to love us. We, and those who never the darken the doors of our churches, are equally loved regardless of our performance. But if we choose to begin loving the way God loves us, we soon find that love is very difficult to put into practice. Every instinct in our body wants to twist love into lust, greed, gossip, domination, revenge, selfishness. A church congregation offers us encouragement and the assurance that we are loved however much we fail. We also learn to move from our feeble self-efforts to allowing the Holy Spirit to free us. We are surprised by the love of God bubbling up like a spring in our hearts. And the task of a loving community is to remind us that God is love, and the greatest thing we can do is to learn to love the way he does.
That seems to be the immense model shift that Pope Benedict XVI has offered in his first encyclical. There are long term implications for those who struggle with problems of sexuality, marriage, and divorce. Roman Catholics are astonished, relieved and delighted that legalism has changed to love. And all other denominations had better take note that their quarrel with Roman Catholic theology can never be the same again.