Love and charity at heart of Pope's first encyclical

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Pope Benedict XVI declared love to be the keynote of his papacy yesterday as he delivered his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, or God is Love, to the 1.1 billion members of the Catholic Church.

In the long-awaited letter, he praised the "ecstasy" of physical love within marriage leading to the divine love of God and attacked the modern obsessions with the "commodity" of sex.

"In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message (of love and charity) is both timely and significant," he said of the theme.

The soft tone of his inaugural encyclical, which suggests his priorities for his early pontificate, contrasts with the austere reputation the Pope gained during 24 years in the role of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy on behalf of the Vatican.

The 71-page letter was applauded by theologians and church officials.

Hans Kueng, a Swiss theologian who was disciplined by Pope Benedict's predecessor, said that Catholics should be happy it is "not a manifesto of cultural pessimism or restrictive sexual morality".

Cardinal Renato Martino, a top Vatican official, said the writing was a "clear policy programme" that put love and charity at the cornerstone of how the Church should face various philosophical, social, theological and cultural issues.

The booklet was divided into two parts: part I explores what Pope Benedict calls the "unity of love", in which he explores the two concepts of love found in the word "eros" - the erotic love between man and woman - and the Greek concept of love, "agape" - unconditional love. Part II takes the theological concept of love into concrete terms, which he said is found in the Church's charitable activities, where the love of one's neighbour is put into practice.

"Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends," he wrote.