Pope Benedict Delivers First Encyclical

Pope Benedict XVI has released the first encyclical of his papacy, a formal letter of guidance to bishops entitled "God Is Love." The document explores the relationship between human and divine love. Renee Montagne talks with John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Love is the subject of Pope Benedict's very first encyclical released today. It's entitled God is Love, and it explores the meaning of human divine love. We reached John Allen in Rome. He's the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. And John, tell us more about this encyclical.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Rome Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter): Well, this is the first encyclical of Benedict's papacy, and therefore, to some extent, I think people have been looking to it to kind of reveal where the Pope intends to go. The encyclical plays with these two ancient Greek words for love, eros and agape. Eros meaning, sort of human, natural human sexual attraction, natural human love, and agape meaning, sort of spiritual love, meaning the total giving of ones self to another.

Essentially, what the Pope wants to argue in the encyclical is that while erotic love is good in itself, it can become debased into a kind of continual search for one's own pleasure, one's own satisfaction, unless it becomes translated or transformed into this deeper kind of love, which is agape.

MONTAGNE: This subject doesn't seem terribly controversial, although completely interesting since it's his first encyclical.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I mean, what's in the background to this, of course, is the Pope, you know, not being a dumb man, understands that it is precisely in the arena of eros, that is, human sexuality, where the Church's message these days is in a way the most controversial. I mean, you know, issues such as homosexuality and abortion and divorce and birth control, and so on. And he writes in the encyclical that so often the Church's message is interpreted as a big no. That is what he calls blowing the whistle on human happiness. And what he wants to argue, although he doesn't say it directly, but I think his point in the encyclical is that when the Church says no to something it is actually doing so in defense of what he would see as a deeper yes. That is, a yes to this deeper, and more noble, kind of love, which he expresses with the term agape.

So that, in his own mind, the church is not interested merely in trying to kind of control people or crack down on their behavior, but it's interested, from his point of view, in trying to lad them to a deeper and ultimately more satisfying kind of love, which is of course the love of God.

MONTAGNE: John, thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. ALLEN: Great pleasure.

MONTAGNE: John Allen speaking from Rome. He's the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

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