Foundations of the Faith Part 9: The call to love

This is the ninth of a 12-part series that covers core teachings of the Catholic faith. Once a month through December, this space will focus on exploring a specific aspect of the Church’s teaching. To read and share this and the previous parts of the series, visit

Next month’s topic: The power of prayer

All of theology begins and ends in a simple but profound assertion: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Based on this truth, the Catholic Church teaches that every human person is loved by God and called to love God and neighbor in return. The call is not exclusive to members of the Church, because God created each human being and gave each person the capacity to love. At the same time, it must be said that sin and evil have obscured the call and, therefore, the human response as well. Nevertheless, members of the Church, who are aware of the call through baptism and have freedom from sin and evil through Christ, have the responsibility to live by God’s love and to share it with others (and, thus, it continues to be shared).

St. Paul’s hymn in his first letter to the Corinthians is a beautiful and faithful articulation of the Christian’s fundamental stance in life:

“If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3).

Paul may take credit for the artful arrangement, but the message is all Jesus. Jesus even makes it a commandment for his disciples: “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). Nor did Jesus simply issue the command and walk away. Rather, in his concern that the disciples understand clearly what he meant, he demonstrated what love entails by his actions, for example: “he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist” (Jn 13:4-5).

However one interprets this scene of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet — and it is multivalent — one can conclude confidently that Christ-like love manifests itself in humble service to one’s neighbor, and that even power and authority are best applied through service. By “neighbor” Jesus means not only friends but also anyone in need, as he makes clear in his parable of the good Samaritan (see Lk 10:29-37).

The Parable of the Good Samaritan
The story of the good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel provides an excellent example of how we, as followers of Christ, should treat others.

Loving as Christ loves

Most of the articles in this Foundations of the Faith series so far have focused on intra-Church matters, but God’s call to love, while certainly applicable to one’s brothers and sisters in the Faith, also is meant to move beyond Church boundaries. As the late Cardinal James Hickey was fond of saying, we love others “not because they’re Catholic, but because we’re Catholic.”

The bottom line is that the service of love is integral to Christian discipleship, as Jesus says: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15).

Quite a few people, in and out of the Church, have considered this commandment — “to love as I have loved you” — an impossible duty. But Jesus does not command the impossible. Whatever he asks his disciples to do, he provides the means to fulfill. Pope Benedict XVI, writing in Deus Caritas Est, his encyclical on love, explains Jesus’ audacity by pointing to his generosity: “Love can be ‘commanded’ because it has first been given” (No. 14). Nowhere is this more vividly perceived than at Mass: “‘Worship’ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented” (No. 14). St. John puts it more simply: “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). If one wants to avoid being “a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal,” then every effort must be grounded in the love offered by Jesus.

This does not mean that one must make the effort to love God and others alone, or that it’s even possible to do so, even if at times it feels like a lonely task. God, of course, remains the source of love. And while it is true that an individual Christian must choose to yield to God’s love and incorporate its gifts into his or her life, the practice of love is always carried out as a member of Christ’s body. Perhaps it’s best to say that loving includes both the individual and the communal effort. Pope Benedict delineates the responsibility this way:

“Love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the Church universal in its entirety. As a community, the Church must practice love. Love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 20).

A fresco depicts Jesus healing the paralyzed man. Shutterstock

Love in works of mercy

On the personal level, the individual member models himself or herself after Christ, whose love for all made him willing to die so others might live. It should be noted that the sacrifice of Christ is done from a position of strength in the sense of knowing his identity, being obedient to God the Father’s commands and having confidence in the Father’s fidelity. Jesus took on human nature in part to model for humanity how to be a faithful child of God, and the essential element in his life on this earth was the relationship with his father. Jesus gained strength through this relationship, as he would tell his disciples: “I have food to eat of which you do not know” (Jn 4:32). Even in the midst of feeling like he had been abandoned, Jesus remained resolute in loving God and neighbor unto death because he was convinced that nothing could separate him from God.

Service in the Early Church
The diaconia was an institution of the early Church within monasteries and dioceses that carried out “an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbor” by providing social services (Deus Caritas Est, No. 21). In fact the diaconia served its community so well that local governments took notice and sought out a partnership. In Egypt, by the sixth century, the diaconia “had evolved into a corporation with full juridical standing, which the civil authorities themselves entrusted with part of the grain for public distribution” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 23). In Naples during the same time period, Pope Gregory the Great “was aware of a diaconia system that resembles what can often be found in state welfare programs today: Governments distribute block grants to local organizations that are trusted to use those funds to care for the poor” (“Distant Markets, Distant Harms,” Oxford University Press, $38.95).

The Christian, therefore, must realize his or her identity as an adopted child of God through Christ, fulfilling the words of God and trusting in the gift of salvation. Being grounded, thus, is important since practicing love as humble service to others often can feel like a great disadvantage, and in a culture that does not value or even recognize God’s love, perhaps it is (at least in passing matters). However, the Christian keeps in mind the goal of eternal life through his or her relationship with God. Moreover, frequent prayer, reception of the sacraments and life in a Christian community help the individual Christian to persevere in fulfilling the service of love. As one perseveres, one begins to perceive how love is its own reward and that it engenders a deep sense of peace and confidence in God. In other words, the eternal advantages of loving well far exceed the temporary advantages of a me-first modus operandi.

But what does a life of love look like for the individual member of the Church here and now? Jesus answered similar questions by stating that it all boils down to two main commandments: love of God and love of neighbor (Mt 22:34-40). The Ten Commandments and the beatitudes expand on Jesus’ answer, and so do many of his parables, such as the good Samaritan (already mentioned) and the judgment of the sheep and goats (Mt 25:31-46). What one learns from Jesus is that his disciples are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. Disciples do not cheat or steal or gossip or kill. They honor their relationships, incorporating and subordinating each relationship within the relationship with God. In other words, the Christian disciple anticipates the life of heaven through the life on earth.

Catholic Social Teaching
“The permanent principles of the Church’s social doctrine constitute the very heart of Catholic social teaching. These are the principles of: the dignity of the human person, which is the foundation of all the other principles and content of the Church’s social doctrine; the common good; subsidiarity; and solidarity. These principles, the expression of the whole truth about man known by reason and faith, are born of ‘the encounter of the Gospel message and of its demands summarized in the supreme commandment of love of God and neighbor in justice with the problems emanating from the life of society.’ In the course of history and with the light of the Spirit, the Church has wisely reflected within her own tradition of faith and has been able to provide an ever more accurate foundation and shape to these principles, progressively explaining them in the attempt to respond coherently to the demands of the times and to the continuous developments of social life.”

Christ as our model

There is no rule book that can cover every imaginable situation with which a person may be confronted, which is why the relationship with God and relying on his good graces is so important. As one yields more and more to God, as one puts on the mind of Christ, one is conformed to the way of Christ’s love. One should not have to spend too much time wondering about what love requires in most daily decisions. For more difficult and complicated situations, one needs to pray and think and act. What does Jesus say? What would he do? What is best for the person or persons involved? What action will best respect their ultimate destiny? More serious matters deserve more serious prayer and thought.

Jesus washes the feet of Peter in a fresco in the Church of St. Matthew in Stitar, Croatia. Zvonimir Atletic via Shutterstock

The Church, in its role of handing on the Faith, can be helpful when one is discerning the loving thing to do in a specific situation. The Church has developed principles based on Jesus’ words that assist us in loving well, and they constitute what has come to be called the social teaching of the Church. The first principle that guides every decision to love is the inherent and inalienable dignity of each human being. Love will not act contrary to the dignity of the human person, but it will seek the good for that person (always keeping in mind the ultimate good of union with God in heaven). Therefore, innocent people (including children within the womb) cannot be murdered; persons cannot be used as things; and every person deserves the basic necessities of life, including work, nutrition, shelter, employment and medical care. Moreover, loving after the model of Christ means being attentive to those who are neediest and most vulnerable and cast off from society.

Pope Francis said in an April 2017 TED Talk — a first for a pope — that “we all need each other.” The “future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a ‘you’ and themselves as part of an ‘us.’” So, in addition to the foundational principle of Catholic social teaching, there are three others that highlight the “us” of society. Christians are called to work for the common good, at times even freely foregoing a private privilege for the benefit of the community. Traffic laws are a simple example because they inhibit an individual’s freedom of movement so that a greater number of individuals may travel safely. The second principle is subsidiarity by which the Church means that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1883). For example, the government should refrain from regulating the private activities and concerns of a family. The third principle is solidarity, which echoes the sentiment expressed by Pope Francis in the TED Talk, that the human community enjoys not only a common beginning but also shares a common responsibility toward one another.

Our Lady of Prompt Succor
As followers of Christ, we are called to love as Jesus loves. Shutterstock

Honoring relationships

These principles are lived out in a personal way through acts of charity and the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy — individuals helping others in need, family members taking care of each other, etc. However, it does not take long to realize that individual efforts alone cannot make a dent in terms of responding to many of society’s ills. This in no way denigrates one human being helping another; giving some money or providing a meal to a homeless person may be the one act of charity he or she receives that day. Who knows what that kind act might spark? But there remains the larger problem of homelessness (not to mention other problems), which requires what Benedict XVI calls the Church’s practice of love: All the members together providing “an ordered service to the community.”

And love has been organized from the very beginnings of the Church. As soon as Jesus ascended into heaven, Christian communities began serving all people: fellow believers and strangers alike. St. Paul, who received the love of Jesus in a powerful way on the road to Damascus, traveled throughout the Mediterranean basin going from church to church, gathering a collection of money for the poor in Jerusalem (See 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8:1-9:15; Rom 15:14-32). In the post-apostolic age, “pagans were struck by the Christians’ concern for the needy of every sort,” and thereby testify to the Church’s outreach (Deus Caritas Est, No. 22). By the mid-fourth century, institutions within monasteries and dioceses called “diaconiae” were established “for the service of charity” (No. 23). These institutions of the local churches would distribute food and clothing and provide housing and medical assistance, to anyone in need.

The diaconia system is far-removed from the 21st century in terms of time, and other Church organizations have taken its place (like the Caritas Internationalis and Catholic Charities ministries), but the call it responded to and the services it provided are the same for every era.

The Church in its ordered service to the community still heeds Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you.” And whether it’s distributing grain to a community 500 years ago or providing shelter to a homeless person today, the particular service remains grounded in the same principles: the inherent dignity of each human person and the attainment of the common good through subsidiarity and solidarity.

Charity and Religious Freedom
The Church is one of the subjects in society that needs its freedom protected, and the Church is not shy about reminding the state of this responsibility. But the point is not to exert power but to be free as a member of society to contribute to the common good and to fulfill its mission. “The Church’s charitable organizations ... constitute an opus proprium, a task agreeable to her, in which she does not cooperate collaterally but acts as a subject with direct responsibility, doing what corresponds to her nature. The Church can never be exempted from practicing charity as an organized activity of believers” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 29).

When all is said and done, the call to love from God, both as an individual and as a member of the Church, is about honoring the relationships one has with God and with others. One’s love for God is manifested in love for one’s neighbor: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). The individual person who has accepted God’s love takes care of himself or herself and his or her family as a service of love. This is an application of subsidiarity based in the principle of human dignity. However, the individual’s service does not end with his or her family. As time and resources allow, the individual serves his brothers and sisters by sharing time, talent or treasure. This is an application of solidarity. Both kinds of service uphold human dignity and the common good. They also honor God by returning the love he gives, yielding a most fruitful harvest.

David Werning writes from Virginia.

Nihil Obstat: Msgr. Michael Heintz, Censor Librorum