THE THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES, CHARITY
By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.
The Vocabulary of Love
One Concordance to the Bible directs us to the word "love" more than two hundred times. The word "loved" (and other derivatives) occurs another two or three hundred times. Our vocabulary pays tribute to "love letters," "love nests," "love poems," and "love stories," evidence that love is an important element in our human life.
The dictionary defines "love" as "a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person...as for a parent, child, or friend." We might expect a similar definition for "charity," which is - or ought to be - a synonym for "love," but the dictionary defines "charity" in these rather chilly terms: "generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill, or helpless...something given to a person in need."
Scholars, no doubt, can explain how our common idea of charity came to be so, apparently, separated from our notion of love, but we may be grateful that the Church’s theology has always maintained the unity of the two. Our Catechism teaches, "Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things, for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God" (1822).
In our earlier reflections we have discussed the nature of Faith and Hope, understanding them as the habitual dispositions by which we believe in God, embrace His word, and look forward to everlasting life in His kingdom. We shall now see how Charity draws us closer to God - and closer to one another - while at the same time giving life to the other virtues.
Charity and a New Life of Virtue
In St. John’s gospel, Jesus tells His disciples He is giving them a "new" commandment, "that you love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 15:12). The evangelist has earlier told us that Jesus loved His disciples "to the end" (Jn 13.1). When He offers His life on the cross, He demonstrates both the "newness" of His commandment, and the extent of the love He expects in return for His love of us.
This commandment is new because it describes a different relation between God and creation than we encounter in the Old Testament. To be sure, the Old Testament tells us Abraham was called a friend of God, and Moses "spoke with God face to face, as a man speaks to a friend" (Ex 33:11). But these are the only times the Old Testament writers employ the notion of friendship to describe relations between God and a human being. Moses and Abraham are extraordinary individuals, who share exceptional encounters with God. Their relations with God are by no means the common experience of our ancestors under the Old Law.
Charity in Human Form: The Incarnation
The Incarnation changes the relationship between God and mankind. Early Christian writers said that the Incarnation was a greater event than the creation because in the beginning God simply called things into existence that had not "been" before. When God took on our flesh, however, He raised up to His own level the matter He had created, an act, our liturgy tells us, that gave our mortality immortal value. Jesus describes this changed relationship when He tells His disciples, "I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father" (Jn 15.15).
We may be tempted to discount the gift Jesus describes here. After all, every day we tell one another things we have heard from others. But in the First Century world, the exchange of confidences - and especially confidences between superiors and their subjects - was no small matter. When the crowds want to get Pilate’s attention on Good Friday, they threaten him by saying, "If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar." To be invited to listen, and to be listened to, is a mark of supreme favor.
The Equality of Love
The benevolence that creates an equality and invites intimacy between individuals who would otherwise have little or nothing in common is what distinguishes Charity from other forms of attraction. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote,
...not every love has the character of friendship, but that love which is together with benevolence, when...we love someone so as to wish good to him... Yet neither does well-wishing suffice for friendship, for a certain mutual love is requisite, since friendship is between friend and friend: and thus well-wishing is founded on some kind of communication (II-II, 23.1).
These words are certainly encouraging when we consider God’s immense kindness, and especially His everlasting life, the sharing of which is the purpose of His love for us. They may be harder to grasp as we strive to apply them to our love for God. How, we might ask, can we wish any good to God, who is the source of all goodness? Obviously, this cannot be a matter of providing God with something He lacks, for He lacks nothing. However, we can - and do - express benevolence toward God in our prayers, when we say, for example, "Hallowed be Thy name," and "Thy will be done." Likewise, in the Gloria of the Mass we say, "we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory." One of the prefaces for weekday Masses says, "...our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace...." In other words, we manifest charity toward God when we thank Him for being God.
A Fundamental Precept
One of the maxims by which Catholics live teaches that "the Church believes as it prays." Thus, if we want to know what we believe about something, a good place to begin our study is to examine our prayer. The Mass preface we considered above is an excellent example. It says, "...our desire to thank you is itself your gift." These words are unequivocal: Charity is not something we possess innately, but rather something we receive from God. St. John writes, in the first of his letters, "In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us...we love because He first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:10, 19).
God’s love for us is absolutely fundamental; it gives us the ability to love Him in return, and it is the source of our capacity to love the world God has created. After God Himself, the first thing we are invited to love is ourselves. At first glance, this may seem quite selfish, but we must remember that God commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18). St. Thomas Aquinas quotes Aristotle, who identified love for ourselves as the benchmark by which we love others, when he observed, "...the origin of friendly relations with other lies in our relation to ourselves." St. Thomas then remarks
...we may speak of Charity...as denoting man’s friendship with God...and, consequently with the things of God, among which...is man himself.... Hence, among these other things which he loves out of Charity because they pertain to God, he loves also himself out of Charity (II-II, 25.4).
Common sense will tell us the difference between the self-love we manifest when we seek only to gratify some personal whim, and the benevolent, respectful love with which we regard ourselves as God’s creatures, chosen for everlasting life in His kingdom.
Our love for God impels us to love others, and at some point this forces us to face the challenge Christ lays down when He says, "Love your enemies" (Matt 5:44). Here St. Thomas comes to our rescue by reminding us that while we cannot exclude our enemies from the general love we are commanded to show our neighbor, we may have little personal affection for someone we dislike. Nevertheless, we must appropriately love what is good in such a person, namely, his humanity and worth as one of God’s creatures. Likewise, we must be ready to include our enemies in the prayers we offer for everyone, and in the assistance we offer - generally - to those in need.
The Order of Love
St. Thomas was not only a very practical theologian; he demonstrated a very shrewd understanding of human nature. He recognized the challenge implicit in Christ’s command, and taught that laying aside the animosity we may feel toward another individual is the perfection of Charity (II-II, 25.9), something we achieve only over time, and as we grow in God’s love. "For since man loves his neighbor...for God’s sake, the more he loves God, the more does he put enmity aside and show love to his neighbor" (Ibid.).
All this suggests - rightly - that there is an order in Charity. We love God first, then we love ourselves. We love others, and this must include our enemies. When considering whether we ought to love one neighbor more than another, or which neighbor we ought to love more, St. Thomas wisely taught,
One’s obligation to love a person is proportionate to the gravity of the sin one commits in acting against that love. Now it is a more grievous sin to act against certain neighbors [e.g., our parents]... Therefore, we ought to love some neighbors more than others (II-II, 26:6).
Our Charity extends, in varying degrees, to all those with whom we hope to share God’s everlasting life, but it includes even irrational creatures, to the extent that we acknowledge their usefulness, see them as signs of God’s goodness, and - this will come as good news to pet-owners - wish for their preservation.
Sins against Charity
Because Charity moves us to love, sins against Charity are obviously those that turn us away from love. These include hatred, envy, discord, war, sloth and scandal. These last two deserve some attention because their theological character is far different - and far more serious - than the sense in which we usually understand them.
We commonly define sloth as laziness, or a tendency to procrastinate, but these are the results of sloth, which, St. Thomas taught, is a being cold when we ought to be ardent, and slow when we ought to be quick. In Dante’s Purgatory, the souls of the slothful are urged by the example of the Blessed Virgin, who "went with haste" to share the Good News of the Incarnation. They cry out, "Swift, swift, lest time be lost by little love."
Scandal is a word we see almost every day. It appears regularly in the newspaper, and it is a standard feature of the tabloids available at grocery stores. We usually think of scandal as sexual misconduct, financial impropriety, or the sort of misbehavior celebrities embrace in order to attract attention. To an extent, this is true, and our theology defines scandal as "something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall" (II-II 43.1).
What makes scandal so serious is the latter part of this definition, something that causes spiritual downfall. The word "scandal" comes from the Greek word that means "stumbling against something," and Jesus says that the penalty for acting as such a stumbling-block is particularly severe. "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea" (Mk. 9:43).
The Demand and Reward of Love
Charity obliges us to love one another, and to pray for one another’s salvation. Scandal, strictly understood, is a deliberate choice to lead another into sin and, therefore, away from eternal life. St. Thomas wrote, "...as theft and murder are special kinds of sin, on account of their denoting the intention of doing a special injury to one’s neighbor; so too scandal is a special sin, because thereby a man intends a special harm..." (II-II, 43.3).
Each of us is familiar with St. Paul’s remark, "So faith, hope, and charity abide, these three. But the greatest of these is charity" (1 Cor. 13:13). St. Thomas explains this by observing that the theological virtues are greater than the moral virtues (which we will consider in future reflections) because the object they seek is God, the Supreme Good. He adds that Charity enjoys preeminence among the theological virtues because Faith and Hope seek God as the source of something we desire, namely, truth and everlasting life. Charity, on the other hand, seeks God for His own sake, and asks nothing more than - in St. Augustine’s words - "to rest" in God.
This is, unquestionably, a great deal to grasp. The Catechism simplifies the matter by teaching that Charity "articulates and orders [the other virtues] among themselves" (1827), and St. Thomas takes an example from everyday existence to explain the action of Charity, "...since a mother is one who conceives within herself and by another, Charity is called the mother of the other virtues, because by commanding them, it conceives [their] acts...." (II-II, 23.8).
The Catechism continues, "Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love" (1827).