What is this thing called love?

Posted: Jan 31, 2006 9:30 PM

Odd, perhaps, that at the very start of his pontificate, Pope Benedict (in his new encyclical "Deus Caritas Est") would choose to take on Cole Porter's old question. Or maybe not.

Scroll through the newspaper. Oh, another dead child in New York City, killed by her mother's boyfriend. A middle-aged mother, hearing her husband is about to divorce her, fails at suicide but succeeds in suffocating her three young children. America's 34th richest man serves divorce papers unexpectedly on his (fourth) wife, apparently to avoid an imminent hike in the prenupped price of divorce. A 41-year-old child protective services worker is arrested for raping his two adolescent daughters "at least 100 times," according to the New York Post. He remorsefully tells police "he couldn't help it. He would fight the urges for a while and it just became a thing."

And that's just in the last few days. Stories of disturbed desire and failures of love -- some criminal, others merely depressing -- are the stories of too many of our lives. The rapist's desires, for example, are unusually disgusting, but his internal logic is not unusual: "I couldn't help it" is pretty much the way every husband or wife who has ever confessed to adultery has explained it to me. Sometimes it feels like the alternative to eros is death.

And then there's the experience of being on the receiving end: "I saw you there, one wonderful day. You took my heart and threw it away. That's why I ask the Lord in heaven above, what is this thing called love?" Sing it, Cole.

I knew Pope Benedict was a brilliant intellect, a German academic theologian of some note. But nobody told me the man has the soul of a poet. This pope writes of our longing for the "apparently irresistible promise of happiness" glimpsed in the love "between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings."

"All other kinds of love," Pope Benedict acknowledges, "immediately seem to fade in comparison."

How can we trust ourselves to love? How can love ever be commanded (as Jesus commands us) or even promised (as we all do in marriage)?

The classic Catholic answer is to say that love is an act of the will. We can choose to act in loving, faithful and benevolent ways even if we do not particularly feel like it. In this sense, love can be both commanded and promised.

But that is not enough for this pope, because it is not enough for the human heart. Nobody wants to be loved as an act of the will. Yet the promise of eros is notoriously unreliable. One currently popular solution is to downgrade our expectations, to pretend that our sexual desire is merely bodily appetites, "enjoyable and harmless." "An intoxicated and undisciplined eros" is not ecstasy; it is instead "a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified." Evidently.

Yet selfless love is not possible for human beings. "He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift."

Pope Benedict is a poet because he can name the deepest longing of our soul. He's a prophet because he writes like a man who knows the answer: "God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation -- the Logos, primordial reason -- is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love."

We can love because we are first loved. Love is the cause of our being.

Knowing that, the pope tells us (convincingly, like a man who knows) we can still believe in hope, faith and charity.

But the greatest of these is love.