26 January 2006

Everybody knows that NYT reporters just want people to be nice, and Ian Fisher proves that today by cooing over Pope Benedict’s new encyclical, “God is Love.” Called by critics the “panzer pope,” B16, as his fans know him, makes an aggressive assault on secular culture — with warm fuzzies! That’s the impression, at least, we took away from Fisher’s report, “Benedict’s First Encyclical Shuns Strictures of Orthodoxy.” Instead, Fisher writes, B16 emphasizes “love,” in “gentle, often poetic language.”

Fisher contrasts love with orthodoxy, implying that the two are at odds. In doing so, he inadvertently insults orthodoxy and turns a blind eye to the reframing of the Church’s rigid ideas about sexuality begun under B16′s predecessor, JP2. That’s not to suggest that the Church ever embraced liberal notions about sex, but it took these two popes to recast the Church’s teachings on what you can’t do — have anything but procreative sex within the confines of heterosexual marriage — as a kind of liberation.

To be fair, Church conservatives get what’s going on. ” ‘What is [B16] doing there?’ Father Fessio asked. ‘He is saying no divorce. He is saying no promiscuity. He is saying no multiple wives. No homosexuality. He’s completely positive, but if you accept the teaching, consequences follow.’”

In other words, B16′s allegedly gentle encyclical is a bit like a Hallmark card that reads on the front, “Love Is…” Open this one up, and you’ll find a blunt message prettified by perfume. There’s no deception on the pope’s part, just a strong desire by the secular world to see religion as nice, love as “gentle,” and sex as sacred.

It’s that last point that provides the common ground between secular media and orthodoxy. Conservatives know that they can bind up sex and put it away in a closet so long as they declare their reasons for doing so to be respect for sexuality. “It’s not that we talk too much about sex,” says Sam Brownback, one of the U.S. Senate’s most dedicated conservative Catholics and a leading opponent of homosexuality, “it’s that we don’t think enough of it.” If we did, conservatives such as Brownback believe, we’d block our children from learning about it in school, prevent people by cheapening it with birth control, and discourage its practice between the unmarried.

Here’s how B16 puts it. “‘Love is indeed “ecstasy,”‘ he wrote in a document that ran 71 pages in the English translation. ‘Not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus toward authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.’”

Whew! Check out B16′s purple reign. But for those of us not ready to sign up for sex lessons from the artist-formerly-known-as-Ratzinger, it’s important to recognize that the “closed inward-looking self” is a metaphor, for among others, queer selves. Not to mention masturbating selves. Onanism does not rate, in this scheme, as “self-giving.”

B16 doesn’t shun orthodoxy; his first encyclical loves it up, puts it in terms secular media can understand. Of course, “secular media,” swooning over professions of sacred love, may be falling for a not-so-secular line. Is it romantic? Sure. Is it it the “liberation” B16 promises? For some, yes; but then, there are folks out there who only feel free when they’re hogtied with a ball gag in their mouths.

–Holly Berman

UPDATE: Concerned Women for America, the Christian Right organization that proudly declared 2005 the year in which conservatives taught liberals “the meaning of fear,” loves Benedict’s love. Here’s their just-issued email press release:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 /Christian Newswire/ — Concerned Women for America (CWA) calls attention to Pope Benedict XVI’s first released papal encyclical this week. Critics immediately claimed that it was “uncontroversial” and didn’t deal with the “problematic” issues of the day.

Dr. Janice Crouse, Senior Fellow of CWA’s Beverly LaHaye Institute, said, “When a pope defines love and sex in terms of a married husband and wife, there’s going to be plenty of controversy.

“When he linked authentic Christianity to personal lifestyle choices, this new Pope held up an orthodox standard that stands in stark contrast to cultural trends and the prevailing morality of today,” Crouse continued.

“By condemning promiscuity, the pope is getting at the root cause of the breakdown of the family and the disastrous social outcomes that plague women and children as a result.”

The release of his first encyclical reveals a pope’s priorities and gives a glimpse into his agenda –– where the pope plans to take the church. The 71- page document, God is Love, condemned promiscuity because it relegates “eros” (erotic love) to nothing more than a bodily commodity. Sex that is purely biological, he said, is deceptive. Further, said the pope, such debasement of the human body falls far short of the “agape” love (unconditional, self-giving love) that God intends between a husband and wife.

“Nothing could be more central to orthodoxy today than an encyclical that carefully delineates the role of charity; not to mention that it describes the relationship between the church and state in dispensing charity, as well as how it should create and maintain a just society.”

Crouse concluded, “When a Christian leader speaks with Biblical consistency, all Christians can take heart and be encouraged.”

Concerned Women for America (CWA) is the nation’s largest public policy women’s organization.