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Chapter 25: Christian Love as the Principle of Christian Life

Question A: Is Christian love a human act?

1. Since specifically Christian love is a Christian’s own share in divine life, it must somehow transform his or her human life. But is Christian love itself a human act?1 It would seem so, since there is a commandment to love God and neighbor (see Mt 22.34–40; Mk 12.28–31; Lk 10.25–27). Moreover, charity is a virtue, and virtues are dispositions to good actions; hence, it seems that there must be acts of Christian love, corresponding to the virtue of charity.

2. According to St. Paul, however, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5.5). What the Holy Spirit primarily gives us is the status of God’s adopted children, by which we share in the divine nature (see Jn 1.14–16; Rom 8.14–17; 2 Pt 1.4). Participation in the divine nature is not a human act. Therefore, Christian love itself is not a human act, although it is related to human acts.

3. Moreover, even infants, who are altogether incapable of human acts, receive the gift of charity and are transformed by it (see DS 1513–14/790–91, 1524/796). With the help of God’s grace, adults must prepare themselves for the gift of charity by prior human acts, but these acts are not themselves charity (see DS 1525–26/797–98; S.t., 1–2, q. 112, aa. 1–2; q. 113, a. 3, ad 1; 2–2, q. 24, a. 2).

4. Charity is a disposition toward fulfillment in divine life (see 1 Jn 3.1–2). As such, it is not something one is asked to do but something one is asked to remain in (see Jn 15.9; 1 Jn 4.7–16). Love of God is not a human action, and is presupposed rather than directly commanded.

5. The commandment to love God and neighbor affirmed in the Gospels is a command to integrate one’s entire self and all one’s interpersonal relationships with charity: “to love with one’s whole . . ..” This requires human acts done out of charity. The perfection of Christian life according to charity can therefore be required, even though charity itself cannot be (cf. S.t., 2–2. q. 44, aa. 4–6). Furthermore, the commandments indicate which acts must be done, and so, as far as human acts are concerned, love of God in deed and in truth (see 1 Jn 3.18) is reducible to keeping his commandments (see Jn 14.21; 15.10; 1 Jn 2.3–5; 3.21–24). Love of neighbor fulfills the commandments by avoiding harm to and serving one’s neighbor (see Mt 7.21; 25.31–46; Jn 13.34; Rom 12.9–21; 1 Jn 3.11–17).

6. As to the virtue of charity, it is a disposition to good actions, as question B will explain. But the fulfillment to which it is most properly and specifically directed is not a human act but the divine act of seeing God as he is (see 1 Jn 3.2). Only the Spirit of God knows this depth of God and disposes human beings to it by a love transcending human nature (see 1 Cor 2.6–16; S.t., 2–2, q. 24, a. 2).

7. The primary human act to which charity disposes Christians is their very act of faith. By faith they accept the gift of love which is their share in divine life (see 24‑D). Faith, the fundamental option of the Christian, requires each member of the Church to find and accept his or her personal vocation. Hence, every act of Christian life is an act of charity insofar as it carries out one’s personal vocation.

8. As will be explained in question E, Christian morality adds some specific norms to general human moral requirements. Acts of Christian life formed by these specific norms are called “acts of charity” in an especially appropriate sense. For example, deeds required by Christian mercy, insofar as it goes beyond fairness, are called “works of charity.”

9. Acts of religious devotion, such as a prayer expressing love toward God, also are called “acts of charity”; in this sense, the offering of oneself with Jesus in the Eucharist is the most perfect act of charity. But all such acts of religious devotion are good human acts only inasmuch as they serve the human good of religion. If this good is not truly served as faith requires, then the human act is not an act of charity, for it has no real relationship with the gift of divine love.

Charity is a disposition toward fulfillment in superhuman, divine goodness. The most basic choice in Christian life, the choice to accept Jesus with living faith, is made out of this love. It follows that the love of God which inheres in the Christian is analogous to simple volition. It is a principle of action toward heavenly fulfillment similar to one’s natural and necessary disposition toward human fulfillment.

However, the love of God poured forth in our hearts must not be regarded as merely another simple volition of an additional human good, inserted in us alongside the love of human life, knowledge of truth, and so on. Divine goodness and human fulfillment are not direct alternatives. The love of God includes and transforms all the natural forms of simple volition. Hence, out of love of God, Christians act both for the human fulfillment to which they are naturally disposed by simple volition and also for fulfillment in divine goodness.

The morally significant acts of Christian life are always inspired both by love of God and by love of some human good. According to the latter principle, they always are acts suited to human nature, although many of them, beginning with the act of living faith, can be done only by grace. A correct understanding of this matter obviates the illusion that in loving God above all things one must set aside or downgrade anything which pertains to true human goodness.

If one supposes that charity itself is a human act, one is likely to try to find some action with which charity can be identified. If no such action can be found, one is likely to become discouraged about one’s spiritual life. If one identifies some particular experience or performance with charitable love of God, one is likely to cultivate this experience or performance to the detriment of other dimensions of human life which might be equally or more essential to a life of charity.

For instance, if it is supposed that, so far as human acts are concerned, charity is reducible to keeping God’s commandments by serving one’s neighbor, then the mystical dimension of Christian life is removed and Christianity is reduced to ethical behavior. This reduction is a mistake, because the good of religion also is a human good. Charity requires appropriate acts pertaining to this good, such as prayer and sacrifice, just as it requires appropriate acts pertaining to other goods.

1. Catholic authors generally do not ask this question directly. However, the position rejected here is stated clearly by some Protestants. See, for example, Karl Barth, Ethics, ed. Dietrich Braun, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 451–60. Barth flatly states (454): “Love is the epitome of the obedience of the sinner saved by grace. Deification is not the issue, but this is.” Again (456): “For loving is an action, the action which takes place in the commitment that we have described by the terms law, authority, and humility and which is the underlying meaning of these concepts.” What Barth is talking about here, I call “faith.”