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What Is Love? Pope Benedict XVI Reminds Us

February 14, 2023

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During the month of February, St. Valentine’s Day looms large. We are inundated with decorations of red and pink hearts, candies stamped with messages of affection, and other symbols of love. Of course, one may ask (with the Haddaway song made infamous by Saturday Night Live): “What is love?” Does our culture exhibit a proper understanding of the nature of love?

With the recent passing of Pope Benedict XVI, I would like to draw upon his work to help answer the question of what love is. Love was a central theme for his pontificate. His very first encyclical was entitled God is Love (Deus Caritas Est). His last encyclical also dealt with love (or more precisely, its highest form, charity): Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate). In between those two encyclicals, Pope Benedict XVI also issued a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation concerned with love: The Sacrament of Charity (Sacramentum Caritatis), referring to the Eucharist. While we can’t possibly give an exhaustive treatment of those documents here, I would like to highlight some particularly poignant points that can help us reflect on the true meaning of love during this month where superficial (or even false) notions of love surround us.

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical begins with this quotation. The revelation that God is love is central to the Christian faith. To be sure, God is the summum bonum (highest good), the uncaused cause, etc. That much we could know from natural philosophy. But the fact that God is the loving communion of three divine Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—was unknown to the ancient philosophers. Since God is the source of all existence, that means divine love is the font of all creation. As made in the image of God, it also means that humanity was created from love and for love: both love of God and love of neighbor, the two great commandments (see Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:29-32, and Deus Caritas Est 1).

Does our culture exhibit a proper understanding of the nature of love?

As John the Apostle and Evangelist reminds us, God has first loved us (1 John 4:10), and thus our own love is a response to the gift of love that we have first received from God (DCE 1). Our ability to love God and to love others is rooted in God’s prior love for us. In fact, to satisfy the command to love others, it is imperative that we first love God, remaining rooted in our relationship with God. As the adage goes: you can’t give what you don’t have. Our loving of others is a sharing in God’s love for them, and if we are to love them appropriately, we must remain connected to God through our loving relationship with him. Prayer, through which we commune with God in our minds and hearts, is essential for a properly ordered love of others.

Remaining in God’s love through prayer has its particularly powerful iteration in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. The Eucharist is, after all, Christ’s loving sacrifice for us, which we humbly receive and—in union with Christ—offer back to the Father. In fact, in the early centuries, the Eucharist was also called agape (the Greek word for the highest form of love; see DCE 13-14). Pope Benedict XVI reiterates this point in Sacramentum Caritatis: “The sacrament of charity, the Holy Eucharist is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing God’s infinite love for every man and woman” (SC 1). He insists that the Eucharist must not only be believed (Part I) and celebrated (Part II), but also lived (Part III). We receive the grace of Christ’s loving sacrifice and are then sent out into the world to bring the love of Christ to the world, through our own sacrifices and works of charity. “The Eucharist is thus the source and summit not only of the Church’s life, but also of her mission: ‘an authentically eucharistic Church is a missionary Church’” (SC 84).

God is love; God is also truth. Thus, our works of charity must be carried out in the truth. To love others is to love the truth and to share it with them, hence the title of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), which is on the Church’s social teaching. “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. Love—caritas—is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace. It is a force that has its origin in God, Eternal Love, and Absolute Truth. Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn 8:22)” (CV 1).

True charity, then, seeks the authentic (true!) good of the other. It is not about doing what others want; it is about acting toward them in a way that helps them flourish according to the truth about human nature and their ultimate destiny: union with God in heaven. Charity for others, then, includes bringing them the truth. “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity” (CV 1).

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Pope Benedict also reminds us that our social teaching is not only about social justice. It includes it and then some. “Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is ‘his,’ what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice” (CV 6). Justice, then, is a prerequisite for charity; but justice alone does not suffice; we are called to give more.

This something more does not mean financial support alone, although that certainly can be a very concrete and important part of charity. But people don’t just need their material needs to be supplied. They do need that, but they don’t only need that. They need to know that they are cared for, that they actually matter. As Pope Benedict remarks: “One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation. If we look closely at other kinds of poverty, including material forms, we see that they are born from isolation, from not being loved, or from difficulties in being able to love” (CV 53). Thus, people don’t just need monetary subsidies, they need friendship; they need to be loved and to be empowered to love.

In conclusion, during this season of “love,” let us recall what love truly is. It is not merely the pleasure we get from how other people make us feel. It is a gift of oneself for the good of the other for their own sake. Since God has done that for us—both in creation and on the cross—we are empowered and called to be this same love for others. 

For more, check out The Pope Benedict XVI Reader, offering a point of entry for those seeking a deeper engagement with Joseph Ratzinger’s teachings, whether you have read little of his work or have enjoyed it for years.