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The Law and the Laws of Love



Canonry of St. Leopold - published on 10/25/14

After all the talk in the Synod, some may wonder how the laws (doctrines) relate to the (pastoral) laws of love.

In today’s gospel, we find one of those great cut-through-the-red-tape moments in scripture. Jesus, being God of course, is able to see the forest through the trees and distill down for us just what are the most important things. One wonders if His audience thought something like this when He spoke to them about what commandment is the most important. The Pharisees, after all, had 613 laws that they tried to keep most seriously. The life of a Pharisee was guided by those laws, and they could and did debate for hours amongst themselves about the importance of each of the many laws, and of course about which law was the greatest. In light of this, the Pharisees ask Jesus His thoughts on the matter.

It was a good question then, and it is a good question now. In many ways, Catholics still have similar debates and discussions. We do not maintain anymore the old 613 laws (although the greatest hits thereof remain in effect), but we do have are our own laws that have been instituted in the light of Christ. Many people today, just like the Pharisees, argue about all of these laws, especially about which ones are really important. Some even argue that Jesus freed us from these laws, and so we do not need them at all.

To the Pharisees and to us, Jesus famously responds: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

So, it’s that simple, all we have to do is love? Well, yes … and no. One the one hand, it is really that simple. Just love God and one another, and we do not need the other rules. Many people in fact have abandoned “organized religion” because they think that all they need is love (to paraphrase the Beatles).  

On the other hand, we need to remember that Christ did not do away with the others laws, but rather He simply put them all under the umbrella of the command to love God and neighbor. If we succeed at loving God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as ourselves, then the other laws will already be followed. The challenge, and this is where it is not so simple, is to love as God really calls us to love. 

Love in our day and age has come to mean a lot of different things. We use the term “love” to refer to people just as freely as we use it to refer to our new car or pair of shoes, a new song or movie, or just about anything else. Love is commonly thought of as an emotional response of affection towards something or someone. Sure, the most intense form of love is normally reserved for relationships between people, but many believe that human love is just a matter of the intensity of the same emotion.  

Here’s the problem with that thinking: real love, the kind Christ is calling us to, is NOT AN EMOTION! Emotions are human reactions to people and things, and they are mostly outside of our control. This is how love is often depicted in movies and in novels. It is something so powerful that it grabs ahold of us, making us capable of wonderful and beautiful things like self sacrifice, but also equally capable of making us do irrational and evil acts. Hollywood these days is littered with examples of this later kind of love, with fathers and mothers who so “love” their family, that they are willing to throw to the wolves just about anyone or anything else that gets in their way. That is not love.

Yes, emotion is a part of love, but this is not the love Christ is calling us to. Love is first and foremost a decision of the intellect that desires the best for ourselves and for one another. Ultimately, that means to desire happiness with God. Every single minute of every single day, we are faced with decisions in every aspect of our lives that either help or hinder our and our neighbor’s relationship with God. Because of sin, our emotions and living in a complicated world, we may not always see and choose the most loving option. When our emotions get the best of us, as they often do, we easily make bad decisions that hurt ourselves and others, even the objects of that so-called love.  

It is because of this that Christ (and by extension His Body the Church) gives us the laws He does. The laws that so many people think are there to limit our freedom, are there rather to set us free to be truly happy. They are not there to replace love of God and neighbor with obedience, but through obedience to train us how to truly love as God does.  

Good parents know this principle well. They give their children rules and guidance (and punishment or tough-love) not in an effort to be mean or to keep them children, but so that their children might eventually learn the wisdom and purpose of the rules as they mature, and so in effect one day not need them anymore. Good parents do not tolerate bad behavior for the sake of a false peace, because even if their child is momentarily happy, they know that if bad behavior persists, it will damage their children’s capacity for real love and happiness in the future.  

There is a reason why we call the Church our Holy Mother, because she has been given to us by Christ to be our parent, to sanctify us and to teach us how to love as God does. Far from abolishing all laws and replacing them with emotional love, Christ gives us the means to learn from her how to authentically love.  

The Church herself was born from the perfect act of love, from the Lord laying down His life for us on the cross so that we might enjoy eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. She has always taught how we might truly love God and neighbor and therefore fulfill the Lord’s commandment to love God and neighbor.  

All that is necessary is that we have the courage to place our faith in Christ and His Church, and be willing to be taught how to truly love. He will take it from there!

Prepared for Aleteia by theCanonry of Saint LeopoldClick here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.

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