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“God is Love”
What Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical says to the pro-life movement
Fr. Frank Pavone
On Christmas Day of 2005, the Feast of the Incarnation of the Son of God, Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encyclical letter, “God is Love.” The letter, addressed to every member of the Church, seeks to clarify what is arguably the most misused, abused, and confused word we use, and at the same time one of the most central and important: love. The Pope seeks to emphasize the fact that love is both a gift and a command, a reality that God bestows on us and that leads us back to him and to one another. It is a gift that encompasses body and soul, and both natural and supernatural realities. Love has a content. It is not a mere sentiment or good intention, but rather has a specific “shape,” leads in a specific direction, and always includes and excludes certain actions. The Pope stresses that love of God and love of neighbor are one single commandment and that neither can survive or grow if we try to separate them. The encyclical is dated on Christmas Day, because that feast reveals to us the love of God, teaches us that its meaning is found in the person of Christ, and that it has a concrete expression in time and space. Love, furthermore, constitutes a concrete program of action on the part of the whole Church, and is as essential to the Church as are the Word and Sacraments.
What implications does a teaching like this encyclical have for the pro-life movement, a movement that seeks to include a forgotten and oppressed segment of the human family – children in the womb – into the day to day care of Christians and into the protections afforded by law?
The encyclical, first of all, implies that the pro-life movement is at the heart of the response that the Christian and the whole Church make to God himself. The defense of the unborn is a manifestation of several important themes that the encyclical raises:
1. The inseparable connection between the love of God and the love of neighbor.
The Pope reflects on 1 John 4:20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” He comments, “The unbreakable bond between the love of God and love of neighbor is emphasized. One is so closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbor or hate him altogether. Saint John's words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbor is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God” (n. 16).
There are some who claim that abortion is compatible with love, or at times even required by it. But abortion necessarily constitutes that “closing our eyes to our neighbor” which the encyclical points out is incompatible with love. This closing of the eyes takes part both in the individual who does not recognize the claims that the child’s life places upon us, as well as on the part of the society in which the eyes of the law are closed to the unborn by declaring them to be non-persons. In short, he who does not love his or her unborn neighbor cannot love God. This passage of the encyclical also teaches us that the defense of the unborn is in fact “a path that leads to the encounter with God.”
2. The self-sacrificing dimension of love.
The encyclical starting in paragraph 3, contrasts Christian love with the Greek understanding of “eros,” which was seen as an “intoxication” that overpowered reason and ushered us into ecstasy. “This attitude,” the Pope reminds us, “found expression in fertility cults, part of which was the ‘sacred’ prostitution which flourished in many temples…The Old Testament firmly opposed this form of religion…But it in no way rejected eros as such; rather, it declared war on a warped and destructive form of it” (n. 3-4).
In other words, there is good in the natural, human emotions of love. In our encounter with God, however, our natural instincts are purified and elevated; we mature, so that our love becomes self-giving, and guided by reason and faith. In the Old Testament, we see that the result of the wrong concept of eros was that the children who were conceived were later killed. “They worshiped Baal. They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They practiced divination and sorcery and sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger. So the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence” (2 Kings 17:16-18). Love is so powerful that it either gives life or destroys it; it cannot be neutral. In the light of Christ, the encyclical teaches, “Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice” (n. 6).
We speak in the pro-life movement of “crisis pregnancy.” In the best sense of the word, every pregnancy is a “crisis,” that is, a moment in which we must choose to grow, with all the pain which that entails. The mother with child must physically, psychologically, and spiritually be “stretched” beyond her current state. The encyclical says, “Purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path of renunciation” (n. 5). The child changes the mother forever, and in giving herself to her child she finds her more mature self.
3. The unity of body and soul.
Christian love recognizes the unity of body and soul. The encyclical states, “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” (n. 5). The false dualism that would see the human person only as a soul “using” a body leads to abortion and euthanasia. The parents are tempted to think that in aborting the child they are simply “giving the child back to God.” Those who would kill the terminally ill or disabled will present their actions as a merciful “freeing” of the “person” from the body that no longer functions properly. These attitudes are contrary to love, because they lead to the destruction of the human person, who is both body and soul. The reminder that the encyclical gives us of this proper understanding of the human person is central to the message of the pro-life movement.
4. The Eucharistic demand of inclusion.
Our pro-life commitment is Eucharistic, because the pro-life movement is an effort to include our brothers and sisters who have been excluded from love and protection. The Eucharist is about union with Christ and therefore with all our brothers and sisters, including the unborn. The Pope stresses this theme with great clarity: “In sacramental communion I become one with the Lord, like all the other communicants. As Saint Paul says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. … Love of God and love of neighbour are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself. … Here the usual contraposition between worship and ethics simply falls apart. “Worship” itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented” (n. 14).
Notice that the Pope refers to union not only with “those who have become” the Lord’s, but with all “who will become his own.” This includes the unborn, who share the same humanity that we and Christ share.
Here, of course, we have the answer to the question about whether those who are “pro-choice” should be admitted to Holy Communion. It is not at all a question of using the sacrament as a “weapon” or an “ideological battlefield.” It is, rather, a question of understanding the full implications of Communion. To fail to acknowledge the unborn child as my neighbor is to oppose the very dynamic that the Eucharist creates, namely, union with all those whom Jesus loves, without exception.
5. The Church and Politics
The encyclical addresses the important relationship between the Church and the State. Since the pro-life movement works to restore legal protection to the unborn, and must utilize the political and legislative process, this section of the encyclical is also important for the movement.
The Pope reiterates the fact that the Church and the State have distinct but interrelated missions. In the context of speaking about the Church’s commitment to charity, the Pope points out that the fight for justice is also of concern to the Church, but is more directly related to the duties of the State. He explains, “The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics… The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper” (n. 28).
This, of course, deals directly with the right to life. The Church has a role of helping people understand the requirements of justice, and so must teach that the right to life is at the heart of justice and of the responsibility of the State. The Church must also stir into flame the gifts God gives to the laity to immerse themselves in the world of politics, awakening, as the encyclical says, “the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.” In other words, it is in the Church that we should find encouragement and nourishment to do the difficult work of restoring respect for life in our society. Unfortunately, many find just the opposite from their pastors, who are often uncomfortable with politics and unable to articulate the vocation of the laity to transform political realities. This encyclical is a challenge to change all that.
Meanwhile, the Church’s mission of charity consists, as the encyclical teaches, in “the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.” (n. 31). This response to immediate needs must obviously include the immediate needs of the children scheduled to be killed by abortion, and the needs of the parents who are in such despair that they are tempted to abort. Numerous activities of the Church exist to respond to these concrete needs.
The Church is born of love. Christians live on love. God himself is love. And the pro-life movement is a movement of love. If it isn’t, then it is nothing at all. But if it is, then it will be victorious, “for love is stronger than death” (Song of Songs 8:6). Pope Benedict XVI has provided the pro-life movement and the Church with a new reflection on the Gospel of God’s love. As his predecessor John Paul II taught in Evangelium Vitae, this is the same as the Gospel of Life, for “the Gospel of God's love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel” (EV, n. 2).
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