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William Oddie FAITH Magazine March-April 2006

Deus Caritas Est

A very long time ago, in a previous life, I found myself chairing an evening conference on sexual ethics organised by the then principal of Pusey House, Oxford, the eccentric Father Cheslyn Jones. Pusey, of course, was and is an Anglo-Catholic institution and I was a member of its staff at the time, one of the few married clergymen it had ever employed, since it more or less embraced celibacy just as it more or less embraced many other Catholic practices. I had not been warned that I was to be chairman, simply told that I would be on the platform with the other clergy; to my considerable discomfiture, I heard Father Cheslyn opening the proceedings with the following words: “this evening is devoted to the topic of sexual ethics. I am unmarried and know nothing about sex. Father Oddie ismarried. He is therefore our expert on sex, and will chair the proceedings. Father Oddie”. On that he turned to me, bowed slightly, and sat down with an enigmatic smile. I am still not sure whether this was one among many examples of his famously weird sense of humour; was he offering an oblique parody of the prevailing Anglican (and secular) view of the Catholic attitude to sexual questions: that the Catholic Church, being run by ignorant celibate clergymen, is intrinsically hostile to all sexual activity, indeed to all sexual feelings of any kind?

Something of the sort, indeed, has been characteristic, for several generations, of the attitude not only of most Anglicans but of many within the Catholic Church itself, to the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics. Thus, when in January the Pope published his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, with its poetic encomia of erotic as well as other kinds of love, it came as a total surprise to some Catholics (despite the fact that it had been extensively trailed for some months previously). The Guardian’s report, indeed, was headed “Pope surprises Catholics with warm words on power of love”. It was written by Stephen Bates, the Guardian’s religious Affairs correspondent, who is himself a Catholic, and its tone of gratified amazement reflected the general reaction among Catholics hostile tothe overall direction of the last pontificate, and particularly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its supposedly cold-hearted former prefect. “Pope Benedict XVI thawed his previously chilly image yesterday” wrote Bates, “by producing as his first message to his world-wide flock a notably warm rumination on the nature of love. Deus Caritas Est … was greeted last night with some astonishment and relief among senior Catholics”. The encyclical’s message, opined Bates, “was far from the finger-wagging ‘thou shalt not’ tone that characterised some of his predecessor’s pronouncements and contrasted with Benedict’s stern reputation…’.

True enough: the tone of the encyclical did indeed belie the Pope’s “stern reputation”: but where, it has to be asked, did that come from? The answer is that the cold-hearted “Panzer-Cardinal” Ratzinger of former times was from beginning to end a media construct. But what the press constructs, the press can deconstruct: and we now appear to be in the middle of a media makeover unequalled since Dickens published the final instalment of The Christmas Carol, and mean old Ebenezer Scrooge, transformed by the Spirit of Christmas, astonished and slightly terrified the Cratchit family by turning up on Christmas day with a huge turkey (the encyclical was, of course, signed on Christmas Day). “There never was such a turkey”; wrote Dickens: “there never was such an encyclical” Ruth Gledhill verynearly wrote, in The Times (which gave Deus Caritas Est a double page spread). The tender-hearted Ms Gledhill had been expecting another chilling dose of “Bah! Humbug!”:

I started reading Deus Caritas Est expecting to be disappointed, chastised and generally laid low. An encyclical on love from a right-wing pope could only contain more damning condemnations of our materialistic, westernised society, more evocations of the “intrinsic evil”of contraception, married priests, homosexuality. It would surely continue the Church’s grand tradition of contempt for the erotic, a tradition that ensures a guilty hangover in any Roman Catholic who dares to indulge in love-making for any reason other than the primary one of reproduction. How wonderful it is to be proven wrong. “

This encyclical”, enthused Ms Gledhill, “is not the work of an inquisitor. It is the work of a lover — a true lover of God”. Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet told The Guardian that she was “delighted: it is very direct, idealistic and warm-hearted” and that “we are struggling not to be too gushing in this week’s editorial”. But she cannot have struggled very hard: “Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical”, her leader began, “confirms him as a man of humour, warmth, humility and compassion, eager to share the love that God “lavishes”on humanity and display it as the answer to the world’s deepest needs. This is a remarkable, enjoyable and even endearing product of Pope Benedict’s first few months. If first encyclicals set the tone for a new papacy, then this one has begun quitebrilliantly.”

Like the Anglican Ruth Gledhill The Tablet, too had expected a Scrooge-like “hammering of heretics and a war on secularist relativism”. Instead, the journal pronounced “he has produced a profound, lucid, poignant and at times witty discussion of the relationship between sexual love and the love of God, the fruit no doubt of a lifetime’s meditation”. So, what do the secular papers, what does The Tablet think has happened? Remember the extraordinary media hostility to this pope’s election. The Tablet’s reaction, for a time, was almost hysterical. Has there been a transformation? Is this a different Joseph Ratzinger? Or is the real Joseph Ratzinger now at last able to shake off the constraints of a role imposed on him by his predecessor? Is he, in fact, now communicating something different,yes instead of no, a life affirming rather than a life-denying message to the world?

That is what the liberals hope, and not only theological but secular liberals. They long to see the Catholic Church return to the spirit of the sixties, to be more ‘open’ to the values of the modern world (and thus less uncomfortably critical of them). A few days after the encyclical was published, the Observer hailed the news of Pope Benedict’s call for the speedier resolution of petitions for the annulment of marriages as a ‘dramatic break with the past’. ‘It was the second time this week’, enthused the paper, ‘that the newly elected Pope has displayed strong liberal leanings, confounding his critics and the world's Catholics and showing another side to his previously stern image…’. He was, of course, doing nothing of the sort: this was not a call for easier annulments or anythingremotely like it: simply a recognition that as a matter of common decency such petitions ought not to take years to resolve, and that the gross inefficiency of the Roman Rota is a scandal that has to be addressed.

Inside the Church, at a fairly senior level— at least in some countries — there is a sigh of relief at Pope Benedict’s new media profile, coupled with what looks very like a barely suppressed hope that it reflects a real break with the rigours of the previous pontificate. Monsignor Andrew Faley, assistant general secretary of the Bishops’ conference of England and Wales, said that Deus Caritas Est was a ‘wonderful document’, which was ‘much more reflective and conversational in tone and less prescriptive than some past encyclicals…. We are seeing the substance of the man as a pastor and shepherd of the flock. A cuddly Benedict? Well, well’. But the pope was being just as pastoral as prefect of the CDF when he said ‘no’ to some new heresy, and so was his great predecessor as pope when heconfronted the godlessness of the communist world and of the capitalist West. As for being ‘less prescriptive’, Deus Caritas Est is just as prescriptive as anything the former Panzer-Cardinal ever published, prescriptive exactly as Our Lord was prescriptive when he gave us his ‘new commandment, to love one another as I have loved you’.

This is still no soft-centred ‘cuddly Benedict’; the pope still has a spine. This is exactly the same Joseph Ratzinger as he always was. There is no contradiction: as he wrote in 1993, “Christianity is at its heart a radical ‘yes,’ and when it presents itself as a ‘no,’ it does so only in defence of that ‘yes’.” But the secular world does not want a radical Christian “yes”; it wants a “yes” not to the love of God but to our own “personal choices”; and so, it has to be said does the secularising fifth column within the Catholic Church. It has welcomed, naturally enough, the warmth and the poetry of Deus est Caritas; but it is now hoping that the Pope’s first encyclical signals that there will be no more uncomfortable demands for the renunciation of relativist moral values, indeed, that thePope will now bask in his new popularity and become a mellow and liberal guru to the modern world, that his life story will be rather like that of Pius IX but in reverse.

There is, however, a limit to the Pope’s new cuddliness. His first encyclical does not signal any real change of direction, as that old curmudgeon Hans Kung correctly diagnosed. Thus, having praised the encyclical’s “solid theological substance on the subjects of eros and agape, love and charity and not drawing false contradictions between them”, he also told the Agence France-Presse news service that the pope had failed to mention the charity the church should show toward loving couples who use contraception, those who divorce and remarry, and, somewhat curiously, toward Protestant and Anglican clerics (was this, perhaps, a swipe at Dominus Iesus?). Poor old Kung, he just doesn’t get it; you can tell him that Christianity is a radical “yes” to God that has to be defended by a radical“no” to anything that obstructs it until you are blue in the face, it will make no difference to him, he knows what he believes and will stick to it through thick and thin. But so does the Pope; and so, the Lord be praised, will he.


Faith Magazine

March - April 2006