Why can’t you just be “more loving”?
For the past two generations or so, Catholics have been exhorted not only by the larger secular culture but by many of their own priests and bishops to “be more loving”. Properly intended, this is always good advice. But in the most common context, the point seems to be to discourage people from calling evil practices sinful or from opposing these practices.
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Of course, the catalog of evils which rate the admonition to “be more loving” is highly selective. Those who display any racial prejudice or environmental carelessness are, of course, roundly condemned as beyond the pale. A failure to denounce such sins at every turn is a grave omission which raises questions about our very humanity. But those who oppose culturally-accepted sin—especially the sexual sins which undermine personal integrity, destroy the family, and lead directly to the murder of the unborn—are considered “haters” who must learn to “be more loving”.
Catholics have a traditional expression which captures the proper attitude: “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” But more often than not, the person who hates the sins loved by the dominant culture is rebuked for being uncharitable, narrow, unfeeling, judgmental, and (God help us) dogmatic. In other words: Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. The explanation of all this is blindingly obvious. It is rooted in that “respect of persons” which causes us to praise what our “betters” approve and to denounce what our “betters” condemn. But how do we show the falsity of this one-sided and morally vacuous exhortation to “be more loving”? After all, should we not all constantly grow in love?
Love is not an emotion
The problem, of course, is that we often think of love as feelings of personal warmth and affirmation toward another, feelings which seem at odds with the effort to offer criticism or correction. A moment’s reflection ought to show the falsity of this understanding. A parent corrects and disciplines a child precisely out of love, and we are told point blank in Divine Revelation that “the Lord reproves him whom he loves” (Prov 3:12). So clearly correction is not really incompatible with love. Nor, for that matter, does real love depend on emotions.
Now, granted, we most often need some “standing” with a person to offer correction with fruitful results. And if we exhibit in other ways that we really do not love the other—could not, in fact, care less about him—we are unlikely to have any standing at all in that person’s eyes. Even Catholics with moral backbone can allow contempt to displace love, identifying the sinner with the sin and dismissing both as unlovable. But there is no excuse for the common assumption that this must be the case, especially when that assumption is so selectively applied to the sins which the dominant culture insists are perfectly good and acceptable.
Another aspect of the discussion is this: Even in the dominant culture, opposition to favored forms of immorality is not dismissed only as “unloving”. Increasingly in our therapeutic culture, it is dismissed also as either a fear or an illness. But these silly characterizations, which do nothing but distort language to make the vicious feel both courageous and healthy, serve only to advance the idea that the rejection of sin and vice not only is “unloving” but demonstrates an incapacity for love (or even for reason) in those who are too psychologically ill or too terrified to be productive citizens.
To such charges of illness or fear on the part of those who uphold the good, we might well retort that love is often perfected in suffering (2 Cor 12:9) and that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). But the real point is simply this: The world is on the right track to demand love—but on the wrong track to distort love into an excuse for self-justification. The world must understand what love is, and I suppose that ought to begin with Catholics.
So what is love?
If we are not using the term in an attenuated sense to describe our emotional attachments and affections, then to love another person is simply to will the good of that person. Acquaintance or stranger, friend or enemy, celebrity or derelict, this is the key. To love is to will the good of the other.
Romantic relationships and even marriages stumble over this definition frequently, because they typically begin with what we call the “feelings” of love (which feelings, one hopes, may be long preserved), but they are slower to unite these feelings with not only a genuine and continuous willing of the other’s good but even a sacrificial commitment to it. For this commitment to the other’s good is the essence of what it means “to love” in each and every instance, whether that love is rapturously light or discouragingly heavy. Moreover, this definition provides the key to correcting worldly attitudes by insisting that genuine human love, though it is often and even usually experienced to some degree emotionally, is always fundamentally rooted in both the intellect and the will.
To will the good of another, obviously, there has to be the commitment of will. But before that, the intellect must apprehend the good so that the will can know the proper object of its commitment. It is precisely the world’s refusal to engage the intellect in the work of love—to reduce love to a feeling, a slogan, or even an ideology—that creates so much confusion today. Apart from that confusion, it is hard to understand the demand with which I began—the demand that those who oppose immoral behavior stop doing that and instead act in a “more loving” way. We must realize that it is precisely in abandoning the evaluation of what is good that we fail to love.
We know, for example, that taking drugs or drinking too much alcohol causes a person to lose rational control and damages physical health. Both of these are evils, a moral evil on the one hand and a material evil on the other. Hence one who loves decides to will the good of the other by discouraging the abuse of drugs and alcohol by the specific persons who do abuse them, by helping them to recover from addiction, and by warning others against the evils involved. Or again, the person who deceives, or brags, or steals, or abuses his or her sexual powers, or harms or even murders others, is a person who is both damaging himself and others by engaging in evil. Those who truly will the good of that person will admonish, instruct, and work toward a change in behavior precisely out of love.
It is easier, of course, to look the other way—to say, “Well, it doesn’t really bother me.” That may prove to be short-sighted even pragmatically, but it is a far more comfortable position, and one that demands no moral courage whatsoever. It demands no courage because it demands no personal engagement. It demands no personal engagement because it does not will the good of the other. In other words, we either approve or do nothing in such cases not because we love, but precisely because we refuse to love.
But notice that this failure to love can arise from one of two possible causes: Either we are ignorant of the good, rendering ourselves too foolish to be helpful; or we lack the courage to act in ways that seek to turn the other toward the good. And what we find if we lack this courage is that we will rationalize our failure to act. The most common way to rationalize is to convince ourselves and everyone who will listen that it is really only misunderstanding, fear, mental illness, or—wait for it—an unloving heart which leads us to intervene with another to try to turn him more fully to the good.
Such excuses are rationalizations for either our own moral ignorance or our own moral cowardice, both of which usually degenerate quickly into what we call moral “turpitude”, that is, depravity. But when we are harassed on every side by dominant voices which assert that there is something wrong with us if we seek to lift others out of the evils into which they have fallen, I suggest that we return to what St. Paul has to say on the same subject:
They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ!... Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. [Eph 4:17-25]
I grant that this can a be a tricky business. But we must never fear to will good to others. We must never be afraid to love.
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Posted by: pharmer94 -
Apr. 18, 2021 8:12 PM ET USA
Ah, how this rings true! Having a few family members who have chosen the LGBTQ lifestyle, I have been called numerous names for not accepting them "as they are." When trying to continue a dialogue and asking them to refrain from the name-calling or belittling comments, I was told I was "tone-policing." I have pretty much given up trying to talk to them (for now), so I will have to love them from a distance. But I did appreciate this essay... It provided much needed encouragement!