Pope's First Encyclical Focuses on Love, Charity

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Pope Benedict XVI has published his first encyclical. The main themes of the formal letter of guidance to bishops are love and charity. It touches on the dangers of separating human, erotic love from divine love and also urges that charitable activities must be kept separate from politics or ideology.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today the Vatican released the first major document of Pope Benedict's nine-month-old papacy. The encyclical is an exploration of the notion of love, both erotic and spiritual. It also deals with the Catholic Church's charitable works. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has details from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The title is Deus Caritas Est, God is Love, and it's divided into two parts. The first is a highly intellectual treatise on the relationship between eros, or erotic love, and agape, the Greek word that refers to unconditional, spiritual and selfless love as described in Scriptures. This is what the Pope had to say about it two days ago.

BENEDICT: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: I wanted to show the humanity of faith, which includes eros, the Pope said, and man's acceptance of his corporality created by God, an acceptance which finds its ultimate purpose of creation in a indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman.

Benedict warns that sex without unconditional love risks turning men and women into commodities. Here, he writes, we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body. No longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom, no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere.

One of the officials who presented the document to the media was Archbishop William Levada. Levada said the Pope summed up his message this way.

WILLIAM LEVADA: He said, I chose to write my first encyclical about love because the expression is so ambiguous, so often overused, he said, but we have to recognize that it talks about the most fundamental reality that there is, the reality of God and the reality of our humanity, the interpersonal relationships, the happiness that we seek.

POGGIOLI: John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter says the first part of the encyclical, a spiritual meditation on love, may sound very abstract.

JOHN ALLEN: But I think what's in the background there is he recognizes that it's precisely in the realm of eros — that is, human sexuality — that the Church's message is in a way the toughest sell these days on issues like homosexuality and divorce and abortion and birth control, and he knows that often the Catholic Church comes off as the great Doctor No of public debate. I think what he's trying to do is recast that message in a more positive light by saying that when the Church says no, it's in defense of a deeper yes, and that yes is to this concept of agape.

POGGIOLI: The second half of the encyclical deals with charitable organizations of the Catholic Church. It seems intended for internal consumption, providing guidelines and principles for Catholics involved with charitable activity, which Benedict says will always be indispensable.

The Pope writes love will prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the state so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. Another Vatican official who presented the encyclical to the media, Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes said the document also contains an implicit warning.

PAUL JOSEF CORDES: (Through a translator) This encyclical counters the tendency to forget God. It counters the tendency that is nullifies. It is called secularism.

POGGIOLI: The encyclical says that the Catholic Church doesn't want to govern states or set public policy but wants to be involved in political life by helping to form consciences.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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