Even though Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is still alive, he is now in his mid-90s and very frail so has ceased to write. From the time I was a seminarian almost 25 years ago, I loved to read what he wrote long before he ascended to the throne of Peter. As a professor, author, and head of the doctrinal (teaching) office of the Vatican, and of course later as Roman pontiff, he has written about just about every topic under the sun important to the Christian life. He is extraordinarily clear and insightful – even prophetic – and I am convinced that history will look upon him as one of the greatest teachers of the Church.
When he was elevated to the papacy in 2005, his first encyclical letter (to the Church and the world) was God is love (Deus Caritas Est). In about 30 pages, he explained what real love meant. This was desperately needed in our modern times, since our society is so very confused about what love means. (We have tended to reduce it to almost trivial things such as “being nice or pleasant” or “having an emotional attachment to someone or something”). But no, the divine love runs much, much deeper than that.
I recommend reading the whole letter as it answers all of the important questions including: What is love? What does it mean when we say that we are commended to love God and our neighbor? How do love and social justice interact? How does married love fit into God’s plan? What is the role of the Church and the state in building a society where love is possible? and many more.
Since today is Valentine’s Day, I wanted to focus just on the part of his letter regarding romantic love (eros to use his term – named for a Greek God). He reflects on how this romantic and sexual love between a man and a woman is made more noble, beautiful, strong and pure by the divine love of God for us (agape, to use the Greek term). Again, this is something about which our current culture is tremendously confused and misguided. This confusion has had horrendous consequences, including separating children from their parents (especially their fathers), and enslaving people in shallow attempts to find pleasure without growing closer to God Himself.
Here’s a brief synopsis of some of Pope Benedict’s work. (For a more detailed summary, see https://catholiccounselors.com/eros-and-agape-a-look-at-benedict-xvis-god-is-love): In order to build a just and flourishing society, it is necessary to start at the most important foundational of society, the family, which is built on the love between and woman. That love is a sexual love: that is, it is an attraction between opposite sexes involves the sharing of the body, in a way open to God’s ability to create human life. Contrary to popular belief, the Church has never taught that these physical relations are evil or shameful. (Someone might have heard this from a Catholic parent, or even a nun or priest, but that is never what the Church has taught).
Instead, the Church has always sought to elevate marital relations between man and woman to their proper dignity and beauty, to rescue them, so to speak, from the temptation to degrade or cheapen these physical relations due to sin. (It should be obvious how rampant this degradation is in a society that seeks to make an advertising commodity out of this bodily attraction and to reduce the act of procreation to a fleeting thrill without regard for the good of the other person, as widespread pornography does). Instead, what this physical attraction between man and woman is designed by God to do is to provide a foretaste of the highest love and happiness attainable – sharing in Communion with the Holy Trinity in Heaven. As the Pope Emeritus eloquently writes, [Romantic love] 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.
We should really let that sink in. What the average young person (even many young Catholics who are woefully uneducated in their own faith) believes is that the Church is “hung up” on sexual relations, wants to take the joy out of physical relationships, knows nothing about love because priesthood is celibate, and so on. All nonsense. The Church teaches that, when properly disciplined and ordered to the way that God wants us to love, not only will the love between man and woman bring them great happiness on earth, but will lead them and their families to what every couple in a romantic relationship: a happiness that brings us truly outside of ourselves and surrenders to another – both in husband and wife surrendering in total self-giving to each other, and in allowing them to be loving instruments willing to glorify God by accepting the gift of children, whom they seek to love as God the Father loves us.
Ironically, at the same time that the Church is bashed and criticized for her teaching on human sexuality, our young people who know almost nothing about the purifying power of the love of Christ in their relationships, are increasingly unhappy in their romantic relationships, because they are engaging them in a way that leads them away from Christ instead of toward Him. They are unhappy but don’t know why. It is our task to help them know love and understand God’s teaching on marriage and love and the happiness He wants it to bring.