But love's obligations are what make life full and sweet.
On the Feast of the Assumption, we took our three boys to an evening Mass, just before dinnertime. It was the only one we could manage, but the time was not optimal for our young children. When the youngest started to fuss, I slipped to the back of the chapel so that my soporific dance wouldn’t disturb anyone. The baby nodded off to the soundtrack of (appropriately enough) an uplifting homily on the value of maternity.
I wanted to hear what the priest was saying, so I kept swaying even though I was tired. I was moved by his discussion of the intimate bond between mothers and infants, and the relationship between physical and spiritual motherhood. But then came a jarring note: he started to lament the follies of a world in which “children are regarded as a burden." And I almost laughed out loud. I had been holding that baby so long, it felt like my arms might fall off.
Children are a burden. Spouses are a burden. Faith is a burden. There is a central theme here that can be generalized: love is a burden.
Charitably, we might suppose that this thoughtful priest was really making the point that children are more than just a burden. Certainly, we do live in a world in which children are undervalued. I also think it’s important to emphasize to prospective parents that parenting can be not merely joyful, but also fun! All the pleasures of one’s own childhood can be relived through the eyes of one’s offspring. Despite that, I think there is an important point here which is sometimes overlooked at great cost. Love is by its nature burdensome. We should expect it to be so, and even welcome those burdens so far as we are able. The blessed burden of love helps us to grow in charity and virtue.
This truth cannot easily be communicated to people who know no moral language except that of individual rights. Rights-talk enables us to assert ourselves, and also sometimes to limit our demands out of respect for others. The concept of “rights” can be understood even by the hedonist or utilitarian, at least to some degree. It aims at a kind of mutual survival, in which everyone gets his fair chance.
Love aims at something higher. In love, we recognize the value and tremendous potential of another human being, and through that realization, we come to desire his good. Love draws us out of ourselves. It invests us in another person’s moral development. This intensely personal project is simultaneously the most authentic form of self-assertion, and also the most complete recognition of another’s worth. It uncovers our own humanity, and also feeds and nourishes the humanity of those we love.
Given that love really is good for us, why should we dwell on the burdens? Because selflessness can be punishingly difficult in the shorter term, and modern people have trouble understanding this. In our modern parlance, “love” means little more than “a strong preference, the satisfaction of which is particularly important to one’s personal happiness.” We understand that love can be sweet, but we don’t want to accept the attendant burdens.
So obsessed are we with the language of rights that we allow love itself to be co-opted into that world. People of the same sex, we are told, have a right to love one another as spouses, in a way exactly equivalent to heterosexual love. Anyone who experiences maternal or paternal yearnings has a right to a child, which is why we must enable all interested parties to acquire children, through adoption, artificial insemination or surrogacy. The welfare of the children is very much a secondary concern. Anyone who desires parenthood (and has the resources to finance the physiological process) is entitled to offspring, regardless of their other personal circumstances.