Friday, January 27, 2006

Passion meets a Pope

The topic of this pope's first encyclical letter Deus est caritas, reminded a friend of the 1931 song by Jean Lenoir, which has recently been sung memorably by Quebecois chanteuse Renee Claude.

Parlez-moi d'amour,
Redites-moi des choses tendres.
Votre beau discours,
Mon coeur n'est pas las de l'entendre.
Pourvu que toujours
Vous répétiez ces mots suprêmes:
Je vous aime.

(Speak to me of love / Tell me again tender things / Your beautiful colors, / My heart won't tire of them. / As long as you always / repeat these majestic words: /I love you.)

Only the French could sing so bold a declaration without blushing. Yet I fear they are right: every woman wishes to hear entreaties of love, however purple. Every man shakes and quivers at the consequences. All of us still like to be liked and love to be loved.

So it's cleverly seductive of Papa Ratzinger to chose love as the subject of his first lecture.

Predictably, the pope spends the bulk of his letter urging upon his church a greater sense of charity (caritas), the love he deems best, but he begins -- and catches my eye -- in his attempt to tame Eros, the Greek god of love, the form he likes least. In outlining the various forms of love, of course, the pope lags by decades behind the Anglican C.S. Lewis ' work The Four Loves which explores family love, love among friends, erotic or romantic love, and altruistic or self-giving love -- in Greek: storge, philia, eros, and agape, respectively.

In the Greek conception, it was not God who was love (or the image of love) as Ratzinger states in his opening, but loving that was divine. Divinity meant freedom from the chains of Fate and mastery of one's own destiny. What modern psychiatrists call the break of ego boundaries at the point of orgasm, from which bursts forth a torrent of sensations, feelings and thoughts that convey a sense of freedom, unity with another, pleasure and more, is what the Eros myth is all about.

"In the [pre-Christian] religions," Ratzinger asserts, "this attitude found expression in fertility cults, part of which was the 'sacred' prostitution which flourished in many temples ... this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it. Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing 'divine madness': far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited."

Ratzinger cleverly elides the fact that cultic sex -- which is inappropriately called "prostitution" given the modern connotations of the term -- was often understood as a god-human sexual encounter conceptually similar to that implicit in the story of the Catholic Church's own divinely impregnated Virgin Mary. To top it off, Ratzinger, has the temerity to adopt an ersatz "feminist" stance -- Women's Ordination Conference, take note! -- in stating that "the prostitutes in the temple ... were human persons being exploited."

Need we note that Ratzinger is the very man who tried to infallibilize Pope John Paul II's letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination To Men Alone) -- which Papa Wojtyla pointedly declined to do himself? Oh, the crocodile tears Ratzinger sheds for the exploitation of the priestesses of the very same female sex he does not deem worthy of ordination in his own religion!

To critics of the Church's anti-sex catechetics and teaching, Ratzinger offers another deceptive admission: "Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed."

You think that's an admission? Think again. He's pointing to manicheism and other views that he can safely distance himself from because august church bodies of the past have declared them "heretical."

In sum, Ratzinger would have you believe that the same religion that burned witches and insists on denying that women can serve as priests has fought sex in the name of concern for the dignity of women. This is true, so long as you understand that implicit in the bargain of Ratzinger-minded Catholics is that women abide with the confines of, as the German slogan had it, Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Ratzinger the pope doesn't quite come out and say it.

Ratzinger does make a stab at connecting his domesticated eros with the somewhat different notion of agape. That's another excursion for another day.

At the core of everything Ratzinger is saying about eros, it seems, is the fear that strikes the heart of a powerful white septuagenarian upon coming across the unfettered passion in the words "Je t'aime" (I love you).
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