My high school students often objected to a moral teaching by protesting, “But if they really love each other….” “If two people really love each other, why can’t they have sex before marriage?” Or, “Why can’t two people of the same sex get married if they really love each other?” Or, “If a girl’s parents really love her, they won’t make her give up her future to have a baby; they will help her get an abortion.” Or, “isn’t mercy killing a loving thing to do, because you want to end the suffering of someone you love?” Such assertions reveal a lack of understanding of the true nature of love and limit the definition of love to feelings, especially feelings of affection or sympathy. This narrow understanding presumes that one must acquiesce to another’s request to prove “real love.” To help them recognize their mistake, I often asked them “What is love?” They responded by singing a popular song by that name…a song whose lyrics contribute little to answering the question it asks.
A catechesis on love that begins with a clear definition can resolve many misconceptions about love’s true nature and can help the student live the vocation to love.
Willing the Good of Another
St. Thomas Aquinas stated, “to love is to will the good of another.”[i] “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8), and so God perfectly wills the good of each of us. By creating us in his image and likeness, he has created us to receive his goodness and to share his goodness with others. “We love because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19), and because he has willed our good, we must will the good of others.
God’s laws teach us how to live like him, as he made us. When we follow those laws we cooperate with his grace and we are conformed more and more perfectly to him. Another way of looking at this is that we become our truest and best selves when we follow the design of our Maker. In this way, we experience true happiness. In Heaven, we will be perfectly united with him, perfectly conformed to his likeness, and consequently perfectly happy. This is our greatest good, and we attain it by allowing his grace to empower us to follow his laws and transform us into a perfect image of him.
Ultimately, then, love chooses what best facilitates the other’s getting to Heaven, because getting to Heaven is our greatest good and greatest happiness. Yet the choice that best facilitates the other’s eternal union with God does not always cause delight in the recipient. We speak of “tough love” when we refuse the recipient what he wants because it would not be for his good. In such cases, the recipient does not experience the refusal as loving, but because it fosters his best good, it is.
Jesus Our Model
Jesus, the Son who came to show us the Father, loved perfectly and showed us the Way to love. “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12). He modeled love by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, preaching the Good News, giving up his life so that we could be reconciled with the Father.
Jesus’ love conformed to the truth; he did not tell the adulterous woman that she had not sinned but rather forgave her sin. He proclaimed the Truth that sets us free. Even though he is God and the Lawmaker, he did not exempt himself from the law but went so far as to take on the consequences of our disobedience of the law. He did not overlook the truth of our sinful condition; he chose a course of action that remedied the problem.
Taking Jesus as our model, we see that to love means to obey the laws of God: “If you love me, keep my commands” (Jn. 14:15). If the Lawgiver submitted himself to the law, how much more should we! We prove our love for God and for others by keeping his commands. Willing the good of the other, then, cannot contradict God’s commands, because he gave those commands to show us how to live in accordance with how he made us.
Love and Emotion[ii]
Thus, we love others when we choose to do what is best for them. But the axiom “love is an act of the will” articulates a truth that seems very unappealing to the modern person moved by stories and songs that appeal to romance, passion, and sympathy. What about the emotion of love?
Emotions are “movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil” (CCC 1763). We might say that emotions are reactions to stimuli that we perceive exteriorly or interiorly. Like our bodily reactions to physical stimuli, emotions prompt us to move toward or away from those stimuli. To illustrate: if we feel hunger, we move toward food. If we feel cold, we move toward heat. If we feel fear, we move away from the aggressor. If we feel love, we move toward the one we love.
In and of themselves, emotions are morally neutral (CCC 1767). Until we act on them, our emotions have no moral value, just as the feeling of hunger has no moral value. But emotions do motivate us to act; they “push” us to choose a particular course of action. Thus, the intellect must acknowledge the emotion and then determine the best course of action, according to what is true and good. Strong emotions do not infallibly indicate that a desired course is the right course. The intellect must evaluate the course of action and the will must act on the judgment of the intellect.
Due to the fall of the human race, emotions cloud the judgment of the intellect, making it difficult for a person to know (and consequently choose) the best course of action. We find examples in abundance: anger prompts a person to murder; fear prevents a coward from protecting a victim. We cannot rely on emotions to tell us how to act in a loving way. And, while love is not dependent on emotion, it allows affection to motivate the person to actively seek what the intellect judges to be best for the other, even to the point of heroic sacrifice.
Jesus experienced emotion. His “heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” That emotion moved him to do what he judged to be the right thing: “He began to teach them many things” (Mk. 6:34). Earlier Jesus called the disciples “off by themselves to a deserted place” (Mk. 6:32). He wanted rest, yet when pity moved him, he determined that the crowd needed truth more than he needed rest. His emotion moved him to evaluate the situation and act for others’ greatest good. In another example, Jesus experienced fear and dread in his agony, evidenced by his sweating blood and pleading for the Father to take this cup from him. “Still, not my will but yours be done,” he adds (Lk. 22:42). When it becomes clear that this cup will not pass from him, he chooses what is best for his beloved—he goes to the Cross to lay down his life for us. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13).
Love empowers a person to act nobly, even sacrificially, for the good of the beloved. The saints repeatedly model this sacrificial love. Parents demonstrate this sacrificial love regularly. All of us are called to this kind of love, because it imitates the love of God, in whose image we are made.
Love in Action
Author Susan Conroy describes how her interactions with Mother Teresa taught her the profound impact that love could have on another. Conroy describes one boy known as the “little terrorist” because of his violent treatment of others. No one wanted to come near this child for fear of his kicks and blows. One day, the boy attempted to harm Conroy. She responded by embracing him in a hug, rather than restraining him or deflecting his blows. Thunderstruck by this new experience, he was completely disarmed and transformed into a gentle little boy from that day forward. His violent outbursts became requests for companionship and expressions of affection. Conroy felt fear rather than affection or sympathy, but she chose to acknowledge the boy’s dignity as a child of God, and offered what seemed to be best for him. Her love resulted in his increased ability to live his own call to love.[iii]
True love means giving a person what brings about his greatest good. We offer expressions of affection appropriate to the relationship, reserving sexual expressions of love for our spouse alone. We help an unwed woman to give life to her baby. We encourage and assist those who struggle to live chastely or endure serious illness or suffer from any of the crosses of life—and show them the great fruit that suffering can bear. In this way we support one another to live the truth of how God made us, opening ourselves to receive the abundant good that he has for us…in this life and in the next.
[i] St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II, 26, 4, corp art. in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C: Libreria Editrice Vaticana-United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000), par. 1766.
[ii] The works of Conrad Baars, M.D., his daughter Suzanne M. Baars, M.A., and Sr. Jane Dominic Laurel, O.P. informed this segment of the article.
[iii] Susan Conroy, Mother Teresa’s Lessons of Love and the Secrets of Sanctity (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003), 69-71.
This article is originally found on pages 42-43 of the printed edition.