Love Is Not Love

Richard A. Spinello

By Richard A. Spinello

Richard A. Spinello is a Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He’s the author of The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary and The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family, and the Culture of Life.

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg
Photo Credit: Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg – Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

On May 10, 2021, over 500 Catholic priests throughout Germany will hold a mass blessing of gay unions that will take place in 50 different parishes. Most of these clerics have the unequivocal support of their bishops and have been told that they need not worry about canonical sanctions.  This heterodox and defiant event, which threatens to edge the Church closer to the precipice of schism, is called “Love Wins, Blessing Service for Lovers.” Bishop Georg Bätzing, head of the German Bishops Conference, contends that such blessings are warranted since they reflect the sensus fidelium and represent an evolution of pastoral practice toward same-sex couples. 

The “Love Wins” ceremony loudly proclaims the disapproval of the German hierarchy with the recent Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) ban on such blessings. According to the CDF statement approved by Pope Francis, “it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships…that involve sexual activity outside marriage.” But many German bishops and priests seem to believe that “love” conquers all, including magisterial instructions that reflect immutable Catholic doctrine anchored in Sacred Scripture.  

Jesus does not say a great deal about sexual morality. But he makes an unambiguous reference to the order of creation when he proclaims that marriage is a one-flesh union between a man and woman. In a phrase packed with philosophical density, he declares that these two persons “are no longer two, but one” (Matthew 19:5). This indissoluble marital union between man and woman is the Creator’s plan for humanity “from the beginning.” And this plan is disrupted by adultery along with sex outside of marriage, which Jesus calls “fornication” (pornea). These evil thoughts and deeds that come “out of the heart…are what defile a man” (Matthew 15:18-20).

One Jesuit theologian admonished the CDF for its reaffirmation of Catholic teaching because it has failed to take into account the changing realities of the modern world. The Church must adapt to the lives of contemporary Catholics who now reject old moral doctrines on divorce, contraception, and sexuality. “Humanity changes,” claims Fr. Bruce Morrill, and so the Church must also change. But does the acceptance of gay unions and divorce by the secular culture really constitute a change in humanity or just a change in sexual mores? 

Adultery, homosexuality, and contraception are nothing new. They were present in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus and St. Paul. Christians would have been tempted and confused then, just as they are today. So, it is hard to argue that this cultural turn represents in any way a fundamental transformation of human nature. Since marriage is clearly defined by Jesus himself, this institution cannot be arbitrarily modified every time an errant culture moves in a new direction. Sexual morality derives its validity not just from reason but also from Revelation which was completed in the life and words of Jesus.  

Progressive theologians, who are quick to affirm their allegiance to the Second Vatican Council, seem to overlook this passage from Gaudium et Spes (10)“The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday and today, and forever” (my emphasis). Marriage, which is an integral aspect of the Creator’s providential plan to propagate the human race, is certainly one such reality.

It is tragic to witness the truth of Revelation about marriage and sexuality being swept away by the German Church and its supporters. However, there has been little substantive theological critique of the CDF ban on the blessing of same-sex unions. We are told that progressive and enlightened pastoral practice warrants such a blessing. Or we are simply informed that “love always wins,” and if two people love each other why not sanctify that union? 

Priests from the Missionary Society of St. Paul in Los Angeles, Boston, and New York subjected their parishioners to polemical homilies about the injustice of the CDF ban. The justification for the blessing offered by these priests was as superficial as the German slogan, “Love wins.”  According to one Paulist Father, “once you give love away, it becomes really love, whatever relationship you’re in.” Love, therefore, apparently justifies any kind of sexual relationship. Have these men not heard about concupiscence and do they not realize how easy it is to reduce love to concupiscence of the flesh? Others have used similar slogans and hashtags to express their approbation of same-sex unions. Most people are familiar with the ubiquitous motto “love is love” that is listed along with other liberal certitudes on lawn signs scattered throughout America.

But epithets like “Love wins” and “Love is love,” in all their fervent vagueness, can hardly constitute the foundation for undermining divine revelation and 2,000 years of Catholic pedagogy. Many people misunderstand the nature of love which cannot be captured in facile formulas. As John Paul II explained in his Letter to Families (1994), we are now in the throes of a great crisis of truth which manifests itself as a crisis of concepts. “Do the words ‘love,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘sincere gift,’ and even ‘person’…really convey their essential meaning,” asks the Pope. 

To be sure, the meaning of “love” has been obscured by modern culture and its hedonistic ways. To properly understand the reason why the German blessing is so misguided, we must retrieve the real meaning of love. To this end, it is instructive to review the profound and penetrating analysis found in John Paul II’s pre-papal masterpiece, Love and Responsibility. This book, written when he was Bishop Karol Wojtyla, is essential for anyone who wants a clear and honest picture of love and sexual morality. Love is complex and multifaceted, and Wojtyla’s treatise can help dissipate the confusion that is so pervasive in the Church.

Every form of love is a striving toward the other and seeks his or her good. Through this self-transcendence, a union is formed so long as there is mutuality. Thus, love is always directed toward interpersonal union and the good of the beloved. This union can be emotional and superficial or it can rise to the level of friendship where two people are committed to each other. Authentic friendship, explains Wojtyla, is equivalent to a “doubling of the I,” as a person comes to care about her friend’s welfare as much as she cares about her own. A friend seeks and delights in the other’s good and happiness and shares in that happiness. 

Spousal love represents the pinnacle of human love because it surpasses all other types of love, including friendship. Spousal love is total self-donation and, unlike friendship, is exclusive, since someone can only make such a total gift to one other person. Other forms of love go out toward the other person but none “reach as far as spousal love.” Spousal love requires sexual complementarity, so it is only possible between a man and a woman. Only a heterosexual couple can give their whole bodily selves to one another, including their fertility and sexual powers.

This bodily and personal union is what Jesus means when he says that a man and woman are no longer two but one. This whole is greater than the sum of its parts because of the possibility of procreation, the fruit of this loving and enduring union. The sexual drive, explains Wojtyla, serves existence, and has an existential meaning. Therefore, the sexual act must be unitive and generative, and it cannot be one without the other. Unlike all other forms of love, only spousal love has a sexual character since sexual relations are a sign and a means of this total bodily union.

There is a significant discontinuity between the love of friendship, which can obviously be between members of the same sex, and spousal love that leads to marriage. Living in this relationship of “reciprocal gift” safeguards the dignity of the person since sexual relations are not about self-gratification but about creating a communion of persons through mutual self-donation. When the unitive and procreative character of sex is stripped from sexual intercourse, what remains is the depersonalization of a sexual union where those involved are objectified for the sake of pleasure. Two people of the same sex cannot make a total gift of themselves—their sexual union cannot be a sign or means of total bodily union. The existential import of the sexual drive is negated, so it can only be a drive toward sexual delight and pleasure. 

A couple might argue that sexual relations are a sign of affection. But there are plenty of ways in which two men or two women can show affection that do not involve their sexual powers. They choose sexual relations precisely because it is pleasurable, and therefore they end up using each other’s bodies for pleasure. According to John Paul II, “The relationship of the gift changes into a relationship of appropriation” (Theology of the Body, 260). The problem is that this sexual relationship resembles spousal love but can only be a friendship that has been saturated with sensuality.

Thus, “love is not love” because there are different modalities of love. Uttering these pithy phrases all the time does not make them true. Love is complex, not simple. Trite formulas perpetuate confusion and lead Catholics to endorse the moral opinions of those who have lost their way in the tangled thicket of a pagan culture.