Creating human persons in his own image and calling them by grace to heavenly communion, God wills that they constitute a single family in this world and begin now to treat one another as brothers and sisters. Love unites persons in communion, while perfecting each created member of the communion in his or her own distinct personhood. Because God calls human persons to divine-human familial communion, the first and greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor (see GS 24). Therefore, one’s most basic Christian responsibility toward others is to love them. But what this requires is not always obvious and therefore must be clarified.
The present question does this by treating seven points. First, Jesus reaffirms the love commands of the Old Testament; second, he teaches his disciples to love enemies as God does; third, this love overcomes certain limits otherwise characteristic of human love; fourth, the specific character of Christian love arises from its origin in the communion of the divine persons themselves; fifth, nevertheless, Christian love does not exclude non-Christians; sixth, Christian love does exclude hatred and evil doing toward others; and, seventh, it also excludes all other sins against others; however, because of the possibility of parvity (littleness, slightness) of matter, one can love others even as one sins against them in small ways.
Though differing in detail, the three synoptic Gospels agree that Jesus links two Old Testament commands: to love God with one’s whole being and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (see Dt 6.5, Lv 19.18, Mt 22.37–39, Mk 12.30–31, Lk 10.27). In thus linking love of neighbor with love of God, Jesus makes it clear that one has no more basic responsibility toward others than to love them.1
a) Love underlies every responsibility toward others. The commandments to love God and neighbor are stipulations of the covenant. To love God is to fulfill every covenantal responsibility toward him. But since God’s people are his covenant partner, he has a special concern for their solidarity and flourishing. Therefore, the covenant also stipulates how members of the community are to strengthen it by their manner of treating one another. The many specific commandments with respect to neighbor identify things to be done or, more often, not done. The commandment to love one’s neighbors concerns the inner principle, the community spirit, which should animate and motivate all that is specified and more. So, St. Paul points out: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13.10; cf. Gal 5.14, Jas 2.8–13).2
b) The required love is not emotional but volitional. People who consistently act with good will gradually bring their feelings more and more into harmony with their will. Still, emotional love, the feeling or sentiment of affection, is not directly in one’s power. It is impossible even for a saint to like everyone, and therefore the love one is required to bear toward others cannot be any such feeling as this. Rather, this love is volitional, and it has two aspects: positively, it is readiness and willingness to try to benefit others; negatively, it is unreadiness and unwillingness to harm them. Thus, Jesus closely links the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22.39), with the Golden Rule, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt 7.12). According to Matthew, Jesus grounds the latter by saying, “for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7.12), and similarly says of the twofold love command: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22.40).
The Golden Rule formulated negatively—for example, “And what you hate, do not do to anyone” (Tb 4.15)—does not require doing good to others but only not hurting them. However, Jesus’ affirmative formulation, tied to the command to love one’s neighbor, calls for doing good; it plainly is violated by those who distance themselves from neighbors in need (see Lk 6.27–31, 10.29–37).3
c) Perfect love of God does not limit true love of neighbor. How can one love God with one’s whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and simultaneously love one’s neighbor? Would not totally loving God leave no room for others? Plainly not: God commands nothing inconsistent, and both love commands are his.
Unreserved love of God not only is compatible with love of neighbor but gives rise to it. Loving other persons is not appropriating them or being appropriated by them; rather, it is being in communion with them and regarding their good, including their love of others, as part of one’s own good. True love for any person is a transitive relationship: in loving others, one has a reason to love those whom they love. This holds true for love of God: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child” (1 Jn 5.1). Moreover, someone who loves God wishes his will to be fulfilled; and God wills a perfect communion of all persons in divine-human love. Thus, a person who loves God must love others in a way which contributes to this communion. Consequently, if one loved God with one’s whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, one would love oneself and others with the bounteous, faithful, and merciful love with which God loves each created person.4
The sacrament of the Eucharist concretely realizes love of God and neighbor in their unity with each other. In this sacrament, people are fully united with Jesus, and through him with his Father and their Holy Spirit; but eucharistic worship also forms human persons into a family of brothers and sisters in Jesus. While retaining and even perfecting one’s distinct personality, one becomes in Jesus one flesh with others. In this way, people enjoy a foretaste of heaven, where they hope to live forever in intimate communion not only with the divine persons but also with other human persons.
d) Love of neighbor should be benevolent, upright, and holy. Jesus teaches that one should love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself. Such love will be benevolent, not selfish. For one loves oneself for one’s own sake, and so, loving neighbors as one loves oneself, a person will love them for their own sakes, not merely for his or her gratification or advantage. Moreover, people whose self-love is not mere egocentric feeling and partiality but benevolence efficaciously will what is good for themselves and avoid all sin; loving one’s neighbors as oneself therefore means loving them uprightly and choosing to act for their true good, not merely wishing them well. Finally, in rightly loving oneself, one wills God’s goodness for oneself but even more for him; thus, to love one’s neighbors as oneself means loving them in God, and such love is holy (see S.t., 2–2, q. 44, a. 7).
e) Love of neighbor is love of every human person. The gospel announces the coming of God’s reign and a new covenant offered to all men and women (see Mt 28.19, Acts 10.34–43). Jesus teaches that everyone should be counted as a neighbor. Instead of making this point by proposing an argument in general terms, however, he uses a parable. Faced with a suggestion that the responsibility to love might be limited by restricting neighbor to some particular class of people, Jesus teaches that even a despised Samaritan makes himself a Jew’s neighbor by acting toward him with love (see Lk 10.29–37). Thus, Jesus rules out using some predefined notion of neighbor as an excuse for limiting the circle of those whom one is prepared to love; he teaches instead that love of God calls one to act as a good neighbor toward any person found to be in need.
f) Christian love preserves morally good priorities in loving. Since the new covenant extends love to all, it might be supposed that, ideally, a Christian would acknowledge and follow no definite order of preference in affection for others and readiness to act in their interests. Imagining this actually to be the case, some argue that love of every human person is not a sound ideal, since one ought to love some people more than others, for example, one’s own family more than total strangers.
Their argument mistakenly assumes that love which extends to all cannot at times prefer some to others. The universality of Christian love, however, is entirely compatible with observing certain priorities in loving. Indeed, of itself, Christian love necessarily involves two priorities: of God to self, since God’s goodness is the principle of one’s communion with him, and of self to others, since one’s communion with God is the principle of one’s communion with others in divine-human family life.5 But because communion with God redeems, gathers up, and perfects all other upright relationships, Christian love also includes other priorities, which are essential to those relationships. Moreover, the divine-human communion of heaven will include all the good fruits of human nature and effort (see GS 38–39), among them all humanly good interpersonal relationships. Therefore, Christian life in this world, which prepares material for the heavenly kingdom, preserves and follows the order of preference in affection and beneficence toward others required by the various ways in which one already shares and can yet share in human goods together with others (see S.t., 2–2, q. 26, aa. 6–7; q. 44, a. 8, ad 2).
To take an obvious and important example: just as marriage is a sacrament for Christian spouses through which their love for each other is caught up into divine love (see GS 48), so also in the order of charity the legitimate natural order of preference for one another—of husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers—remains intact. This order of love, however, must not be used as an excuse for evading responsibilities toward other, even distant, neighbors in need; a Christian should serve, not only those near and dear, but others too in accord with the specific requirements of his or her personal vocation.6
Some people today seem to think nobody has real enemies; rather, they suppose, all conflicts among people are due to psychological problems, breakdowns in communication, or other factors beyond anyone’s control. This fading of a realistic understanding of human conflict is an aspect of the widespread denial of free choice and the loss of a sense of sin. Moreover, many people more or less consciously accept a subjectivist or relativist view which, while leaving room for quarrels, undermines the objective truth and justice by which upright people discern their real enemies.
Jesus neither suggests that one has no real enemies nor pretends that all conflicts among people are due to factors beyond anyone’s control. He knows that sins generate real discord (see Jn 15.18–25). Some people seem to be enemies in the full sense: not men and women of good will. They hate others and wrong them, neither apologizing nor making amends for doing so. Someone who is hated and wronged can know that he or she has an enemy, even though it is impossible to read the ultimate truth of that enemy’s heart. Nevertheless, Jesus teaches that one should love one’s enemies and persecutors, following the example of the heavenly Father (see Mt 5.9, 43–48; Lk 6.27–36). According to this standard, it is necessary not only to avoid hating one’s enemies but to treat them well. For that is how God treated alienated humankind: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8).7
a) Forgiving enemies is not the same as excusing doers of harm. While forgive and excuse often are used loosely, so that they become synonyms, the two can be distinguished in order to clarify an important point. Strictly speaking, it can be appropriate to excuse an act which in no way is sinful, but only a sin can be forgiven.
People often do harm without ill will, either incidentally to doing something good and right, or unintentionally, or through some understandable human weakness, such as an emotional outburst. Usually they make their good will and regret clear, for example, with an apology. The appropriate response is to acknowledge their effort to maintain good relations and accept any apology they offer, thus affirming the relationship.
While one should excuse doers of harm whose actions are excusable, that is not the same as forgiving enemies. Forgiveness does not imply that what was done was morally acceptable, unintentional, or a result of understandable weakness. Rather, it presupposes that the act was objectively unjust, if not malicious. Thus, only what is not excusable needs to be forgiven. To forgive enemies is to seek to establish or restore good relations with people whose harmful actions seem to manifest malicious will.
b) The old covenant set limits to the communion of love. The Old Testament’s requirement to love neighbors, although it extended to everyone living within the covenant community, even foreigners (see Lv 19.33, Dt 10.19), was restricted to that community: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lv 19.18). This requirement of love transcends the “reciprocity ethic” (love those who love you), which Jesus criticizes by pointing out that even pagans and sinners do as much (see Mt 5.46–47, Lk 6.32–34). True, the Old Testament requires that good be done to personal enemies (see Ex 23.4–5, Prv 25.21–22); but the old covenant’s love command did not extend to Israel’s enemies. God’s chosen people thought that if they were faithful to him, their enemies also would be his (see Ex 23.20–22, Dt 20.1–4, Jos 10.22–25, 2 Chr 20.29, Ps 44.1–8), and that good Israelites could even be obliged to obliterate enemy communities (see Dt 7.1–6, 20.16–18; Jos 6.16–21, 10.28–40, 11.10–23; 1 Sm 15.1–3).
c) Jesus’ gospel of God’s mercy transcends these limits. The new covenant does away with the barrier between God’s people and the gentiles, reconciling the two groups to God through the cross, and joining them in a single fellowship (see Eph 2.14–20). In inaugurating this new covenant, Jesus teaches his disciples to love their enemies “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5.45; cf. Mt 5.9, Lk 6.35, Rom 12.17–21). By this teaching, Jesus makes it clear why Christians must love enemies as if they were friends: one must love enemies in order to be a child of God, who wills all sinners (including both one’s enemies and oneself), to live as his family in heavenly communion (see S.t., 2–2, q. 23, a. 1, ad 2). Conversely, someone who loves God can love his or her enemies, since to love God precisely is to be in communion with him, and those in communion with God, being his children, can imitate him.
d) Jesus teaches that one must seek reconciliation with enemies. In teaching that one must love one’s enemies, Jesus makes it clear that this can mean more than blessing and praying for them, things which can be done without much personal cost. Loving enemies, Jesus teaches, means doing good to them, even despite the evil they have done and are likely to continue to do, for example, it sometimes means making loans to people who never reciprocate (see Lk 6.34–35). Justice without love often does little more than restrain hatred from doing more evil to enemies than one has suffered at their hands; at best, it excludes retaliation. Love, however, requires actively doing good to enemies.8 It shows its salvific power by thus transcending the limits hatred sets and fulfilling the norm: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12.21). In practice, this requires one to seek reconciliation and make peace: seek through kindness and generosity to bring persecutors to conversion and to resolve disputes peacefully.
e) Love of enemies should not be conditioned on their repentance. It might seem that enemies cannot be loved while they remain enemies, so that a person need only be prepared to love them should they ever seek reconciliation; for, it is argued, not even God can forgive sinners unless and until they repent. Against this argument: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8).
A person can forgive enemies, and, in doing so, try to serve as a channel of God’s grace, evoking their repentance—assuming they really are guilty—by gently offering them forgiveness, just as God in Christ does with every sinner: “Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3.13). Therefore, people do not live by Jesus’ teaching concerning love of enemies by waiting for them to ask forgiveness or show other signs of repentance, meanwhile refusing to love them. Rather, Jesus’ teaching is lived only by following his example, as St. Stephen did in praying for those who were stoning him (see Acts 7.60).9
Even when enemies reject one’s offer of forgiveness, it is possible to live in peace with everyone, insofar as it depends on oneself, and not try to avenge any wrong (see Rom 12.17–19, 1 Pt 3.8–14). It is true that love of enemies does not eliminate the requirements of justice, and that forgiveness cannot accomplish reconciliation unless it is met with willingness to make amends.10 Still, people always can forgive enemies by praying that they will be moved to repentance, which will open the way to reconciliation (see Mt 5.44, Rom 12.14).
f) Love of enemies does not condone any vice or sin. It might seem to follow that love must accept everyone, even enemies, just as they are, and affirm them even in the error or sin which is present in them.11 But the law of love does not require indiscriminate affirmation of everything about other persons (see S.t., 2–2, q. 34, a. 3). One’s love must be like Jesus’. He loves sinners and brings them into communion with himself in order to overcome their error and sin. When the scribes and pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus, he not only saves her from being stoned to death but warns her not to sin again (see Jn 8.3–11). In a true sense, Jesus is not judgmental: he sets aside the legalistic mentality, readily forgives sinners, does not condemn the world, and points out that those who refuse to acknowledge their sinfulness are self-condemned by the truth they violate (see Jn 3.16–21). But he realistically recognizes sinners as sinners and never accepts error as truth.
Similarly, if Christians’ love of neighbor is genuine, it not only permits but requires them both to “hold fast to what is good” and to “hate what is evil” (Rom 12.9). Whatever is at odds with the perfect communion of heaven must be hated. Sinners, including oneself, can and should be loved insofar as Jesus has redeemed them and called them to everlasting life in himself; but something of their being, including one’s own, should be hated: that by which they remain unrepentant sinners (see S.t., 2–2, q. 25, a. 6).
Of course, it is impossible to read others’ hearts. “God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts; for that reason he forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone” (GS 28). The impulse to condemn any particular person except oneself as a sinner should be blocked by refusal to judge others. But that same refusal should block any sentimental tendency to acquit people of their apparent sins. Indeed, love forbids doing so, since acquitting those who really are sinners will encourage them to persist in their sins until they die in them.
In the fallen human condition, the love of human beings for one another not only can be negated by hatred but often is limited by hopelessness, indifference, selfish individualism, and death. Love of neighbor rooted in friendship with God goes beyond these limits; and the ways it does so shed further light on its unique character. (Bear in mind, too, that people who seem to be nonbelievers, if they are people in good faith and of good will, are in a fundamental sense Christians without knowing it, and can live in grace and act toward others with Christian love.)
a) Christian love transcends the limit set by hopelessness. The experience of fallen humankind points to the human impossibility of healing the wounds of evil. Without faith and hope, human beneficence therefore is limited either by resignation to evil or by denying its character as privation and responding to it on its own terms: doing evil to overcome evil (see CMP, 5.C). But hope anticipates the power and effectiveness of grace, and so love motivates energetic efforts to overcome evil, not only by knowledge, technology, and power, but also and chiefly by summoning sinners to repentance, offering morally good alternatives, and nurturing the tender beginnings of virtue.
Underlying love’s transcendence of hatred is its transcendence of hopelessness: even if enemies are truly wicked, they need not remain enemies forever, for by God’s grace they can repent and become friends. This conviction also underlies efforts to offer morally acceptable alternatives to those tempted to sin through weakness, for example, alternatives to abortion for those overwhelmed by the prospect of motherhood, alternatives to suicide for the depressed, alternatives to the escapism of alcohol and drugs for those without prospects for a decent life, and so on.
b) Christian love transcends the limits set by indifference. People naturally are attached to a small group of persons near and dear to them: family, friends, and, though perhaps more weakly, a wider circle, such as coworkers or compatriots. Without love, however, one simply would not care about most people; their personal suffering and sin would be of no concern. Individuals might do good to someone who happened to fall within the range of philanthropic projects launched to win honor for themselves or programs to mitigate social problems threatening their own security; but they seldom would have compassion for particular, actual persons or experience others’ suffering as their own.
Faith and hope, however, make Christians aware that God calls every human being to the same heavenly communion to which he calls them; while love moves them to pray that all people will come to the knowledge of truth and be saved: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6.10; cf. 1 Tm 2.4). In this way love should overcome indifference to those nameless persons who do not belong to one’s family, nation, business or professional group, or other community; it should make one aware that
the obligation is pressing to make ourselves the neighbor of absolutely every person, and of actively helping others when they come across our path, whether they be old people abandoned by all, foreign laborers unjustly looked down upon, refugees, children born of unlawful unions and wrongly suffering for sins they did not commit, or the hungry who disturb our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt 25.40). (GS 27)
The quotation from Matthew’s Gospel points to the reality underlying compassion toward those to whom one otherwise would be indifferent: since the new covenant incorporates into Jesus’ body all those he redeems, one does to him, and so also to oneself, what one does to them.
c) Christian love is not limited by an individualistic ethic. The same human sympathy and compassion which bind decent people to their family and friends also naturally lead them to help others with whom they come into direct contact when the need is obvious and moving. While there is, of course, nothing wrong with that, an individualistic ethic limits charity to such kindness, and also holds that charitable deeds are supererogatory (above and beyond every call of duty).
But Christian love requires concern for those whose needs are not so obvious and moving, for example, not only the man one is trying to help with his marriage problem but also his wife and children, not only the woman with a problem pregnancy but also her unborn child. Love also requires the fulfillment of social responsibilities, even when not fulfilling them harms nobody one knows (see AA 8, GS 30); for instance, one should conserve natural resources, vote conscientiously, avoid infecting others with diseases from which one suffers, and so forth; and Christian citizens of wealthier nations should do what they can to promote policies and programs to assist poorer nations.12
d) Christian love transcends the limit set by death. Christian love is the communion of the new covenant. This communion, at once divine and human, begins on earth but will last forever in heaven. This love therefore transcends death. As the texts of the funeral Mass and the Masses in honor of saints make clear, the dead and living members of the new covenant continue to live with one another in Jesus. Not only should the dead be mourned and their memory honored—as every human community does—but one should pray for the souls in purgatory and ask the saints in heaven for their help. These works of love should include all the dead, even enemies, and not just loved ones and benefactors.
Jesus not only renews the Old Testament’s commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself but adds to it the new commandment of Christian love.
a) The love command of the new covenant truly is new. While the love command of the new covenant is not new in calling for love of others, it is new inasmuch as it is a commandment to love as Jesus himself does: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15.12; cf. 13.34). So, it is specifically Christian. In Jesus’ love, the Father’s primordial and originating love is revealed: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14.9; cf. 1 Jn 4.7–21). Christian love, then, involves a sharing in divine love, the communion between the Son and the Father in the Spirit: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 15.9), and: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 Jn 3.1).13
Even as man, Jesus loves others more perfectly than they love themselves. For his human love is fully in accord with God’s creative and redemptive love, while fallen human beings’ love, even of themselves, never is perfect but always more or less defective, inasmuch as they settle in some respects for limited and merely apparent self-fulfillment rather than integral and true fulfillment.
b) Communion in Jesus is the source of Christian love. Though unable by themselves to love as Jesus does, Christians are joined with other disciples in a communion of love, whose principle is Jesus’ divine love for those who believe in him (see Jn 15.9). They share in divine love because Jesus wins for them the “power to become children of God” (Jn 1.12); and, reborn as God’s children, they can manifest divine love in their relations with one another: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 Jn 4.7–8). Thus, loving one another as Jesus loves perfects his disciples’ share in divine love: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn 4.12).
c) Christians’ love for others also must be like Jesus’ human love. By his own example, Jesus shows the practical significance of his new commandment of love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15.12–13). Therefore, Christians must imitate Jesus’ love in giving himself “to the end” (Jn 13.1). Thankful for what he has done, his followers must treat others in the same way: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3.16).
St. Paul also teaches that Christians fulfill the new “law of Christ” by bearing one another’s burdens (Gal 6.2). The baptized become one in Christ, and all invidious distinctions among them are eliminated (see Rom 12.3–8, 1 Cor 12.12–27, Gal 3.25–28). It is not sufficient to believe in Jesus; his disciples also must be ready to suffer, following his example (see Phil 1.29–30). Instead of being self-indulgent and concerned about status, Christians are to serve one another (see Mt 20.25–28, Mk 10.42–45, Lk 22.25–27, Jn 13.12–16); only such love fulfills the law and builds up the communion in Jesus which will last forever (see Rom 12.9–13, 1 Cor 13, Gal 5.13–14, Phil 2.2–8).
It sometimes is suggested that, by comparison with the universality of the love of neighbor taught by the synoptic Gospels, the new commandment of love in St. John and St. Paul restricts love of neighbor by excluding outsiders and limiting love to members of the Christian community—the “brothers” who “love one another.” Two things can be said about this view.
a) Both love commands can be fulfilled at the same time. St. Paul clearly implies that universal love of neighbor and special love of fellow Christians are distinct but compatible responsibilities. For he prays: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thes 3.12; cf. 5.15), and he exhorts: “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Gal 6.10). The clear implication is that there need be no conflict for Jesus’ disciples between loving one another as Jesus loves them and loving all human beings as they love themselves.
The compatibility of the two love commands is easily explained. Abiding together in the mutual love of new covenant communion is possible and normal for those already united with Jesus, who share in his communion with the Father. Thus, it makes sense that members of the Church, who share together in the Eucharist, be addressed as a group and told to love one another. But since communion requires mutuality, it is not possible to abide in divine love with those who cannot reciprocate that love because they do not share in it, either not yet having entered into the communion of the new covenant or being alienated from it. Still, Christians can love those with whom they are not in communion as they humanly love themselves, praying that such people also will come to know Jesus or be reconciled with him. In other words, the new law of love is that of divine-human communion insofar as it is already realized, while the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself implies the requirement to reach out to others with human love in order to extend and complete that communion.
b) The new covenant’s love also reaches out to all people. Far from being limited, love which is in accord with the command to love others in Jesus and as he loves reaches out to people to whom one has no other predefined relationship and responsibilities. In Jesus, God offers grace sufficient for salvation to all who have not already died in their sins: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12.32).14 As Vatican II teaches concerning human solidarity and the Incarnate Word: “He commanded his apostles to preach to all peoples the gospel’s message so that the human race might become the family of God, in which the fullness of the law would be love” (GS 32). In this process of evangelism, the mutual love of Christians bears a primary and fundamental witness to God’s love in Jesus; in doing so, it provides a challenge and opportunity to those who do not yet share in the new covenant communion: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17.22–23).15 Thus, far from excluding those who are not yet members, the perfection of love within the eucharistic community is Jesus’ way of drawing all people to himself.
Because love fulfills the whole law, every sin against others violates love. Many such sins will be treated in subsequent questions and chapters of this volume. Sins against the Church’s unity, peace, and vitality—especially the sin of schism—violate love in an especially damaging way, for they are detrimental to new covenant communion subsisting in the Church; those sins were treated above (see 3.D.1.f–h, 3.D.2.e–g). Here are treated only the sins which directly oppose love of others in a radical way: hating them and evildoing motivated by hatred.
a) To hate others is to will what is bad for them. A person does not hate others in rejecting what truly is bad about them; in fact, such rejection is essential to loving them as they should be loved. Nor, in choosing to do something for some other reason, is it hating others to accept side effects—that is, foreseen but unintended consequences—which are bad for them, although such willing can be unjust, even gravely so. Feeling hatred toward others is not in itself the sin of hating them, since emotions arise spontaneously and occasion sin only insofar as one wills in accord with them; they must, however, be resisted, both by psychological means and by prayer for the Holy Spirit’s healing grace.
To hate others is to will what is bad for them precisely insofar as it impedes, damages, or destroys something one believes to be part of their true good. For example, to endorse feelings of anger or hostility by deliberately wishing that another die is to hate that person.16
b) One can hate others without being ready to act against their good. Choosing to bring about what is bad for others out of personal antipathy—for example, treating wrongdoers with cruelty that goes beyond just punishment—is action against their good. However, in many cases people harbor personal antipathy toward others, without being able (or ready) to do them harm; they may feel joy when some harm accidentally befalls the objects of their dislike or wish harm would befall them, yet be unready to do them that harm in view of the likely costs to themselves. Although it does not issue in any malevolent action, an act of will in accord with such antipathetic feelings is a sin of hatred in thought. For example, to wish that someone go to hell is a sin of hatred in thought. Cursing in the strict sense is the verbal expression of such a hateful wish.
Such sins of thought and speech can be mortal, if the usual conditions are met (see CMP, 15.C). They are more grave when committed against those who especially deserve love and honor, for example, parents (see Ex 21.15, 17; Lv 20.9). In some cases, though, sins of hatred are venial, either due to lack of reflection or choice, or because the evil wished is slight (see S.t., 2–2, q. 76, a. 3).
c) In hating another, one may or may not seek some benefit. Sometimes a person hates others in the sense of wanting them to suffer some evil. No intelligible benefit for oneself or anyone else need be sought, and often none is; emotional satisfaction in the other’s very suffering is an adequate motive. Such hatred can originate in different ways, for example, in envy (see S.t., 2–2, q. 34, a. 6) or in the perception that others in some way oppose either oneself or some person or thing with which one identifies (see S.t., 2–2, q. 108, a. 1).
Quite often, however, people will what is bad for others only as a means to some ulterior end. For example, if there is something to be gained by another’s death or adversity, someone might will such evils for the sake of his or her own advantage. Such willing plainly is immoral; but does it constitute hatred of others? In one sense it does, in another it does not.
It is not hatred inasmuch as it is not motivated by personal antipathy, and so need not involve the desire that another suffer; a person might regret the evil he or she causes. But it plainly is hatred inasmuch as such willing is contrary to the love people should bear toward others. In short, such ill will toward others is not affective hatred (not motivated by personal antipathy), but it is effective hatred (a willing of evils for others).
Moreover, someone who hates others effectively is likely to develop emotional antipathy toward them. For instance, those who treat members of another nation, race, or sex unjustly often cultivate false images of them and nurture emotional hatred toward them, for then they can imagine that their victims deserve the treatment they get.
Any sin against others involves either hating them, wrongly accepting what is bad for them, or failing to will what is good, and such willing either is at odds with loving them or manifests a serious defect in love. In general, therefore, sins against others are grave matter, the stuff of mortal sin. However, most also admit parvity (littleness, slightness) of matter, since on occasion the harm suffered or benefit lost can be so small as to be almost insignificant and hardly against the other person’s will.17
a) The tolerance of upright people sets the standard of parvity. In small ways everyone fails in specific responsibilities toward others, and so nobody wishes to be held in all strictness to fulfill them. In fairness, therefore, neither should any reasonable person want others to be held strictly to fulfill every duty, no matter how insignificant, toward himself or herself. Consequently, in any type of situation, love of neighbor does not gravely require avoiding every harm and providing every benefit to others precisely as one should; rather, it only gravely obliges one to what is necessary to meet the standard of interpersonal conduct to which upright people generally would want and expect others in that kind of situation to be held. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” defines the full requirement of love, but “Do unto others as you would have them be held to do unto you” defines the limit beyond which the matter of a sin against another becomes grave.
b) The standard of parvity must not be misunderstood. The condition which sometimes mitigates wrongs done to others, so that there is parvity of matter, is easily confused with facile rationalizations of grave wrongs.
First, this mitigating condition is not met by mutual tolerance among wrongdoers which is not shared by people of upright will. Members of a particular community often condone certain unjust actions; they then are likely to ignore the harm their acts do to people outside their community. For example, competing businesses often do not wish to hold one another to high standards of honesty, so their managers rationalize the harm to customers by pointing out that their competitors are similarly dishonest: “Everybody does it.” However, the harm customers suffer is not insignificant to the customers; and the managers want businesses held to higher standards of honesty when they, their loved ones, and friends are customers. So, the tolerance of competitors is not the proper standard for parvity of matter.
Second, the mitigating condition can make a kind of sin venial only insofar as its wrongness depends on its unfairness to the person harmed. Many kinds of acts, however, are wrong not only inasmuch as they are unfair but on other grounds, and the matter of such acts can remain grave on these other grounds even if everyone affected approves their being done. For example, the grave wrong of homicide is not only in its unfairness to the victim but in its violation of the basic good of human life. Thus, euthanasia remains grave matter even if everyone involved, including the person killed, regards it as an insignificant harm or even as a benefit. Similarly, a husband and wife who approve of each other’s infidelity do not thereby render it light matter.
1. See G. Schneider, “agape, agapao, agapetos,” in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, vol. 1, Aaron-Henoch (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), 8–12, for an analysis of the relevant New Testament vocabulary and bibliography. Victor Paul Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), remains a useful treatment, although Catholic readers should notice that some of his assumptions are at odds with Catholic teaching.
2. On the relationship of the Ten Commandments in both Old and New Testaments to the law of love, see Patrick D. Miller, Jr., “The Place of the Decalogue in the Old Testament and Its Law,” Interpretation 43 (1989): 229–42; Reginald H. Fuller, “The Decalogue in the New Testament,” Interpretation 43 (1989): 243–55.
3. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke (I–IX): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Anchor Bible, 28 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981), 639, considers Lv 19.18 to be an alternative formulation of the Golden Rule, and yet thinks (639–40): “It is useless to try to establish that the positive form used by Jesus in Luke or Matthew is actually superior to the negative; it all depends on the context in which the rule is set.” Nevertheless, as a matter of logic the affirmative formulation can refer to every choice, action, and omission which bears upon others, while the negative formulation cannot refer to omissions.
4. John Paul II, Homily at Mass for the Family (12 Oct. 1980), 6, Inseg. 3.2 (1980) 847, OR, 20 Oct. 1980, 4, teaches a similar and even stronger thesis—that without love toward God, love of neighbor inevitably falls short: “This structure of the commandment corresponds to the truth of love. If God is loved above all things, then also man loves and is loved with the fullness of love accessible to him. If one destroys this inseparable structure, spoken of in Christ’s commandment, then man’s love will detach itself from the deepest root, will lose the root of fullness and of truth which are essential to him.”
5. See S.t., 2–2, q. 26, aa. 1–4. It might be objected that the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself excludes a priority of self to neighbor. However, St. Thomas argues (a. 4, sed contra) that as oneself points to the priority by indicating that self-love is the model of love of neighbor, since the model exceeds the copy. To love others as oneself is to love them, not selfishly, but for their own sakes (which does not exclude the priority of self-love) and to will that they share in one’s communion with the divine persons (which presupposes the self-love by which one wills to enjoy that communion).
6. What is asserted here about the order of charity generally follows what St. Thomas says about it in the cited articles. But the present treatment also purposely departs from his view in two respects. First, although one ought to be ready to accept the loss of one’s life and of any lesser bodily good for the sake of others’ salvation, it hardly seems meaningful to compare love of one’s own body—which is part of oneself, not a distinct reality—with love of persons, whether oneself or others (see S.t., 2–2, q. 26, a. 5). Second, since the goods which ground various special relationships with others differ in kind, not only in degree, it hardly seems possible to discern any single series of priorities among them which should be followed in every choice regardless of what is at stake (see S.t., 2–2, q. 26, aa. 8–12).
7. See Benedict XV, Pacem, Dei munus pulcherrimum, AAS 12 (1920) 212, PE, 185.9: “Christian charity ought not to be content with not hating our enemies and loving them as brothers; it also demands that we treat them with kindness, following the rule of the Divine Master Who ‘went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil’ (Acts 10.38), and finished his mortal life, the course of which was marked by good deeds, by shedding his blood for them.” A helpful study: José Antonio Llinares, O.P., “Como amar a nuestros enemigos?” Ciencia tomista 101 (1974): 191–213.
8. For a comparison of this teaching of Jesus with teachings more or less approaching it: Pheme Perkins, Love Commands in the New Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 27–40. St. Paul also teaches beneficence toward enemies (see Rom 12.14–21). Paul’s teaching should not be considered inconsistent because of his use of Prv 25.21–22—“If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads”—for the context excludes interpreting “heap coals of fire” as suggesting a subtle way of executing revenge. The New Jerusalem Bible, n. j to Rom 12.20, offers a plausible exegesis: “The Christian takes vengeance on an enemy by doing good. The image of red-hot coals, symbol of burning pain, stands for the remorse which will bring the sinner to repentance.”
9. Love of enemies aims at the conversion of persecutors and others engaged in injustice: see Luise Schottroff, “Non-Violence and the Love of One’s Enemies,” in Luise Schottroff et al., Essays on the Love Commandment, trans. Reginald H. Fuller and Ilse Fuller (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 9–39.
10. See John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, 14, AAS 72 (1980) 1226–27, PE, 279.157.
11. This policy sometimes is proposed as being “nonjudgmental.” But in practice nobody can observe it consistently, since consistently to affirm everything considered error and sin in others would involve affirming those whose statements and behavior are condemned as judgmental by proponents of the policy of being nonjudgmental.
12. See John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 438–45, PE, 267.151–83.
13. See Edward Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978), 119–61, 253–82, and 293–324.
14. See Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to John, vol. 2, Commentary on Chapters 5–12 (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 393–94. Cf. 1 Tm 2.4, which points to the universality of God’s salvific will precisely to explain why Christians should pray for everyone, even those who persecute them; 1 Tm 4.10, which expresses, as a motive of apostolic effort, hope in God “who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”
15. On Jn 17.21–23, see Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to John, vol. 3, Commentary on Chapters 13–21 (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 190–94.
16. Anger is not necessarily bad, but one must handle it in a Christian way; see Bert Ghezzi, The Angry Christian: How to Control—and Use—Your Anger (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1980).
17. The explanation here develops the insight of St. Thomas, S.t., 2–2, q. 59, a. 4, who holds that to do what is unjust is of itself against love and so ex genere suo mortal sin. But to the argument that to do what is unjust in some small matter only minimally falls away from the standard, and so is tolerable and should be counted among minor evils, he replies (ad 2): “One who does an injustice in something small falls short of the complete idea of what it is to do the unjust, inasmuch as it can be considered not to be entirely against the will of the one who suffers this, for example if someone takes one apple from another or something like that, with respect to which it is likely that the other is neither harmed nor upset.” Also see S.t., 2–2, q. 66, a. 6, ad 3; q. 118, a. 4.