Pope issues first encyclical, on loveVATICAN CITY Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday issued an erudite meditation on love, in a long-awaited first encyclical that presented Roman Catholicism's potential for good rather than imposing firm, potentially divisive, rules for orthodoxy.
The encyclical, "God is Love," did not mention issues that divide Catholics, like abortion, homosexuality, contraception and divorce. But in gentle, often poetic language, Benedict nonetheless portrayed a tough-minded church "duty bound," he wrote, to intervene at times in secular politics for "the attainment for what is just."
He also suggested that terrorism - as an attack on Christ's command to "love your neighbor" - had helped inspire his first major statement.
"In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant," he wrote. "For this reason, I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes on us and which we in turn must share with others."
The encyclical is the highest form of papal teaching, and there had been much anticipation in the church for Benedict's first, given his long service as Pope John Paul II's outspoken and conservative defender of the faith.
But in contrast to his public reputation, Benedict, 78, elected last April, began his encyclical with a perhaps surprising first premise:
Conceding that the church has at times viewed sexuality as something "negative," he placed erotic love between married men and women at the center of God's plan. Sex, he wrote, should mature into unselfish concern for the other - creating a love that ultimately demands charity and justice even to strangers.
"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 toward its liberation through self-giving, and thus toward authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God."
Benedict often makes reference to his predecessor, and stresses the continuity of his papacy to that of John Paul - and in some measure, this is an encyclical of two popes.
The second half of the document, on charity and the role of the church in society, had begun under John Paul before he died in April. Church officials said, however, that the finished document, beginning with a section on love, was very much the work of Benedict, who as Joseph Ratzinger, was a professor, theologian and prolific writer.
"You cannot say that this pope added the first or the second part," said Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, the pope's top advisor on charity. "You have to see that this pope is always following the steps, the traces, of John Paul II, and in this way it is a continuation, but not much."
The Vatican spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, told reporters that Benedict began writing the encyclical at the papal summer residence, Castelgandolfo, after he returned from vacation in the Italian Alps in late July.
Before becoming pope, Benedict was often seen as a divisive figure, lauded by more conservative Catholics for his devotion to orthodoxy and criticized by liberals for not sharing their vision for a changing, more modern church.
But Benedict's elaboration on love and charity was largely praised on Wednesday by people on both sides of the divide, as a document that sought to express what is common to all Catholics.
"He's not wagging his finger about what's wrong with contemporary culture," said Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America, in Washington.
"He's framing the debate in a very broad-stroke, wide-angle way," he said. "He's saying, this is the big picture, and out of that you get a positive, optimistic ultimate vision of what Catholicism is."
Christian Weisner, spokesman for the German chapter of the liberal group We Are Church, called the encyclical "a sign of hope" that Benedict would prove to be a "human face for Christianity and for the Catholic church."
He said, however, that he hoped that Benedict's emphasis on love would make him more open to liberal groups like We Are Church, which advocates positions Benedict does not agree with, such as the ordination of women priests and an end to priestly celibacy. "Loving your neighbors also means loving critical theologians," Weisner said. "He also has to apply these ideas within the church itself."
The Reverend Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit who is editor of the publishing house St. Ignatius Press, which publishes Benedict's books, said the themes and gentle tone of the encyclical should finally put to rest the stereotype of Benedict as an conservative ideologue.
Nonetheless, Fessio said that in the encyclical Benedict was true to traditional church teachings: Benedict's definition of love in it applied to men and women, married and monogamous "forever."
"What is he doing there?" 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."
Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from New York.