What is Love?

The question that has guided Church discussions for decades will likely guide discussions at the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family

As the Extraordinary Synod on the Family opens on Sunday in Rome, the question, “What is Love?” will likely guide many of the discussions. This should be expected since this question has guided Church discussions for decades—taking on new salience with the release of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

It is a question that has not only concerned the Church. The popular culture is replete with references to the question of defining love. From rock, to hip hop to country music, the perennial theme of much of the music focuses on our longing and yearning for love—and our inability to find it. In 1993, the rock band, Foreigner, released the hit song, “I Want to Know What Love is.” And, three decades before that, Mick Jagger’s Rolling Stones complained about finding “no satisfaction”—despite access to a steady supply of sex, drugs, and money. Whatever love is, the purveyors of popular culture appear unable to have found it since their lyrics betray a level of unrest and sometimes violence that is uncharacteristic of genuine love.

The Papal Magisterium has been passionately pursuing an answer to this question—beginning with Pope Paul VI’s teaching that the procreative and unitive dimensions of human sexuality may not be separated (1968). This teaching was followed by Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body—with his 129 addresses from September, 1979 to November, 1984. It continued through Christmas, 2005 with Deus Caritas Est, written by Pope Benedict XVI.

St. John the Evangelist, in his first letter, states simply that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8). Is it possible that so many cannot “find satisfaction” simply because they have not yet known God? St. Augustine suggested as much when he wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” (cf. Confessions, Bk. I CSEL 33:1-5)

But, this would be no less true for Catholic Christians and those Christians within other denominations: what is love? The answers vary when even a casual perusal of the landscape of mainline Protestant communities reveals that most of them accept contraception, some accept limited abortion, and still others same-sex activity with same-sex nuptials on the way. Thus far, at least, none of these have been accepted by the Papal Magisterium as authentic expressions of love and, in some instances, they serve to undermine it.

Take as an example the practice of contraception. Even among Catholic faithful contraception is widely believed to be an acceptable way toward practicing responsible parenthood. Yet Pope Paul VI taught that love – the unitive dimension of sexuality – and life – the procreative dimension of sexuality – cannot be willfully separated from one another. If we take this one step further, however, into Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est [God is Love], we begin to understand how true it is that love and life cannot be separated or divided from one another. Is it possible to willfully sterilize the human body, whether male or female, and still enjoy generativity of spirit? We humans are a composite unity of spirit and flesh. So how would it be possible to willfully sterilize one’s body and not at the same time know some decline in the generativity of one’s love within marriage, factoring in the composite unity of spirit and flesh?

Perhaps another way to understand this would be to ask: what would it mean for God to contracept for a day? It would mean that the life-principle of His love would be suppressed. Hence, while He would come to us in the Eucharist in great love, His love would not bestow “the pledge of future glory” since there would be no life in His love. Or what would happen in the Sacrament of Penance? God would surely love us when we repent and forgive us, but we would still be dead in our sin since God would be contracepting that day, separating His life from His love. This, of course, sounds ridiculous; life and love cannot be separated in God. Yet, we would still say that these can be separated in spousal love within marriage? If God is love, isn’t it true that God is exemplary love, that is, the real deal to be consulted when answering the question: “what is love?”

These are the types of difficult questions our leaders in Rome will ask during the upcoming Third Extraordinary Synod on the challenges facing the family in our day. There are many things tugging and pulling at the family today, while still others are tearing it apart. Let us join together in prayer to the Holy Spirit for continued guidance as we move forward on the shoulders of giants like those of the three Popes mentioned above who earnestly sought to answer the question: “what is love?”

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About Fr. Dan Pattee 0 Articles
Fr. Dan Pattee, TOR, is Chair of the Department of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville.