A few years ago, a mom and dad chose to end their baby’s life before it was born.
There was something my brother said at the time, when most people were struggling for words and hearts were simply breaking, that struck my heart. He said,
“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s such a shame. They missed out on a chance to know what love really is.”
I had to peel the layers back of what he meant over the years that have passed. It really stuck with me. It sounds deeply profound thing to say on its own, but there is also something particularly Catholic about this statement that I have come to understand more and more over these past years of study. What is it to truly Love?
This is a topic I have had to learn so much about and have felt the extreme discomfort of trying to grow in, to grow beyond my own immature self-centeredness. So although I am still yet a toddler in learning how to practically apply what I found, I would like to share what I did because it really challenged me to look at my own struggles and frustrations within difficult relationships in a different light and in all humility, to work to identify what my motives have really been.
The Catholic Church defines love as “to will the good of the other.” Let’s unpack this.
To “will” is to choose. No one can actually make you choose to do anything. We like to think that so ‘n so was so pushy that I had no other choice but to do what they wanted, or sometimes we get trapped into thinking there is no other option than the two placed in front of us, perhaps feeling intimidated by the person presenting them. Now things may happen that we do not like that we did not choose, but it is imperative to know when we are using our own brain power to participate in a decision, action or lack of action. Okay, so, to will is to use your power of choice.
Next. “The good”. Ahhh I love this one. What is “the good?” Let’s turn to our friend Thomas Aquinas for this one.
“St. Thomas starts from the Aristotelean principle that being and the good are objectively one. Being, conceived as desirable, is the good. The good differs from the true in this, that, while both are objectively nothing else than being, the good is being considered as the object of appetite, desire, and will, the true is being as the object of the intellect. God, the Supreme Being and the source of all other being is consequently the Supreme Good, and the goodness of creatures results from the diffusion of His goodness.” (bolding added for emphasis) https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06636b.htm
I think I can sum this up somewhat crudely in saying that God is “THE good.” If “being” or existing, is the good, then the source of all being is the greatest good. In our worldly view, existence, life, being, is the greatest good, but this thought is incomplete if we do not remember from where that existence comes and to where it is taking us.
So why is it so sad when someone dies? I think it’s because we feel their greatest good has been taken from them and from us. Why is it extra sad when someone is killed? Because we feel their greatest good has been stolen from them before their time, and in a brutal way that is inconsistent with their dignity as a human being.
To complete our understanding of this definition of love, let’s look at the final portion, “of the other.” The other? Yes. Perfect love has nothing to do with you. If I am to love my husband, my children, my mother, father, sister, brother, friend or stranger, it has to have nothing to do with me. I think people may have two different reactions upon reading this. One is “I have no problem doing that,” which I guarantee you is dripping with arrogance and a total lack of self-awareness. Two, is “Ouch! I don’t know if I want that.”
At first it does seem pretty harsh. What about all those good, warm fuzzy feelings I get when he puts his arm around me, or that pull I feel to do something kind for another because they did something special for me? Those feelings are nice and good, but ultimately, there is something you gain in those situations or it is a response to something you have already been given. Choosing what will bring someone else closer to God for only their sake, is the extremely unromantic but incredibly powerful Catholic understanding of what it is to Love. This is the challenge of Catholic living, to live completely outside of yourself, which ironically, is exactly what will get your soul to its Greatest Good.
Real love, in the Catholic lens, is loving the other enough that you are willing to sacrifice your own comfort, time and dreams for the sake of another’s eternal destiny, for their “greatest good.” It’s loving the other enough that you are willing to sacrifice your desires and release your attachments in order to give the other the space and freedom to choose or reject God. That is the most powerful decision, the most powerful use of the Will we can ever make, to choose God ourselves and to give others the freedom to do the same. But we must have being, life, existence, in order to make that choice.
It is not love, in the demanding, Catholic sense of the term, to decide to take away that decision from another human being. It is not love to protect someone from pain by stealing their power of choice. In doing so, they never get the chance to choose their greatest eternal good, and the one who stole it never got to learn how to Love the other for only their sake, never got to know what love really is.