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The unity of love: reflections on the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI.

The theme of this article is Pope Benedict XVI's most important publication as Pope, the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, or "God is Love." (1) An "encyclical" means literally a circular letter. In the Catholic Church, the term applies to an authoritative statement addressed by the pope to the whole Church. A pope's first encyclical is especially important; it can set a direction for his whole ministry. In this case, the encyclical addresses the greatest of all subjects--the nature of God, the nature of man, and the purpose of human life on earth: "We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." (2)

I take encouragement from the way the encyclical itself is written and presented. Pope Benedict took the trouble to explain his work to the public through a speech delivered two days before publication and then again through a letter to the readers of the magazine Famiglia Cristiana. The encyclical is written in a modest way. The Pope uses the first person--"I wish in my encyclical ...," "I wanted here to clarify ...," and so on. The Pope even says this, "The first part is more speculative. "Throughout the document there is a wide range of reference--to scripture and the early Christian writers, to classical civilization, to Marx, Nietzsche, and Descartes. The style itself, low-key, receptive to everything that has been thought and written on the subject of love, yields, I think, a paradoxical result. First, this document written for Christians is so free of conventional language and in-house jargon that it seems equally relevant to a wider audience. Second, the gentleness of tone in Deus Caritas Est is an invitation to us, the general public, to debate it openly.

My reflections for this article are in four parts: first, I shall recall the cultural context of the encyclical and indeed of the present Pope's election. Second, I shall review briefly the introductory statements through which Pope Benedict himself helps us understand his encyclical. Third, I shall say something about the structure and style of the encyclical. Fourth, I shall devote the largest part of this article to what seem to me the six main themes of Deus Caritas Est.

"To come to believe in God's love" is for Pope Benedict the greatest of all gifts. The method of the encyclical assumes that apprehension of this truth is not going to be forced on us by rhetorical argument. More likely, it will be something that grows on us over time. As I see it, Deus Caritas Est illuminates and renders coherent our experience of life. It promotes a "Christian humanism," a culture or civilization more favorable for our encounter with God's love.

1. A Culture that Dispenses with Christian Belief

I turn first to the cultural background of the encyclical. In a lecture on the encyclical, Professor Marcello Pera, the president of the Senate of Italy, chose the title "Europe at a Crossroads" and quoted from Pope Benedict XVI in support of the thesis that Europe "is in a state of deep crisis." (3) It is worth repeating the quotation from the Pope that Professor Pera used as a starting point for his argument: "There is a clear comparison between today's situation and the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already subsisting on models that were destined to fail. Its vital energy had been depleted." (4) Is it true that we are "subsisting on models that are destined to fail," that an inability to engage with deeper truth is characteristic of our way of life in rich countries? It seems to me--and not everyone's emphasis will be the same as Professor Pera's--that there are three clusters of issues on which the answer to these questions depends. The first concerns the ability of our planet to accommodate the scale of our steadily growing economic activity. A second cluster of questions concerns the sustainability of our social structures in the face of changing demographic patterns, the simultaneous advance within the global economy of integration and inequality, the spread of dangerous weapons, the possibility of a pandemic. A third cluster of questions concerns new techniques in such areas as cloning, genetics, and nanotechnology.

These are huge questions, too huge for this article. But we can make the discussion simpler by asking a single fundamental question, which is also a practical, political question: does our current way of thinking in European and western society offer us a secure starting point from which to seek solutions to the challenges of the twenty-first century?

In contemporary culture, we rely heavily on particular concepts of democracy and human rights, with an underlying assumption that prosperity comes as part of the same package. "Democracy and prosperity" is the dominant orthodoxy of our civilization. But do we understand the roots of our democratic values? Do those values in themselves give us the intellectual tools to understand what is happening around us?

In this connection, the first phenomenon I want to consider is our treatment of sexual love. The core ideas on which we seem to agree politically are consent and partnership, legal concepts that together allow a very wide range of options. If love comes into the equation, it is often understood in an emotional sense, as referring to a happy or heightened phase in a relationship. There is a suspicion in our minds that marriage may not be compatible with serendipitous love. Why should one plan a common future if there is no guarantee that the feelings of here and now will continue? Why should sexual partnership, a limited bargain between adults, imply the acceptance of children into the family? In practice, of course, love is like the sea and always breaks down barriers. Nevertheless, our society stands back from the question of what love is or might be, what pattern should be held up for our children. We often prefer instead the more limited language of rights and choice, tolerance and diversity, privacy and partnership.

My second observation concerns our approach to knowledge. People are prepared to work very hard at law or business or scholarship or in some other demanding sphere. But this is often seen as an element in, a means toward, a decent life--meaning a well-paid job, interesting holidays, prominence in public life. Such knowledge is compartmentalized in the sense that it does not contribute to an ultimate perspective or larger horizon in which life would make sense overall.

A functional approach to knowledge has further consequences. Sometimes the possessor of such knowledge practices what in the Sinhala language of Sri Lanka is called "guru mestiya"--an intellectual exclusivity that turns a particular sphere of knowledge into a narrow domain in which it is very difficult to bring ordinary moral judgment to bear. This is especially dangerous in such areas as the law, high finance, and scientific research. Sometimes our knowledge is appreciated for the money it brings. A recent study argues that in at least some parts of Europe, "the respect now shown for wealth and money-making, rather than for professional conduct and moral values, has been the most fundamental change over four decades." (5) In a world of functional knowledge, hard work, and material success, "God is missing but not missed," to borrow a phrase from a distinguished Irish theologian. (6)

This brings me to a third observation. A pragmatic understanding of sexuality and the elevation of remunerated work as a key value in the absence of any other believable perspective are accompanied by a third phenomenon, a kind of ready-made criticism of Christianity for past mistakes. It seems sometimes that these criticisms lack perspective. Our forebears faced difficult discernments. Opinions diverged. The church often did good and brought comfort "below the radar" of the historian's narrative. It is not legitimate to instrumentalize particular failings in the past, often poorly analyzed, to cut off dialogue with earlier generations.

I come now to the point I want to make about all this: the encyclical Deus Caritas Est can be understood as a response to those for whom our Christian roots have lost much of their meaning, for whom love is an uncertain quantity both in personal relationships and in the ordering of society, for whom God is "missing but not missed." The encyclical is a response, in other words, to a defined deficit in today's market-driven culture.

2. Pope Benedict's Introductions to His Encyclical

For readers of the encyclical, the Pope himself has provided some explanations. On February 5, 2006, Famiglia Cristiana, the most-read publication in Italy, carried a letter from the Pope revolving around a series of questions such as the following: Is it possible to love God? Is it possible to love our neighbors if they are different and difficult to like? Does the Church by its commandments in some way spoil sexual love? Can the Church leave charitable service to other organizations? What is the relationship between charity and justice?

Pope Benedict proposes to answer in a single context a number of very different questions--questions concerning God, sexual love, and social justice. Is this not, as a strategy for dialogue, more than a little bit surprising? Does it not challenge the compartmentalization to which I have referred? Does it not challenge a functional, pragmatic approach to life, whether in the sphere of sexual relationships or scientific exploration?

What then is the link between God our Creator, sexual love, and what Pope Benedict, in Famiglia Cristiana, describes as the Church's "passionate participation in the battle for justice"? The beginning of the answer is to be found in the other introduction the Pope wrote to his encyclical, an earlier speech on January 23, to a meeting organized by the Vatican body Cor Unum. Here are the opening words of that speech: "The cosmic excursion in which Dante, in his 'Divine Comedy,' wants to involve the reader, ends before the eternal Light that is God himself, before the Light that at the same time is 'l' amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle'-'the love that moves the sun and the other stars.'" Benedict continues: "Today the word 'love' is worn, tired, and abused ... we should restore it to its original splendour ... I wanted to attempt to express for our time and our situation something of that which Dante in his vision captured in a daring way." If love is the answer that makes sense of a number of very different questions, this is because a meaning--a meaning full of splendor and going beyond any simple description--is hidden within the word "love." That is what the encyclical is about.

3. The Shape and Style of the Encyclical

Turning to the document itself, Deus Caritas Est, let me note at once that this is an exceptional document that would repay study in any university, whether under the heading of theology, philosophy, literature, history, or classical studies. The document is forty-two paragraphs long and divides up as follows: the first paragraph introduces the encyclical; part 1, running from paragraph 2 to paragraph 18, deals with the nature of love; part 2, running from paragraph 19 to 39, deals with the exercise of love by the Church; and a brief closing section of three paragraphs refers to a number of saints and offers a prayer to Mary the Mother of God.

Many commentators have pointed out that part 1 and part 2 of the encyclical are different. The first part is "more speculative," as the Pope puts it himself in the introduction, the second part "more concrete," since it deals with the activities of the Church. The Pope makes other points as well in the opening pages of his letter. He explains that the two main parts of the letter are profoundly interconnected. He states that to avoid excessive length, he has emphasized "some basic elements."

Reading the last few paragraphs of the encyclical reminds me of a genre of Renaissance painting known as the sacra conversazione in which the Madonna and child and a number of saints are shown together. Elsewhere in the encyclical, the Pope places another image before us: "By contemplating the pierced side of Christ, we can understand the starting point of this Encyclical Letter: 'God is love.'"

The Pope's use of these images suggests to me a tentative idea: the structure of the encyclical, while it respects a distinction between the speculative and the concrete, between part 1 and part 2, has an overall unity like that in a cycle of Renaissance paintings--as if Pope Benedict has done in words what Piero Della Francesca or Signorelli, Michelangelo or Raphael, might have done with paint. On this hypothesis, once we have in front of us the "basic elements," their inner unity is supplied by us the viewers as we contemplate the whole, rather than imposed on us by rhetorical argument.

Let us imagine ourselves in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican or in the choir by Piero della Francesca at Arezzo. We gaze one after another on scenes full of cultural references and rational arguments. Gradually it sinks in that the whole is greater than its parts: these pictures, taken together, are icons reflecting a single narrative. We might compare this effect with what Thomas Merton said about wisdom literature--that it has the ability to "'convey not a system of truths which explain life but a certain depth of awareness in which life itself is lived more intensely and with a more meaningful direction.'" (7)

4. Deus Caritas Est: A Narrative in Six Pictures

Apart from the sacra conversazione and the image of Jesus on the cross, I see Deus Caritas Est as based on six main pictures. Four of these images occur in part 1, two of them in part 2. If I had to give the pictures names, I would call them, in part 1 , desire, self- giving, married love, and the Eucharist; and in part 2, charitable service and the purification of reason. The "Eucharist" is already a Greek term. As it happens, most if not all of the other five names would also sound well in Greek: eros, agape, diakonia, logos. Let us take these pictures one by one.

As I said a moment ago, part 1 of the encyclical is a philosophical reflection on love. In the first panel, the first icon of love, if I may so put it, Pope Benedict goes right to the heart of his argument by acknowledging that the Greeks found in sexual love an intimation of the Divine: "Body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness." Pope Benedict acknowledges that sexual love is indeed a clue to the nature of God. In the Hebrew prophets, God is portrayed as "a lover with all the passion of a true love," who seeks union with each and all of us (no. 10).

Pope Benedict's discussion of two pairs of words, the Hebrew dodim and ahaba and the Greek eros and agape, constitute a second picture. Although the connotations of these two pairs of words are somewhat different, in each case there is the suggestion that in the midst of an initial experience of love, based on desire, there is the seed of a more complete love, based on seeking the good of the beloved. Thus the God of Hebrew revelation who "loves with all the passion of a true love" also manifests another aspect of love, a further dimension, which is that of compassion and forgiveness. When Israel goes astray, God's forgiveness always outweighs his justice. In terms of the Greek concepts I've just mentioned, God's eros, desiring love, is at one with his agape, or giving, self-sacrificing love.

It seems to me that the whole of the encyclical flows from these two pictures portraying, respectively, eros and agape, desiring and self-giving love. If there is a distinction but no real gulf between eros and agape, if these two strands in the mystery of love can be interwoven both in God's life and in ours, it changes everything. All forms of love are capable of belonging together. We can begin to discern, in the words of the title page to part I, the "unity of love in creation and in salvation history." In ethical terms, we can rehabilitate desire as a part of our lives, and in general the idea that any vision of human love, even a life of prayer and service to others, must include receiving as well as giving. Furthermore, if all the dimensions of love belong together, and seeking, receiving, and giving interweave themselves according to a pattern that no one can lay down in advance, love is a mystery--something we can discover and share but not measure and control.

My third panel or picture in the multifaceted design of Deus Caritas Est focuses on marriage, understood as the pattern of human love. "He would not beteem the winds of heaven visit her face too roughly," says Hamlet of his late father's love for his mother. Is this eros or agape? Marriage is the pattern of a love that seeks, receives, and gives according to an unpredictable rhythm but in a predictable context, an exclusive and continuing relationship.

Marriage is not the only form of intimate love. It seems to me that the kind of love that is written into a child's heart involves a deep trust in his or her parents. You can only reciprocate a child's love honestly if you have looked into the future and intend to live up to the trust that the child places in you, which involves your will and intelligence, as well as your immediate feelings.

The fourth picture that I discover within the encyclical is the most important of all. This is the portrait of Jesus. If we were instructing a painter on the preparation of this panel, we would insist on a picture of Jesus at the Last Supper. It was at the Last Supper that Jesus constructed a particular bridge leading from intimate personal love to love as the characteristic of a community.

In Pope Benedict's words the figure of Christ "brings unprecedented realism" to the ideas of the Old Testament (no. 12). God's activity as revealed in the Old Testament takes a new turn when God himself, through Jesus Christ, goes in search of the "stray sheep" of suffering humanity. The institution of the Eucharist was a way of enabling the disciples to share in the future in what Jesus was about to do. This continuation of Jesus's mission through time is a kind of sustenance for his disciples, of which the manna given to the Jews in the desert is a suitable image. But Pope Benedict is prepared to use an even stronger image, that of marriage: "The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable" (no. 13).

This new covenant has a social character: "I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own." In the communion of the disciples of Jesus, love of our neighbor is the appropriate response to God's love for us, and our two loves, of God and of neighbor, by definition advance together. As the encyclical puts it, "A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented" (no. 14).

I turn now to the two pictures that derive from part 2 of the encyclical, the pictures I named respectively charitable service and the purification of reason. Jesus expected his special community that we now call the Church to be a witness before the world of God's love, so as to make humanity a single family. As Pope Benedict expresses it, the entire activity of the Church is the expression of a love that seeks the good of men and women. This has practical implications for the inner life of the Church, just as it defines the Church's purpose in the public sphere.

Regarding the inner life of the Church, Pope Benedict reappropriates the New Testament concept of diakonia or charitable service. The following passage in Acts (2:44-45) is a "kind of definition of the church": "All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need." As the Pope sees it, this "radical form of material communion" could not be preserved as the Church grew, but represents even so a permanent principle. Within the early Church a difficult search continued for ways of putting this principle into practice. Hence the office of diakonia, food distribution, was created by the apostles and entrusted to St. Stephen and his colleagues (Acts 6: 1-6), "men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom."

Pope Benedict repeatedly states that diakonia is on the same level as, and inseparable from, proclaiming the word of God and celebrating the sacraments: "love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to her [i.e., the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel" (no. 22). This involves a "specific responsibility": "within the ecclesial family no member should suffer through being in need." In this emphasis on diakonia, it is difficult not to see a rebalancing of current priorities on the part of Pope Benedict.

As it happens, we will have no difficulty in painting this fifth panel. In the Chapel of Pope Nicholas at the Vatican, Fra Angelico has illustrated the lives of the deacons Stephen and Lawrence. The scene in which St. Lawrence is portrayed in the midst of handicapped and suffering people would in itself serve very well as our fifth picture.

I confess that the sixth picture, concerning the Church's involvement in the public sphere, is the most difficult of all to visualize. Ambrogio Lorenzetti's frescoes in Siena on the "effects of good government" are often mentioned as an early example of philosophic painting. However, unless I am mistaken, the interrelationship between the spheres of church and state, so central to Pope Benedict's thought, is absent in the great political frescoes in Siena. If it is true that the Lorenzetti brothers later perished with so many others in the plague at Siena, these frescoes are perhaps less valuable as an evocation of the nature of justice than as a reminder of the threats that hang over our own civilization.

Pope Benedict approaches the subject of political justice via the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus universalizes the concept of neighbor. Evidently, our service to others must go beyond the "household of faith" and touch on the wider society--something very obvious to my wife and me when we served in India, where most of the beneficiaries of Christian schools and hospitals are Hindus or Muslims. But even a universally oriented charity leaves open how Christians, in addition to charitable service "here and now," should contribute to the longer-term question--I think it is by definition a longer-term question--of the just ordering of society.

On the one hand, justice is all-important. Benedict approvingly quotes St. Augustine: "Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?"--"With justice out of the picture what are kingdoms but theft on a large scale?" For Benedict, "justice is the criterion of all politics" (no. 28). On the other hand, Pope Benedict seeks to define the Church's way of operating in such a way as to avoid two pitfalls--the pitfall that the inner life of the Church might become a dimension of politics; and the pitfall of provoking the political authorities, making them feel usurped and prompting legitimate objections to the presence in society of a Church that lives its mission fully.

Citing the famous remark of Jesus regarding "what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God" (Mt 22:21), the Pope looks to the model of "distinct yet inter-related spheres" to explain the church-state relationship. The Church, the nature of which we have already touched on, is "a community the State must recognise." For its part, the Church "recognises the autonomy of the temporal sphere" (Gaudium et Spes), which Benedict defines in Deus Caritas Est as "the sphere of the autonomous use of reason." Society can be made more just through the exercise of "practical reason," a way of thinking that springs from the nature of every human being.

Here we have a many-layered conceptual framework, built around such terms as the temporal sphere, justice, reason, the purification of reason. From a political point of view, the key element is that the Church interfaces with secular power. As the encyclical puts it, the Church will seek "dialogue with all those seriously concerned for humanity and for the world in which we live" (no. 27).

An example of this in practice is that Pope Benedict met with representatives of European political parties on March 30, 2006, and looked forward to a "structured and ongoing relationship between the European Union and religious communities." The following excerpt from the Pope's address on that occasion is worth quoting: "It must not be forgotten that, when Churches or ecclesial communities intervene in public debate, expressing reservations or recalling various principles, this does not constitute a form of intolerance or an interference, since such interventions are aimed solely at enlightening consciences, enabling them to act freely and responsibly, according to the true demands of justice, even when this should conflict with situations of power and personal interest."

Deus Caritas Est explains the indirect influence that the Church should exercise on politics. Another way of putting this is that it defines the inner structure of what Pope Benedict has called sana laicita, a healthy secularism.

I should like for a moment to step out into the piazza and offer some personal observations on the likely product, as opposed to the dynamic or structure or procedures, of the Church's engagement with public life. It seems to me that while the manner of the Church's political involvement is gentle and indirect, ambitions are not low. At the Mass for the creation of new cardinals on March 24, 2006, the following prayer was said about the Church: "And may she be always as a leaven or like a soul for the renewal of human society in Christ, turning it into God's family." ("Et tamquam fermentum et veluti anima societatis humanae in Christo renovandae et in familiam Dei transformandae simper exsistat.") In his homily on the same occasion, Pope Benedict addressed the new cardinals as follows: "I count on you that thanks to your attentive regard for the poor and the little ones, the Church will offer the world in a clear cut way the proclamation and challenge represented by the civilisation of love." ("Conto su di voi perche, grazie all' attenta valorizzazione dei piccoli e dei poveri, la Chiesa ofra al mondo in modo incisive, l'annuncio e la sfida della civilta dell'amore.")

Attention to the poor and the little ones, a spirit of mercy, is one way in which Christian faith can challenge and purify the world of politics. At the same time, the Church is committed to truth, an equally clear challenge to the politics of self-interest. Here are a couple of phrases from Pope Benedict's address to the Diplomatic Corps on January 9, 2006: "Commitment to truth is the soul of justice. Those who are committed to truth cannot fail to reject the law of might, which is based on a lie and has so frequently marked human history, nationally and internationally, with tragedy."

In his speech to the European parliamentarians to which I have just referred, Pope Benedict highlighted "principles which are not negotiable" in relation to the protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death, recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family, and the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.

Once we open our eyes to the uncomfortable claims of truth in any one area, inevitably we begin to see other challenges. In the encyclical, Pope Benedict speaks of distributive justice and acknowledges that in the nineteenth century, the Church was "slow to realise that the issue of the just structuring of society needed to be approached in a new way." Could it be we are living in era in which many people would prefer to speak of the efficiency of systems than of the justice or injustice of international structures? There is no time here to explore the large terrain opened up once the temporal sphere is confronted by truth--even if that confrontation is as mild and understated as when Jesus responded to Pilate's questions in the praetorium.

Conclusion

Pope Benedict states at the outset of the encyclical that his objective is to "call forth in the world renewed energy and commitment in the human response to God's love" (no. 1). As an example of such renewed energy, is it too much to dream that the view of God and the world adumbrated in Deus Caritas Est could yield a series of religious and philosophical paintings reconnecting us to the world of the Renaissance, while incorporating the lessons learned in the hard centuries in between? The cycle I see in the mind's eye would be more complete and harmonious, in philosophical terms, than the paintings regarding religious, poetical, and scientific truth in the Stanza della Segnatura. All we need is a new Sixtus IV to bring different artists together, or a new Raphael!

The main panels in this imaginary church choir are flanked, as we discussed, by the sacra conversazione and the image of Christ crucified. I think that in true Renaissance style we need to find room in our project for individual portraits of saints and secular heroes, not excluding Plato and Aristotle.

Why not a portrait of Benedict himself, "humble labourer in the Vineyard of the Lord," as he has described himself? To set our new Raphael on the right path in painting Benedict's portrait, let me record one of the final passages in Deus Caritas Est:
 There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations
 might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely
 then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we
 are only instruments in the Lord's hands; and this knowledge
 frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are
 personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility
 we will do what we can, and in all humility we will
 entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world,
 not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we
 can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. (no. 35)


A Greek writer of Roman times said that the sublime, as a characteristic of writing, is "the echo of a noble mind." (8) May this noble mind long have the strength to serve, working on in the vineyard even as the light fades and shadows lengthen!

Notes

(1.) This article was adapted from a lecture given for the Distinguished Lecture Series at the American University of Rome on April 10, 2006.

(2.) Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love, 2005), no. 1 (hereafter cited in text with reference to section number).

(3.) Marcello Pera, "Europe at a Crossroads," given for the Distinguished Lecture Series at the American University of Rome on February 21, 2006.

(4.) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Marcello Pera, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, trans. Michael F. Moore (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

(5.) Anthony Sampson on Britain, quoted by Fr. Joseph McMahon, OEM, in his homily at St. Isidore's on St. Patrick's Day, 2006.

(6.) Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ, Clashing Symbols: An Introduction to Faith and Culture, rev. ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003).

(7.) Quoted in Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003).

(8.) Longinus, On the Sublime, chapter 9.
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Author:McDonagh, Philip
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Geographic Code:4EXVA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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