The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a beautiful book; but it also clocks in at about nine hundred pages long; about twice the size of an average novel. The average Bible is about fifteen hundred pages long. Add two millennia worth of papal encyclicals to the mix, canon law, the writing of the Saints, and so forth and we quickly appreciate that the Catholic faith is very, very expansive. Therefore, it’s also very easy to inadvertently lop side it, to place more or less emphasis on some elements of the faith than those elements really deserve.
Some Catholics consider themselves “conservative” and some “liberal” even though these are political terms, not theological ones. Some lean heavily on devotion to Mary and the Saints, hardly ever saying a word to God Himself. Others do just the opposite. Some Catholics lean heavily upon prayer rather than good deeds, and others on good works, leaving prayer largely behind. Some prefer Latin, others social justice.
God is Love
While a certain type of variety in the practice of the faith is not only perfectly acceptable but also desirable (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:4-11), is there some sort of critical “balance” to it all? Is there a unifying thread, an “interpretive key” anywhere in the Bible, the catechism, or canon law maybe that can and should act as a lens through which the rest of the faith is brought into focus? I propose to you that there is and that Bible verse is 1 John 4:16, “God is love and he who lives in love, lives in God.”
“These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est [God is Love], 1) Even in its simplicity, the verse speaks volumes. Begin with God, appreciate that He is love (not just “loves greatly” or “extends love”, but is love itself), and then appreciate that the way to be in union with God, beginning in this life and continuing into eternity, is to love. Period. I would submit to you that life is really that uncomplicated — even as the act of authentically loving God and others is not nearly as easy to execute as it might at first sound.
The Church is Love
As Pope Francis noted at World Youth Day this year, the Church is love. In his closing remarks during the 2015 consistory of cardinals, he said, “The more we are ‘incardinated’ in the Church of Rome, the more we should become docile to the Spirit, so that charity can give form and meaning to all that we are all that we do.”
Some might object, “Love is nice, but holiness is the most important part of our faith! ‘Strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord!’ Hebrews 12:14 basically says. “Going to Heaven is pretty darned important, don’t you think?” It certainly is. But it’s a distinction, as it turns out, without a difference. “Thus it is evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society.” (Lumen Gentium, 5, 40) Holiness and love (properly understood) are interchangeable terms.
To appreciate the simplifying and unifying beauty of 1 John 4:16, let’s correctly define love (otherwise known in theological terms as “charity”). Otherwise, we may not get very far in terms of a common understanding.
Love is Not a Feeling
Although feelings may accompany love, love is not a feeling. That “warm, fuzzy feeling” people get when they’re in love cannot be mistaken for love. That warm feeling is affection. And affection can actually be a sin sometimes, or at least an occasion for one. (For example, when a married individual does nothing to keep feelings of romantic affection for someone other than their spouse in check.) Love properly understood, on the other hand, is never sinful. Defining love as the active disposition to seek the good of another, it’s inherently impossible for love to ever be morally wrong.
Just as love and affection are two different things, loving and “liking” are two different things as well. All Christians are commanded to love everyone – yes, everyone. (cf. Matt 5:43-48). But we’re actually not required to “like” anybody. Does this sound backwards? It’s easy to get confused because we typically think of loving someone as being a more advanced stage of liking them. But the love that God calls us to, as followers of Christ, has nothing to do with random or arbitrary preferences, with things that “suit” or “please” us or that don’t. Again, to love someone in a theological sense means being disposed to seek their good – and then, of course, actually doing so at the appropriate moment, not just having “positive vibes” for them. (cf. James 2:14-17) We are morally required to do this whether it “feels good” to us, doesn’t feel at all, or even is uncomfortable or quite painful in some way.
A parent who loves their child and just found out that the child has done something terribly wrong (i.e. murdered, raped, or robbed someone), for example, will turn the child in to authorities, rather than hide them, even if it “tears the parent apart” to do so because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not the thing the child necessarily wants the parent to do, nor the thing the parent “wants” to do. It obviously doesn’t make either one of them “feel good.” But it’s the right thing; the thing that is truly best for the child at the time because the child needs to be accountable for their transgression; both for their own sake and the sake of the victim. Therefore, turning the child into the authorities is an expression of love.
Being insulted by someone whom you know doesn’t mean it, someone who has been having a hard time in life and is just speaking out of their pain, and choosing not to respond to the insult (or, even better, choosing to bless them) (cf. Luke 6:27-28) may not feel good. You may feel “stung” by the assault and desperately want to retaliate. But letting it go, letting it pass without doing so is an act of love because it appreciates the reason for the offender lashing out and shows mercy. To retaliate, rather than just diffuse the offense would probably just exacerbate the other’s pain – one more person in life who hates them, rather than wanting to show them kindness.
Excommunicating someone over their stubborn refusal to align themselves with essential elements of God’s will can be an act of love. The point, of course, is to both help the excommunicated individual come to stark grips with the fact that they are substantially out of line, and it helps others who are watching to check themselves and appreciate the fact that there are grave consequences to grave actions. It doesn’t matter if the one excommunicated pays the injunction heed or not. To perform an act of love for someone does not necessarily require a favorable or constructive response on their part.
The Cross Was Love
The cross was love. And before we too readily give our “Mm-hm” and nod and move on, we would do well to dwell on the gruesome reality of it for a moment. A sinless man accused of crimes he didn’t commit is tried for those crimes, literally spit on, mocked by the masses, whipped with cords that had sharp objects attached to their ends to cut into the flesh, stripped naked and then has a large nail driven into each of his hands, and then his feet, and is left hanging on a piece of wood for dead. Near the end of it all, he cries out, “Father, forgive them!” rather than “?@#!@?!”
Making peace with others can be a form of love. It can also be just the opposite. In Matthew 10:14, Jesus exhorts his disciples to enter various homes to preach but to leave if their message is not accepted. Jesus does not allow or encourage the apostles to compromise his message in order to obtain a truce. The gospel is not “peace at any price.” 1 Corinthians 13:6 says, “[love] does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.” Sometimes when others align themselves with error, the most loving thing we can do for them is to just walk away from them.
But when we refrain from fellowship with someone, when we turn our backs on them and “stand our ground” on the truth, as we must, we must be careful not to let the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction. Jesus had problems with many of his fellow Jews. How strongly he upbraided some of them! And yet near the end of his life, in fact, immediately after excoriating the scribes and Pharisees for what may have been the final time, Jesus then announces with striking tenderness, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling!” (Matt 23:37) (Emphasis mine) No chip on Jesus’ shoulder after all the trouble unbelieving Jews caused him. In exceeding, authentic charity, their animosity toward him only made Jesus sincerely grieve for his enemies’ fate.
Strictly speaking, charity in its most “fundamental” or nascent form doesn’t have any feelings attached to it. But let that charity bloom and grow and, over time and with true love does come affinity – even toward one’s enemies. The more one grows in charity, the less acceptable it is to “just do what’s right” by someone else but otherwise not really care at all about them. The stronger charity takes hold in our hearts, the more solicitous we are for the welfare of others; the more it warms us to the gift of the other, regardless of whether there is “social chemistry” with them or not.
The Source and the Summit
If you are new to the Catholic faith and struggling to figure it all out, make sure love is at the source and summit of your understanding; at the beginning, all through the middle, and in the end. If you already are Catholic and have been for some time and you think you’re “doing it right”, I would encourage you to stop and examine your conscience. “Your every act should be done with love,” St. Paul teaches us. (1 Corinthians 16:14) Is this the path we’re currently walking? Or is political ideology and conquest more important to us than love? Is entertaining ourselves more important than love? Is the dotting of all of our theological i’s and the crossing of all of our theological t’s more important living them (the precept to love)?
Does your preference tend to be Marian devotion? The Charismatic Renewal? Traditionalism? Social justice? Grief ministry? Whatever you lean towards, make sure you are always leaning in love. “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13) For “God is love and he who lives in love lives in God.” And, yes, by implication, “Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not, however, persevere in charity is not saved.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 837)
Truly, other than love, nothing else in this world really matters.