It’s Valentine’s Day again. It’s hard to believe now that this annual celebration of romance and érōs ever had any connection with Christianity, let alone with a Catholic saint who is still listed on the Roman Martyrology. Saint Valentine’s removal from the General Roman Calendar, I believe, was a mistake — the kind of mistake scholars make by failing to recognize the cultural role of stories in their pursuit of documented facts. But our national bishops’ conferences can put him back on national calendars. Here is why I believe we should bring St. Valentine to Valentine’s Day.
Who Was St. Valentine?
Forgive me for recycling some material from a previous article I wrote:
According to legend, Emperor Claudius II “Gothicus” (r. 268 – 270) worried that soldiers’ courage would suffer from dwelling over the fates of their families should they die in combat. So he drafted only bachelors and issued an edict forbidding young men from marrying. However, Valentine, who was either a priest in Rome or the bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), continued to marry young couples in secret. Caught the first time, he converted his judge by curing the judge’s daughter of blindness. The second time, he stood before Claudius himself, who ordered him to give up Christ.
Valentine refused, so Claudius ordered him to be beaten, stoned, and beheaded. The story says he signed his last message, to the judge and his daughter, “from your Valentine.”
That’s the story, anyway. Historians can trace the legend no further back than the High Middle Ages. The old Catholic Encyclopedia notes that of St. Valentine “some sort of Acta are preserved but they are of relatively late date and of no historical value.” Pope St. Gelasius (r. 492 – 496), who set his feast day, said his acts were “known only to God.” His connection with romance may stem from the medieval belief that birds chose their mates on February 14. We know more about St. Nicholas than we do of St. Valentine!
The Power of Story
So if there’s no historical substance behind the legend, why keep it alive? Let me be Irish and answer the question with a question: Why keep The Iliad and The Odyssey alive? Why keep The Lord of the Rings alive? For that matter, why keep the Book of Job alive?
The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms” (The Speed of Darkness). Stories do more than entertain; they also explore and expose the meaning of our existence, organizing what we know or believe in a (more or less) coherent worldview, creating cosmos out of chaos. Even what we think of as history is at its root a story that organizes bare historical facts into a narrative that makes sense of the present in terms of the past. Stories are so connatural to the human mind that they lurk within other modes of explanation.
It’s a dangerous error to think that, by calling a narrative you don’t wish to believe a “story,” you’ve somehow diminished its meaning or influence. Stories can use creations of the imagination to illuminate deeper truths. They can also use documented facts to mislead and misrepresent. Conspiracy theories, for instance, are stories that often rely on the absence of evidence as proof of a coverup. Even postmodern philosophers, who claim to distrust metanarratives, place blind faith in an overarching story: Western civilization as a corrupt, malign influence on humanity and the world. A story’s credibility doesn’t depend on its factuality.
Losing Faith in Forever
It’s tempting to believe our society and culture are giving up on marriage. As of 2017, only half of American adults were married and only a slender majority of the never-married were certain they wanted to tie the knot someday. Cohabitation was on the rise, with majorities in all age brackets from Generation Z to the Silent Generation saying living together doesn’t make a difference. (Interestingly, while mixed-race and mixed-religion marriages had risen, mixed-political-party marriages were rare.) Divorce and cohabitation rates among the 50+ group were also up, while for the 20 – 39 bracket the divorce rate was down.
What our society has lost faith in is not love but rather its permanence. Love, when understood solely as érōs or as a “warm fuzzy,” waxes and wanes according to a variety of influences we even now hardly understand. We still admire people who manage to make “until death do us part” a reality, but we don’t understand how they made it a reality. We want to believe love will last for us; but we assume that, if it’s “real,” it’ll last of its own accord, without any effort or sacrifice from us. Should we be surprised when it doesn’t?
Indeed, what is marriage today beyond tax and social benefits for sharing the same address and the same bed? To say marriage can mean whatever you want is to say that it’s meaningless of itself, that there is no intrinsic why to marriage underneath the different cultural conventions. Once, we stigmatized adultery and divorce; now, being resolutely determined not to “pass judgment on love,” we’re on the path to normalizing polyamory. But the love that won the same-sex “marriage” battle, érōs, is by its nature unstable, ephemeral, even fickle; it has no staying power. So it cannot capitalize on its victory.
Affirming the Goodness of Marriage
But we still believe that love can last, or at least that it ought to last. That’s why the commercials tend to focus, not on young couples first setting out on their journey, but on older couples who have seen “for better and for worse.” We rightly value the promise kept more than the promise made. And while the first failed marriage turns some people off, more eventually contract a second. Even a third. We still see something more to marriage than sexual love, even though we don’t quite know what that “something more” is.
Against the gloom and growing despair, the story of Saint Valentine shines like a beacon. Here is a reaffirmation of the goodness of marriage — something so good in itself that an obscure Roman priest put his life at risk to reaffirm it. Here love truly wins, reaffirming life by participating in it, embracing it even at sword’s point.
Was it necessary that Valentine do so? Well, if you view marriage as a purely utilitarian institution, the answer is no. The soldiers would likely have found outlets for their passions while on campaign, while their brides would doubtless have found other men to be their husbands should their beaus have died in battle. Procreation would have gone on. But utilitarianism, the strange belief that morality can be mathematized, is not only a fairly recent heresy but an inhuman and unrealistic one at that. Utilitarianism can comprehend sacrificing faceless others, but not the self-sacrifice of agápē — the love that orders all the other loves to their proper ends, even érōs.
The story of St. Valentine belongs to an ethos and cosmos in which sex and marriage aren’t ends in themselves but rather ordered toward participation in God’s act of creation. Only in that context can either best reflect the communion with God that is our proper end as His creatures. By contrast, the Super Bowl LIV half-time show, on which the social-media chatterati wasted so much energy, belongs to a desiccated universe in which love is fleeting and sex is ordered toward nothing beyond self-pleasure. It pretends to be modern and sophisticated but is as old as are cynicism and despair.
Saint Valentine, I believe, represents an assertion not only of the goodness of marriage but also the goodness of romantic love. His story is an opening through which we can explain further the Christian vision of marriage, not simply in negative, slut-shaming condemnations but in a positive, life-affirming manner that offers hope. It’s also positioned as a story of rebellion against an unreasonable, despotic system that oppresses the most natural of institutions for the sake of its agenda. Like the story of Santa Claus, whether his story is factual is irrelevant to its meaning and necessity for our times.
The traditions of St. Valentine’s Day properly belong to us as Catholic Christians. We ought to re-take ownership of his feast day and celebrate it as we once did, for the reasons we did. Because our religion, to paraphrase Chesterton, is less of a theory than it is a romance, an encounter of love with God which is reflected, albeit indistinctly as in a mirror, in all our human loves. That’s why we remain convinced it ought to last: because it is, after all, ordered towards communion with the Eternal.