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All You Need is Caritas
Love is not "all we need." It is what we become.
There is perhaps no greater anthem for the modern, post-Christian world than the Beatle’s 1967 hit, “All You Need is Love.” A catchy tune, to be sure, but there is little lyrically going on in the song, as it is mostly a mashup of gauzy, hippy, anti-traditionalist sentiment. “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be; it’s easy” Mr. Lennon tells us.
The refrain “Love is all you need,” is repeated more than a dozen times, as if just saying the words makes it true.
Sadly, the words are not true, nor is the hyper-individualist ethos of modernity upon which the song is based. The post-Christian culture tells us that there are no rules to follow, no obligations to anyone other than the vague duty to “love,” and that each of us is the arbiter of our own truth and identity. “There’s no one you can save that can’t be saved,” the song says, and “nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time.”
The only sin to modern people is to judge someone else. Love, to the modern mind, is affirming others no matter what choices they make. But this is not the Catholic conception of love.
Even modern Catholics don’t always understand this, as we are commanded explicitly by the Lord Jesus to “love one another” (John 13:34). St. John tells us that “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God” (1 John 4:16). The Catholic Church is in crisis today, in part, because too many clergy and lay people have interpreted Christian love to be the same as modern love, and rejected 2,000 years of moral teaching because sometimes genuine love means saying “no.”
St. Thomas Aquinas famously tells us that real love is not an emotion, and is not affirming other people in their choices, no matter how destructive. The Angelic Doctor says that “love is willing the good of another” (CCC 1766). To will something means to want it and to sacrifice so that another may have it.
So what does love mean to a faithful Catholic? To be sure, loving God and neighbor is the “greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:38-39). But how do we learn to love? What does that look like for a Catholic?
In his encyclical Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the word most often used in the New Testament for love is caritas, often translated into English as “charity.” Love is, like the other great theological virtues of faith and hope (1 Corinthians 13), not simply a means to an end but the fruit of a life of discipleship.
Love is not “all we need,” it is what we become.
When we live as disciples, God’s grace teaches us to love. We love naturally and as a product of our friendship with God. St. Paul tells us that love is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit living in us, along with joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
As Catholics, we receive the sacraments to receive this grace of the Holy Spirit. We pray to develop our spiritual sensitivity and strength, we obey the teachings of the Church to avoid sin and grow in virtue. In so doing, God makes us saints, holy ones whose lives are distinguished by the quality of caritas, as well as all the other virtues.
“The entire activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of man,” says Pope Benedict. “It seeks his evangelization through Word and Sacrament, an undertaking that is often heroic in the way it is acted out in history; and it seeks to promote man in the various arenas of life and human activity. Love is therefore the service that the Church carries out in order to attend constantly to man’s sufferings and his needs” (Deus caritas est, #19).
Caritas may be the “greatest” of the virtues, according to St. Paul (1 Cor 13:13), but Pope Benedit explains how all the virtues work together through the activity of the Church, shaping us more fully into the image of God. Love is ultimately a person – Jesus Christ, God’s love incarnate. We love because He first loved us, and love grows in us by His grace.
The Beatles were so close to the truth. Love – caritas – is what we need. But we get it from the incarnation of Love Himself, and through his one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.