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Redefining “Love” the Catholic Way

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about redefining marriage and love. I believe this talk is necessary, but not in the way the culture proposes. If there is one truth we need to learn today to sustain marriages and love it would be this teaching of the Catholic Church: accept no limitations on your total, mutual self-giving.

Contrary to popular belief, we are a culture of limits and not freedom. We limit our giving of total love in marriage in all sorts of ways: “I will not give you my love unconditionally for the rest of my life, but only insofar as you make me happy.” “I will not give you my fecundity unconditionally, but only as it fits into my personal desire.” “I will not give you my time unconditionally, but I will work you into my schedule.” “I will not share my money unconditionally, but only insofar as you make decisions that agree with my personal interests.” “I will not share God unconditionally with you as much as He may desire, but only when I feel like it,” and so on.

Yet do not all people truly desire to give and receive total love? If so, then why do we ever think the limiting thoughts in the above statements? Is our own love limited and not free in any of these ways or some other way? What holds us back?

What should grieve us the most in our current culture is the loss of total love that knows no limit. This is a love that is truly free because true freedom only comes from radical giving without limit. It is this radical giving we have so very little of in our culture. We choose to settle for so much less and therefore we are gravely unhappy. We are not unhappy today because love has failed all around us, we are unhappy because we have not truly loved.

To transpose a famous saying by G.K. Chesterton onto the current subject: it is not that love was tried and left wanting, but rather it was left untried and therefore unwanted. This lack of living and wanting a total self-sacrificing love is the real reason for all the divorces, the proliferation of temporary unions in cohabitation, contraception, widespread promiscuity, and why you can find so many people today questioning the possibility of love in marriage.

We have accepted limitations to our total mutual, self-giving, called this “love,” failed at it, rejected this “love,” lost our freedom to love because we are too hurt to try to love again, and placed ourselves into one big situation of hurt, pain, confusion and trauma. Yes people are traumatized by the “love” they not only constantly see, but have been a part of either by way of their family or their own relationships. All of this is because we did not practice the right vision of love to begin with, but rather settled for some limit to love. So when will we learn to not place limits on our love? When will we learn that all of the Catholic Church’s teachings on married love as a total self-gift are a working out of how not to place a limit on love? And when will we learn that the future of married love depends upon this radical giving without a limit?

The loss of the horizon of love as total self-giving is the real reason why we in the culture constantly feel the need to redefine “love” because “love” as the world has practiced it is not love, but a destructive limit on love. We think correctly to ourselves that we need to redefine “love” anew, but let’s define love away from what has been actually practiced by so many in our culture. Let’s define love as it truly is: total, mutual self-giving. Then, let us practice it ourselves in our daily lives.

And here is the good news for all of those who are concerned about our culture’s vision of love: we already have the solution to today’s problems in love, but it will cost us our entire lives as a total self-gift. Also, we will only be able to begin to practice this radical love when we give ourselves to He who totally gives Himself – Christ – in a daily routine of self-giving in personal prayer and in the prayer of the Sacraments. It is only when we recognize this prayer as “the breathing of our soul,” as Jacques Philippe puts it, that we can truly begin to live this limitless love. We must make prayer a daily routine in order to safeguard our love from being limited by the culture. In this time of prayer, we should ask for the grace to no longer give halfheartedly, but to totally give to others, our spouse, and our Church. We should also examine whether we ourselves have not constrained our love with some limit proposed by the culture. Yes, we all have accepted some limit at some time on our love so let us beg God for forgiveness and to shed light on how we can totally give.

With these thoughts in mind, I am incredibly joyful to see the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops implore us faithful to pray and to fast for marriage, life, and religious liberty. You can join the movement here: http:/www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/year-of-faith/life-marriage-liberty.cfm. I highly encourage you to do so and to tell others because these activities are a step in the right direction for redefining the “love” our culture proposes toward true love.

But let’s make this only a step and daily pray to God to teach us how to totally give because it is in totally giving that we are set free. We are free by totally giving because we will have no more limits on our love. Indeed, accept no limitations on your total, mutual self-giving love and by doing so you will be redefining the “love” the culture proposes toward authentic love.


Daniel Meola is a current Ph.D candidate for a theological degree in person, marriage, and family at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America. He is happily married to his wife Bethany and they both currently reside in Hyattsville, Maryland.


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  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    I may not have read this carefully, but I think it is not correct. Love is not “self-giving”, it is wishing another well.

    Let me tell you what true charity/love is.

    The Scarsdale (NY) High School Orchestra and Choir will give a
    performance in our parish in Ireland (http://www.newtownparkparish.com/) in aid
    of the church roof repair and our local hospice.

    The orchestra and choir has over 120 members, only one with
    an Irish name (McCann), but with many Jewish and Oriental names.

    This is charity at its best, and America showing it is still influenced by Christian charity.

  • Daniel Meola

    Dear Noel,

    Thanks for your comment. I do agree that love is also “wishing another well” if what you mean by this is self-sacrificing yourself to another for their own good as your example demonstrates. Every authentic self-gift must love the other for who they are and not merely as an end for myself. In fact, if you do not love the other person for their own good, then your gift becomes selfish and thereby no longer a gift. Therefore, failing to “wish another person well” would be another example of limiting love as total self-gift. You refuse to give to the other for the sake of the other, but you only give for yourself. So in light of these thoughts, I think we do not disagree. It is okay to call love total, mutual self-giving so long as you understand that it does not preclude self-sacrifice for the other’s good but rather presuppose it. This is why I call love self-sacrificial at times in the article too. I hope this clarifies what I meant by love as mutual, self-giving. Thanks for your comment and the opportunity to clarify. Further, as far as your example goes, it is a great example of charity. Thanks for sharing it! God Bless you.

  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    Dear Mr Meola,

    thank yo for your reply to me. It is much appreciated.

    I am afraid I was not very original in my definition of love, as can be seen from a Google search, where I see (for example):

    ‘St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, defines love as “to will the good of another.”‘(http://www.chacha.com/question/what-is-thomas-aquinas%27s-definition-of-love).