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Chapter 3: Charity, the Eucharist, and Church Membership

Question A: How Can One Fulfill One’s Responsibility to Love God?

God loves people unconditionally. Like the prodigal’s father, the heavenly Father loves people even when they sin. Indeed, God loves the damned; they would cease to exist if he did not love them:

You are merciful to all, for you can do all things,
and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent.
For you love all things that exist
and detest none of the things that you have made,
for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.
How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?
You spare all things, for they are yours,
 O Lord, you who love the living. (Wis 11.23–26)
But being loved by God is not enough to be in friendship with him, because friendship is mutual love. Consequently, one’s first and greatest responsibility is to love God.

No single thing a person can do fulfills this responsibility. Still, worthy participation in the Eucharist is essential, since the Eucharist is related in a special way to charity.1 Moreover, one not only shows love for God but safeguards it and grows in it by keeping his commandments. The present question deals with these matters in a general way, while the remaining questions of this chapter treat specific responsibilities with respect to the Eucharist, other acts of worship, and membership in the Church—the latter because the Church is the eucharistic community.

1. One Should Strive to Abide in and Deepen Communion with God

God’s love is a gift which makes its recipients his intimate friends. One’s proper responsibility with respect to charity is to strive to deepen this unique friendship and to abide in the communion of love. The act by which this most especially is done is the sacrifice of the Eucharist, which normally should include devout reception of Holy Communion.2

a) Charity is one’s share in the life and love of the Holy Trinity. God is a communion of three persons, perfectly one and perfectly distinct from one another, whose communion is divine love. Out of pure generosity, God creates human beings and offers them a share in his life. Through the Incarnation of the Word and Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5.5). What the Holy Spirit primarily gives those who accept God’s love is the status of God’s adopted children (see Jn 1.12, Rom 8.14–17). This status is a share in the divine nature (see 2 Pt 1.4); and, although at present Christians are only God’s little children, divine love disposes them to the fullness of divine life (see 1 Jn 3.1–2). Thus, charity is not itself a human act, although it is related to human acts.3 But this raises the question: Since people are responsible only for what they can do, if charity is not a human act, how can people have a responsibility to love God?

b) One can and should grow in charity and abide in it. In receiving God’s commandments, the Israelites were exhorted to be faithful to the Lord: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6.4–5). Jesus endorses this commandment’s primacy (see Mt 22.36–38, Mk 12.28–30, Lk 10.25–28) and further specifies the love for whose perfection it calls: Christians are to abide in the divine love with which God loves Jesus: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 15.9). With the grace of the Holy Spirit, a person can do something toward fulfilling these commands. Thus, one begins to fulfill the command to love God with one’s whole heart, mind, soul, and strength by doing out of charity those human acts—first of all, the act of faith—which integrate one’s entire self and all one’s interpersonal relationships with the love of God in one’s heart (see 1 Jn 2.3–6).4 And one abides in the love with which the Father, Son, and Spirit love one another by remaining in Jesus’ body, the Church, as a living member. For the Church is the community of the new covenant, in which divine-human communion is realized even now, although it will be perfected in heaven (see LG 7–9; CMP, 34.E).

c) One does this in a special way by sharing in the Eucharist. Vatican II explains the working of the Eucharist: “The renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and human beings draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and enkindles them” (SC 10). And John Paul II teaches: “Thanks to the Eucharist, the love that springs up within us from the Eucharist develops in us, becomes deeper and grows stronger.”5 These teachings can be explained along the following lines.

The new covenant primarily consists in the adoption or rebirth of human persons as members of God’s family, and this is accomplished by the Holy Spirit’s infusion of divine love into human hearts (see Jn 1.12 with 3.5; Rom 5.5 with 8.9–17; 1 Jn 3.1 with 4.12–16). Jesus is the mediator of this covenant; as the Word of God Incarnate he makes God present and accessible to humankind, and as man he leads his brothers and sisters into covenantal friendship with God by offering himself in a perfect and unending sacrifice (see Heb 9.15, 23–26; 10.11–22). When he offered this sacrifice to the Father at the Last Supper, Jesus made it clear that in sharing the bread and cup with his followers he shared his very body and blood with them, uniting them in human communion with himself and thereby in communion with God. Moreover, he commanded that his eucharistic words and deeds be repeated in his memory, so that he and his perfect sacrifice would be available to maintain and nurture the new covenant’s divine-human communion. The faithful do this when they gather together as a church, presided over by the priest who acts in Jesus’ person, and celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass. Therefore, by sharing in the Eucharist, one actualizes one’s communion of love with the divine persons and experiences that communion, which is a foretaste of heavenly communion.

An analogy helps clarify this effect of the Eucharist: As the bond of marriage is realized and experienced in marital intercourse, so covenantal communion with God is realized and experienced in the Eucharist. In this sacrament, Christians are fully formed into Jesus’ one ecclesial body and fully united with him. Since he is not only a man but the divine Word, Christians are thus intimately joined with the Father and the Spirit. In the Eucharist one is able to thank God, responding with, through, and in Jesus to the Father’s love. Thanking God, one loves him the more, and so, in a virtuous circle of love, grows in charity, which is the communion for which Jesus prayed (see Jn 17.21–22; CMP, 33.D).

Hence, the Eucharist is the font of charity: it not only signifies the communion of divine and human persons, but realizes, nourishes, and allows people in a certain way to experience and rejoice in that communion.6

d) To participate in the Eucharist is to engage in an act of worship. In the Eucharist, Jesus makes his covenant-forming act present and enables those who participate to share in offering his sacrifice and themselves with it.7 In doing this devoutly and worthily, as it should be done, a person offers the Father acceptable worship. And, as has just been explained, the Eucharist in a very special way makes one abide in God’s love and deepens it. But the Eucharist has these effects, not only because it is the act of the worshipping community, but because this worship is a way of cooperating with God.

The participants’ act unites them with Jesus’ human act of self-sacrifice, to which God responds with his grace, forming and nurturing covenantal communion. Thus, the Eucharist is a source of charity because the Holy Spirit acts in it, as the epiclesis after the consecration in the third eucharistic prayer makes clear: “Grant that we, who are nourished by his [Jesus’] body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ.”

e) One’s whole life should complete one’s offering of the Eucharist. Jesus teaches: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14.15) and “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (Jn 15.10; cf. 1 Jn 2.3–6, 3.21–24). This raises a question about the responsibility to love God: What is the relationship between keeping his commandments and the Eucharist? The answer is that both are essential and are parts of one whole.

On the one hand, one of the few new and specific commandments of Jesus is that his followers participate in the Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22.19; cf. Jn 6.52–59, 1 Cor 11.24–25). On the other hand, as has been explained, eucharistic worship is an act of charity in a unique sense: not as a mere human act but in virtue of the Holy Spirit’s action in the Eucharist. For those who share in it, participation in the Eucharist is the most central act, but not the only one, which carries out their commitment of faith.

By that commitment, analogous to the promises a man and a woman make when they marry, the baptized accept God’s offer of communion in the new covenant. The Eucharist consummates the covenant as marital intercourse consummates marriage. However, as one cannot ignore what one’s beloved wants, much less reject it, and continue to love, so one cannot love God unless one does his will (or, at least, what is honestly believed to be his will) throughout one’s life.8 Members of Jesus do this by living their lives motivated by hope and in accord with faith, always completing the Eucharist and preparing for it (see CMP, 33.D). But by trying to use one’s whole life to complete and prepare for the Eucharist, one gradually integrates one’s entire self and all one’s interpersonal relationships with one’s participation in the Eucharist, in this way gradually making one’s whole heart, mind, soul, and strength instruments of the divine love which the Spirit pours forth in one’s heart (see S.t., 2–2, q. 24, aa. 4–5).

Thus, the devout reception of the sacraments and the practice of virtue must go together: the fundamental command to love God with one’s whole heart, mind, soul, and strength is fulfilled only if one both participates worthily in the Eucharist and does one’s best, with God’s help, to keep all the commandments.

2. All One’s Good Religious Acts Help to Fulfill This Responsibility

The contemplative dimension of Christian life consists in all the upright, specifically religious acts one does. Its center is the Eucharist, but it includes the things pertaining to faith, hope, and repentance; the celebration of the other sacraments and the use of sacramentals; study of Scripture and meditation on it; and all one’s acts of prayer and devotion.9

Plainly, the contemplative dimension, understood this way, is not reserved for an elite. Just as all Christians should share in the Eucharist, all also should live a full spiritual life including these other elements, which are necessary to link the Eucharist with the rest of Christians’ lives—not only as individuals and families but as God’s people united with him in the communion of the Church—and knit the whole into a eucharistic fabric, formed by God’s love and in its service.

a) One should develop a personal form of spirituality. Christians’ personalities and the things which make up their lives differ and so must be integrated with the Eucharist in somewhat different ways. Thus, while some elements of the contemplative dimension of Christian life are common to everyone—participation in the Eucharist and other things which the Church requires of all—many are variable and personal. Because a personal spirituality is so essential to connect the Eucharist with the rest of one’s life, this responsibility will be treated later in the present chapter (C.2).

b) One should fulfill one’s responsibilities as a Church member. Among one’s religious responsibilities are those as a member of the Church. The Eucharist nourishes not an individualistic love of God (something quite impossible), but the new covenant communion, in which all who share in divine life abide with the divine persons. The Church, the communion of the new covenant in the world, is Jesus’ bride, who will be joined forever with him in heaven. Thus, charity is implemented and increased by what one must do so that the Church can live and flourish. Therefore, responsibilities as a member of the Church also will be treated (in D).

c) One should fulfill one’s responsibilities pertaining to faith. Responsibilities pertaining to faith also have a special importance in Christian life, for fulfilling them serves charity in a unique way. Faith is not simply one religious act among others to be done out of love; it is a person’s basic commitment as a Christian, the fundamental option of Christian life (see 1.A.4, above; CMP, 16.G.3–7). As such, it is the foundation on which love builds.

By his self-revelation in Jesus’ life and teaching, God offers human persons his friendship. Moved and helped by grace, an unbeliever can freely choose to accept this offer. Human goods, the overcoming of sin and death, initially motivate the choice to believe; but when someone who wishes to believe seeks and receives baptism from the Church, he or she receives not only faith but hope, along with the supreme gift the gospel promises: the gift of the Holy Spirit, who pours forth charity into rightly disposed hearts (see DS 1525–32/797–801).10

Thus, in respect to one’s free choices, charity presupposes faith. It is impossible either to grow in God’s love or even remain in it without keeping the faith and fostering it. The responsibilities pertaining to faith, and certain closely allied responsibilities pertaining to reverence for God, were treated in chapter one.

d) One should fulfill one’s responsibilities pertaining to hope. Like responsibilities pertaining to faith, those pertaining to hope have special importance because hope, like faith, is part of charity’s foundation. Christians’ do not love God as mature members of the divine family, for they are only God’s little children. The Church is not the mature kingdom; she is its incipient stage, its seed. Thus, in this life, charity not only is a share in divine love but a disposition to fulfillment in heavenly communion. Without an interest in that fulfillment, one cannot be in communion with God now. Hope is that interest.

Moreover, as has been explained, charity grows as one’s entire life is integrated with it by the living out of faith. Hope motivates people to do that by directing them to find, accept, and fulfill their shares in the Church’s apostolate: their personal vocations. By always speaking and acting as personal vocation requires, a Christian approaches the ideal of doing everything for God’s glory and in Jesus’ name (see 1 Cor 10.31–11.1, Col 3.17), and so loves God with more and more of his or her heart. The responsibilities pertaining to hope and personal vocation were treated in chapter two.

e) One should fulfill one’s responsibilities pertaining to penance. Some sins are grave matters, incompatible either with faith itself or with its specific requirements (see CMP, 16.G). To commit a mortal sin is to be unfaithful to God, to whom faith is a commitment of covenantal communion. But unfaithfulness to one’s partner in a covenant plainly is incompatible with the unselfish love needed for friendship; and even though God, like the faithful spouse of an unfaithful married person, continues to love sinners, he can no longer cause them by his grace to share in his life, since their own wills are at odds with this communion. Thus, mortal sin is incompatible with charity (see S.t., 1–2, q. 88, a. 2; 2–2, q. 24, aa. 11–12); one must avoid mortal sin to abide in God’s love.

As for growing in God’s love, that requires striving to overcome all sin and imperfection (see S.t., 2–2, q. 184, a. 2). Only thus, gradually, are heart, mind, soul, and strength more and more put to work in the service of love. For this reason, responsibilities for avoiding sin and overcoming its effects also have a special relationship to charity. Chapter four will treat these responsibilities with respect to repentance and reconciliation.

3. Love of God Requires Only What Is within One’s Power

Not by their own ability but by God’s grace, human persons can truly love God. Sometimes, however, people propose false ideals and say that only someone who realizes them truly loves God. Since these ideals simply cannot be met, the result is to confuse and discourage conscientious Christians. These false ideals should therefore be set aside.

a) One cannot always feel warmly toward God. Affectionate feelings toward human friends are appropriate, and so are feelings of love and joy toward God. But feelings are not directly within one’s power. Sometimes one cannot help experiencing feelings of anger and even hatred toward friends and loved ones. In such cases, the genuineness of love is in what one wills, chooses, and does despite the feelings. The same is true of a relationship with God. One should try to integrate one’s feelings with living faith; the practice of meditation helps in doing that. But even so, one does not always feel appropriately toward God. Not even true love for him eliminates all negative feelings.

b) One cannot love God insofar as he is absolutely other. Human friends love one another insofar as they are united and seek fulfillment together. A friend is truly loved if one desires and rejoices in his or her fulfillment, not simply as a means to one’s own, but for the friend’s sake. Still, in desiring a friend’s good, one must desire one’s own, since the friend desires and rejoices in one’s fulfillment. Moreover, in loving a friend, one cannot help but desire and rejoice in the friendship’s benefits to oneself. Thus, in loving a friend, one also loves oneself. The same is true of love of God.

Created persons do not really love God if they care about him only insofar as he serves their ends. Yet neither can they love him simply as a being perfect in himself, apart from the real relationship he establishes with them by revealing himself and inviting them to enter into covenantal communion.11 A human person can only love the divine persons insofar as, united with them by faith, he or she hopes to live with them eternally, and so accepts their gift of a share in their own love. In accepting that gift, a human person perfectly loves himself or herself, since divine love is all-inclusive (see CMP, 24.E).

That is why the commandments of love include no injunction to love oneself (see Dt 6.5, Lv 19.18, Mt 22.37–39, Mk 12.30–31, Lk 10.27). The self-love presupposed by love of neighbor is immediately involved in love of God, not only entailed by it, as love of neighbor also is.

4. Hatred of God

Insofar as people hate something they call “God” but which is not truly God, they do not commit the sin of hating God, and may well be rightly hating something truly evil. Moreover, insofar as the truth about God is known, by faith or reason, he cannot be hated in himself, for he is all good and pure love. In gravely sinning, nevertheless, one violates God’s wise plan and opposes his good will; and because God’s plan and will are not other than himself, committing a mortal sin can lead to the ultimate sin of hating God.

a) Hatred of God underlies the sins against the Holy Spirit. Someone conscious of being guilty of grave sin must make a choice: remain in sin or repent in the hope of being reconciled with God. If the choice is to remain in sin, one’s very opposition to God may come to be regarded as a good, and God himself as an evil. Sinners might wish, for instance, that God did not exist as the source of moral truth or that his attributes could be changed to accommodate their sinful wills.

Just to the extent such wishes are endorsed by the free choices by which one persists in mortal sin, one hates God (see S.t., 2–2, q. 34, a. 1). Such hatred need not involve hostile feelings; a sinner can endorse the wish that God not be God while emotionally regretting doing so, just as a professional killer can will to kill someone without feeling any animus toward the victim. Thus, hatred of God is a dimension of all the sins against the Holy Spirit: obduracy, presumption, despair, rejection of the known truth, envy of the grace others enjoy, and final impenitence which ends in hell (see CMP, 18.E).12

b) Hatred of God is the worst sin. Insofar as it is opposed to charity, hatred of God is in itself the worst sin (see S.t., 2–2, q. 34, a. 2). But not all instances are equally evil.

The hatred of God by which Christians become apostates—and by which people who hear the gospel reject it in order to flee from the light—is greater than the hatred by which they previously committed less radical sins against the Spirit. Still, the guilt of such persons can be mitigated by lack of sufficient reflection (see CMP, 17.A).

Suppose someone, having sinned through weakness, even gravely, experiences thoughts and feelings of hatred toward God but, instead of consenting to them, repents of his or her sins: this person does not commit a mortal sin of hating God. And, not having committed some other mortal sin, one should not fear that one hates God merely because one sometimes has hostile feelings towards him, as already explained (3.a).

1. Someone might object: If worthy participation is essential, then people of good will who do not participate in the Eucharist without fault of their own are excluded from divine friendship. The answer: By their good will (which itself is a fruit of the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts) they intend to live in accord with the truth, and so at least implicitly wish and desire to do everything that God wills, which in reality includes their participation in the Eucharist. Hence, by their good will they do somehow participate in the Eucharist, are united by it with Jesus, and through him with the Father in the Holy Spirit, so that they do live in God’s love. Although concerned with a different question, Catechismus ex decreto Ss. Concilii Tridentini ad parochos (The Catechism by Decree of the Holy Council of Trent), Latin text with trans. by J. Donovan, 2 vols. (Rome: 1839), 2.4.50 (1:463, 465), explains how the Eucharist can be the source of every grace: “But we say that this Sacrament imparts grace, because even the first grace, which all should have before they [dare to receive] the holy Eucharist, lest they eat and drink judgment to themselves (1 Cor 11.29), is given to none, unless they receive in wish and desire this very Sacrament, for the Eucharist is the end of all the Sacraments, the symbol of ecclesiastical unity and brotherhood; and outside the Church grace is unattainable.”

2. A sound and very helpful treatment of the Eucharist, including history of the dogma and bibliography: James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).

3. See CMP, 25.A; cf. CMP, 24.2, where charity is identified with sanctifying grace and the theory is proposed that it is an uncreated participation in the divine nature. Significantly, even St. Thomas, who holds that charity is a created disposition in the will, denies that it is in the will considered as a power of free choice, since choice as such is concerned with means: S.t., 2–2, q. 24, a. 1, ad 3; cf. New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “charity.”

4. St. Thomas, De perfectione vitae spiritualis, 5, explains that to love God with one’s whole heart is to order one’s whole life to the service of God (in the language of 2.E, to organize it completely as vocation), with one’s whole mind is to subject one’s intellect entirely to faith in divine revelation, with one’s whole soul is to relate all one’s affection to God and love everything else in him, and with one’s whole strength is to perform all outward words and deeds out of love.

5. John Paul II, Dominicae cenae, 5, AAS 72 (1980) 122, OR, 24 Mar. 1980, 6.

6. Because human friends are imperfect, human love primarily leads to desire for fulfillment. Because God is perfect in himself and his blessings are largely realized in Jesus, charity primarily leads to joy: see Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino, 7, AAS 67 (1975) 319–21, OR, 29 May 1975, 7.

7. “Taking part in the eucharistic sacrifice, which is the source and summit of the whole Christian life, they offer the divine victim to God, and, with that victim, themselves” (LG 11; cf. PO 2).

8. Thus, living faith works through love (see Gal 5.6); without a Christian life, faith is dead (see Jas 2.17–26).

9. On this meaning of contemplative dimension, see Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, The Contemplative Dimension of Religious Life, EV 7 (1980–81) 470–73, Flannery, 2:245.

10. Someone might ask: If what has been said above is true, how can the newly baptized share in God’s love before participating in and receiving the Eucharist? The sacraments are organically related to one another: the Eucharist is incipient in baptism and penance, which bring or restore one to the communion of love which the Eucharist perfects and celebrates (see S.t., 3, q. 73, a. 3; q. 75, a. 1; q. 79, a. 1, ad 1).

11. See S.t., 2–2, q. 23, a. 1; P. De Letter, S.J., “Hope and Charity in St. Thomas,” Thomist 13 (1950): 204–48, 325–52; cf. DS 2351/1327.

12. As love of God leads to joy in his actual goodness and realized good will, so hatred leads to acedia: sadness in respect to these goods, now regarded as evils (see S.t., 2–2, q. 35). Acedia makes faith and grace loathsome and thus provides the motivation to reject known truth and attack the grace other people enjoy. Thus, a more basic hatred of God and acedia together account for the fully developed hatred of the nonbelieving world toward Jesus and his disciples (see Jn 15.18–25).