John Labarbara’s surprising take on “knowing God’s love”

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 21, 2016

This afternoon I skimmed through a book recently published by Sophia Institute Press. The title is Knowing God’s Love, and the subtitle is “8 Essential Truths Every Catholic Should Know”. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that author John Labarbara shifts his discussion very rapidly from the nature of God into a sketch of Catholic social teaching. Most of us, I think, would not put the Church’s social doctrine high on the list of eight essential truths.

Nonetheless, there is a method to the apparent madness. Labarbara understands that God is first of all a relationship. The Trinity is a communion of persons. Clearly the Catholic claim that God is love depends on this fundamental reality. So perhaps I should not be so surprised to find a book bolstering our grasp of essential truths by tracing those truths through the relationships they entail. This is not, obviously, Catechism 101. But it is a fresh and interesting take on the core values that should animate all Catholics.

The author’s arrangement of the material is quite logical, so the easiest way to give readers an outline of the project is to list the table of contents:

Part 1. The Foundational Truths
  1. God is Love
  2. Man is Created in God’s Image
  3. God Desires Us
Part 2. The Foundational Truths Applied Personally
  1. To Work Is to Share in God’s Creation
  2. Charity Is Required to Love God and Man
  3. Catholic Social Teaching is Rooted in Truth
Part 3. The Foundational Truths Applied Publicly
  1. Governing Requires Prudence
  2. We Are Responsible for Reflecting God’s Love in Public Life

The genius of Labarbara’s presentation lies in his ability to sketch very quickly how the nature of God unfolds into His creation, into the dignity He imparts to man as a collaborator in His providential care of all things, and into the very nature of human responsibility, both personal and social, which must always be rooted in Divine love. A corresponding danger of this rapid progress is that the reader is expected to grasp the inner logic of the Church’s position on the most controversial issues of the day (the role of government, human dignity and human work, the nature of social assistance, a proper grasp of human sexuality, abortion, gay marriage, and more) before he has developed his own relationship with our Trinitarian God.

That is a lot to ask, which means that this beginner’s book (and how could it not be a beginner’s book if its purpose is to sketch briefly eight essential truths every Catholic should know, in a hundred and fifty pages, with lots of white space and a plenty of subtitles?)—this beginner’s book Is not for everyone. In fact, I suspect it will work best for fairly well-instructed Catholics who have fallen victim to an excessively legalistic impression of their relationship with God, without coming alive to its startling beauty and inner dynamism.

Labarbara captures that startling beauty and inner dynamism and traces it through God, creation, human collaboration, and the entire social order. For those who grasp Catholicism as a series of principles and rules which are increasingly hard to keep straight, Knowing God’s Love offers a comprehensive perspective which makes sense of it all. This means also that the book may be a real eye-opener for those who suspect that God is a hard master who probably is not particularly satisfied with their own performance to date. For these, the book will amply repay the time invested, which is likely to range between one and two hours, depending on how much of the presentation clicks quickly into place. This clicking, by the way, is rather satisfying.

But I would not recommend this presentation for those seeking to learn the Catholic faith for the first time, or for old hands who are very comfortable with their Faith and ready for deeper study. Labarbara seems to be aiming at Catholics who want to be faithful in an age of constant contradiction, but who have trouble seeing how everything fits together. For these readers, Knowing God’s Love may be not only an excellent primer but a breath of fresh air.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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