Knowing What Cosmos You’re In

[1] . . . love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness . . . would seem to be the very epitome of love; all other kinds of love immediately seem to fade in comparison (Deus Caritas Est, Part I.2).

[2] Why should we be worried about this glorification of monogamous heterosexual love in the first official writing of Pope Benedict XVI? Is it fair or just besides the point to critique the document’s gender language and images?

[3] A little over two years ago, I traveled from my home on the east coast of the U.S. to Los Angeles to spend time caring for my mother, who had just returned home from the hospital to recover from a horrifically invasive surgery in response to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. During that time I helped her shower and dress, and move from her bedroom to her perch on the couch. I flushed the line that had been inserted into her abdomen for the feeding tube; she was able to eat very little of the simple foods I prepared. I sat with her and gently held her feet on my lap, her hand in mine. She was so uncomfortable, she could only bear to be touched with the lightest of hands, but she wanted me to be near her, even as she slept. I monitored her medications and spoke repeatedly with her doctors on the phone. That time was one of the most intensely embodied experiences of love in my life, yet to judge from the argument of Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, common experiences like mine rank nowhere near the top of a hierarchy of love that epitomizes heterosexual monogamy as the apex of human love and the primary symbol for the relationship of love between God and humanity.

[4] Memory of that time with my mother comes powerfully to the surface and generates suspicion regarding the designation of heterosexual (married) intercourse as key for a theological discourse on the love of God. Either this first encyclical demonstrates a lack of awareness of the last thirty-five or so years of gender scholarship and analysis, or a strategic decision has been made to ignore the insights emerging out of such study with respect to sexuality, anthropology, love and language. What of Daly, Ruether, Shussler-Fiorenza, McFague, Johnson and so many others who have labored to untangle the skeins of patriarchy in Christian tradition, texts, ecclesial structures, theology? Sadly, there is little of the fruit of such scholarship in these first reflections of the Pope.

[5] Divided into two sections, the encyclical first theorizes on the nature of the love relationship between God and human beings as a combination of eros and agape, or “descending” and “ascending” love. The second part of the encyclical focuses on the nature of caritas, that is, human response to the reality of God’s love through the practice of love of neighbor. While there is much in the document’s second section to investigate, including its claims regarding an ethically justifiable relationship between the church and state, the nature of justice and the church’s relationship to seeking justice, the critique of Latin American Liberation theology and practice, not to mention the encyclical’s denigration of Marxist theoretical tools, I wish to raise questions having more to do with Part I and its overarching metaphor of heterosexual monogamy. Part One’s theological anthropology is shaped through reference to the biblical narrative of Adam and “the woman” or “helper” (Eve is never mentioned by name), culminating in the proclamation that “man” (sic) is “incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become ‘complete'”(I.11). Such a statement begs the question, does the same hold true for woman? Where is she in this configuration? “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh,” the document concludes, drawing on the biblical language (I.11). There is no first female person here, no Eve, only wife, the “opposite sex” through whom man may become complete. Not only are women “othered,” the document’s anthropology leaves the unmarried, the widowed, and the celibate, among others, in a stasis of incompletion. Moreover, can the justification of modern notions of heterosexual monogamous marriage through reliance on the narrative of Adam and Eve result in anything other than anachronism?

[6] It is curious that while on the one hand the encyclical criticizes “the commodification of sexuality” in modern culture, on the other hand heterosexual intercourse remains the encyclical’s sine qua non of embodied human love and the primary metaphor for understanding the love relationship between God and humanity. Is this not just another kind of commodification, one wonders? “Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex’, has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity” (I.5). Why then does the encyclical narrow “the great yes to the body” through epitomizing heterosexual intercourse as the apex of embodied love? It is clear that a certain hierarchy of love and humanity is constructed here. For according to these reflections, as Adam is to “the woman,” God is to Israel and Christ to the Church, the Bride. These parallel relationships are not accidental in the document but central to the argument, yet absent is any nod toward the vast reams of scholarship of the last decades laying out the highly problematic consequences involved when such biblical metaphors and narratives are applied to contemporary social settings and relationships. The document is unrelenting in this focus, however, as the argument indelibly links heterosexual intercourse with monogamous marriage with monotheism. Thus monogamous marriage is the primary symbol for understanding the love relationship between God and “man.” Here “man” stands in for the female partner in the marriage relationship (the same parallel holds true for “God and Israel” and “Christ and the church,” in that the second party of each pair is feminine). And make no mistake about it; this is undeniably a male God. The Pope writes, “Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa” (I.11). But just as God is in every way superior to “man,” God as the “leading partner,” as it were, how can the same not hold true in these other parallels, including the monogamous heterosexual relationship between man and woman that this document so exalts?

[7] The argument developed in Part I finally just doesn’t hold, and in fact is curiously disconnected from the explication of caritas developed in Part II. For finally love is characterized as the unification of eros and agape, “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God” (I.6). Is this journey not one with many diverse forms? To insist that “eros directs man toward marriage, to a bond which is unique and definite, and only thus, does it fulfill its deepest purpose,” commodifies, narrows and lessens insightful meditation on the nature of love. The story about my experience with my mother, and so many other real, valuable and authentic narratives of embodied human love reflecting something much larger, are lost or diminished. And clearly, in Part II, once the writing shifts to outlining the practice of the church’s love, the focus is much broader, addressing ” the various arenas of life and human activity” (II.19). So why insist on the heterosexist foundation?

[8] When eros is reduced to heterosexual intercourse, the richness, diversity and mystery of human embodiment is lost, and a kind of hierarchy is set into place in which everything must fit into this heterosexist frame, or risk being made invisible, devalued or worse, demonized. Moreover, such a hierarchy of love issues into other systems of power. The hierarchies of Adam and “the woman,” God and “man,” God and Israel, Christ and the Church give way in Part II to discussion of the development of earthly hierarchies in the church consolidating male control and power. Thus, in the description of the church’s early development, emphasis is laid on the exercise of charity as love for widows and orphans, prisoners and the sick and needy that first carried out first, as Acts describes, by “men `full of the Spirit and of wisdom'” and eventually, by the mid-fourth century, by the diaconia, the institution part of the monastery structure dedicated to works of relief (II.20, 21). While all the faithful are entrusted with the work of charity, nevertheless, ” in conformity with the Episcopal structure of the Church, the Bishops, as successors of the Apostles, are charged with primary responsibility for carrying out in the particular Churches the programme set forth. . .”(II.32). Only near the very end of the document, as the pope enumerates a list of saints as models of charity (including one woman in the list of 12 saints, Teresa of Calcutta), does his language change from “man” as inclusive of all humanity, to “men and women of faith, hope and love.” If the male hierarchy is to oversee the work of charity, then what is recommended to women at large? The encyclical’s final section is a meditation on the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is described as “outstanding among the saints” (II.41). Here, one would think, finally an image of a real woman that can stand as a model for Christian women (and men). Yet the description that follows is one that has to make anyone with even one feminist bone in her/his body cringe. For Mary is a model for the way she “expresses her whole programme of life: not setting herself at the centre” (II.41). Idealized in her “motherly kindness” and “virginal purity and grace,” the Pope’s language focuses on “her quiet gestures,” “delicacy,” and “pure love which is not self-seeking but simply benevolent” (II.41.42). Even if one attempts to set aside the stereotypical female image, nevertheless, where is any awareness regarding the disastrous consequences of recommending self-denial and submission to subjugated populations?

[9] The release of this first encyclical of Pope Benedict has been received with surprise and even (as I hear it) a certain relief that the pope chose not specifically to address divisive and difficult aspects of sexual ethics such as abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, contraception, fertility technology and so forth. And in fact the document would appear to be silent on all these issues. But a defining substructure is laid here, like vertebrae under the skin. Pressing down on the skin to make the skeleton more apparent, what surfaces is the governing assumption that privileges the heterosexual male as norm (and as divine!) and that structures the heterosexist and patriarchal cosmos so that whatever does not fit into such a foundation simply fades to the periphery, or worse, may be held up for admonition and rejection. In light of all this, one wonders about the relationship between Deus Caritas Est and the document recently released, a scant six months after the first by the Pontifical Council for the Family, “Family and Human Procreation.” While news briefs have been abundant, an English version of the document has not yet surfaced on the Internet. Needless to say, it would seem that all the topics the pope chose not to address in his first encyclical have been definitively treated in this second document, if press releases are any indication. From periodicals such as the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom one reads the following summary:

The Pope has issued his strongest affirmation of moral values since becoming leader of the Catholic Church, attacking gay marriage, abortion, IVF and lesbians wanting to bear children as unprecedented threats to the traditional family that were signs of “the eclipse of God” (” Pope: ‘Family at risk from gay marriage'”).

[10] Of course Lutherans are far from settling our own ethical deliberation with respect to many of these issues. What the encyclical teaches us, however, is the importance of honestly coming to terms with traditional interpretations of Christianity’s root metaphors and traditions, including all those so deftly utilized in this document, that will form the defining backbone of any sexual ethics we articulate, much less any theological reflection on the nature of human and divine love. As Adam is to “the woman,” so God to “man,” God to Israel, Christ to the Church, the Bride. Can Lutherans acknowledge the reality of patriarchal influence at the heart of so much Christian tradition and teaching? Seeing and naming the cosmos we’re in is perhaps the most difficult and most important place to start.