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The third and greatest of the Divine virtues enumerated by St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:13), usually called charity, defined: a divinely infused habit, inclining the human will to cherish God for his own sake above all things, and man for the sake of God.
This definition sets off the main characteristics of charity:
(1) Its origin, by Divine infusion. “The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost” (Romans 5:5). It is, therefore, distinct from, and superior to, the inborn inclination or the acquired habit of loving God in the natural order. Theologians agree in saying that it is infused together with sanctifying grace, to which it is closely related either by way of real identity, as some few hold, or, according to the more common view, by way of connatural emanation.
(2) Its seat, in the human will. Although charity is at times intensely emotional, and frequently reacts on our sensory faculties, still it properly resides in the rational will a fact not to be forgotten by those who would make it an impossible virtue.
(3) Its specific act, i.e. the love of benevolence and friendship. To love God is to wish Him all honour and glory and every good, and to endeavour, as far as we can, to obtain it for Him. St. John (14:23; 15:14) emphasizes the feature of reciprocity which makes charity a veritable friendship of man with God.
(4) Its motive, i.e., the Divine goodness or amiability taken absolutely and as made known to us by faith. It matters not whether that goodness be viewed in one, or several, or all of the Divine attributes, but, in all cases, it must be adhered to, not as a source of help, or reward, or happiness for ourselves, but as a good in itself infinitely worthy of our love, in this sense alone is God loved for His own sake. However, the distinction of the two loves: concupiscence, which prompts hope; and benevolence, which animates charity, should not be forced into a sort of mutual exclusion, as the Church has repeatedly condemned any attempts at discrediting the workings of Christian hope.
(5) Its range, i.e., both God and man. While God alone is all lovable, yet, inasmuch as all men, by grace and glory, either actually share or at least are capable of sharing in the Divine goodness, it follows that supernatural love rather includes than excludes them, according to Matthew 22:39, and Luke 10:27. Hence one and the same virtue of charity terminates in both God and man, God primarily and man secondarily.
Love of God
Man’s paramount duty of loving God is tersely expressed in Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37; and Luke 10:27. Quite obvious is the imperative character of the words “thou shalt”. Innocent XI (Denzinger, nos. 1155-57) declares that the precept is not fulfilled by an act of charity performed once in a lifetime, or every five years, or on the rather indefinite occasions when justification cannot be otherwise procured.
Moralists urge the obligation at the beginning of the moral life when reason has attained its full development; at the point of death; and from time to time during life, an exact count being neither possible nor necessary since the Christian habit of daily prayer surely covers the obligation.
The violation of the precept is generally negative, i.e., by omission or indirect, i.e., implied in every grievous fault; there are, however, sins directly opposed to the love of God: spiritual sloth, at least when it entails a voluntary loathing of spiritual goods, and the hatred of God, whether it be an abomination of God’s restrictive and punitive laws or an aversion for His Sacred Person (see SLOTH; HATRED).
The qualifications, “with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength”, do not mean a maximum of intensity, for intensity of action never falls under a command; still less do they imply the necessity of feeling more sensible love for God than for creatures, for visible creatures, howsoever imperfect, appeal to our sensibility much more than the invisible God. Their true significance is that, both in our mental appreciation and in our voluntary resolve, God should stand above all the rest, not excepting father or mother, son or daughter (Matthew 10:37). St. Thomas (II-II.44.5) would assign a special meaning to each of the four Biblical phrases; others, with more reason, take the whole sentence in its cumulative sense, and see in it the purpose, not only of raising charity above the low Materialism of the Sadducees or the formal Ritualism of the Pharisees, but also of declaring that “to love God above all things is to insure the sanctity of our whole life” (Le Camus, “Vie de Notre-Seigneur Jesus-Christ”, III, 81).
As the principle of moral perfection in the supernatural order, with faith as foundation and hope as incentive, the love of God ranks first among the means of salvation styled by theologians necessary, necessitate medii”. By stating that “charity never falleth away” (1 Corinthians 13:8), St Paul clearly intimates that there is no difference of kind, but only of degree, between charity here below and glory above; as a consequence Divine love becomes the necessary inception of that God-like life which reaches its fullness in heaven only. The necessity of habitual charity is inferred from its close communion with sanctifying grace. The necessity of actual charity is no less evident. Apart from the cases of the actual reception of baptism, penance, or extreme unction, wherein the love of charity by a special dispensation of God, admits of attrition as a substitute, all adults stand in need of it, according to 1 John, iii, 14: “He that loveth not, abideth in death”.
As the goal of moral perfection, always in the supernatural order, the love of God is called “the greatest and the first commandment” (Matthew 22:38), “the end of the commandment” (1 Tim., i, 5), “the bond of perfection” (Colossians 3:14). It stands as an all-important factor in the two main phases of our spiritual life, justification and the acquisition of merits. The justifying power of charity, so well expressed in Luke 7:47, and 1 Pet., iv, 8, has in no way been abolished or reduced by the institution of the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance as necessary means of moral rehabilitation; it has only been made to include a willingness to receive these sacraments where and when possible. Its meritorious power, emphasized by St. Paul (Romans 8.28), covers both the acts elicited or commanded by charity. St. Augustine (De laudibus quartets) calls charity the “life of virtues” (vita virtutum); and St. Thomas (II-II, Q. xxiii, a. 8), the “form of virtues” (forma virtutum). The meaning is that the other virtues, while possessing a real value of their own, derive a fresh and greater excellence from their union with charity, which, reaching out directly to God, ordains all our virtuous actions to Him.
As to the manner and degree of influence which charity should exercise over our virtuous actions in order to render them meritorious of heaven, theologians are far from being agreed, some requiring only the state of grace, or habitual charity, others insisting upon the more or less frequent renewal of distinct acts of divine love.
Of course, the meritorious power of charity is, like the virtue itself, susceptible of indefinite growth. St. Thomas (II-II, Q. xxiv, 24 a. 4 and 8) mentions three principal stages:
- freedom from mortal sin by strenuous resistance to temptation,
- avoidance of deliberate venial sins by the assiduous practice of virtue,
- union with God through the frequent recurrence of acts of love.
To these, ascetic writers like Alvarez de Paz, St. Teresa, St. Francis of Sales, add many more degrees, thus anticipating even in this world the “many mansions in the Father’s house”. The prerogatives of charity should not, however, be construed so as to include inamissibility. The saying of St. John (1 Ep., iii, 6), “Whosoever abideth in him [God], sinneth not”, means indeed the special permanence of charity chiefly in its higher degrees, but it is no absolute guarantee against the possible loss of it; while the infused habit is never diminished by venial sins, a single grievous fault is enough to destroy it and so end man’s union and friendship with God.
Love of man
While charity embraces all the children of God in heaven, on earth, and in purgatory (see COMMUNION OF SAINTS), it is taken here as meaning man’s supernatural love for man, and that in this world; as such, it includes both love of self and love of neighbour.
Love of self
St. Gregory the Great (Hom. XIII in Evang.) objects to the expression “charity towards self”, on the plea that charity requires two terms, and St. Augustine (De bono viduitatis, xxi) remarks that no command was needed to make man love himself. Obviously, St. Gregory’s objection is purely grammatical; St. Augustine’s remark applies to natural self-love. As a matter of fact, the precept of supernatural love of self is not only possible or needed, but also clearly implied in Christ’s command to love our neighbour as ourselves. Its obligation, however, bears in a vague manner on the salvation of our soul (Matthew 16:26), the acquisition of merits (Matthew 6:19 sqq.), the Christian use of our body (Romans 6:13; 1 Corinthians 6:19; Colossians 3:5). and can hardly be brought down to practical points not already covered by more specific precepts.
Love of neighbour
The Christian idea of brotherly love as compared with the pagan or Jewish concept has been touched upon elsewhere (see CHARITY AND CHARITIES). Briefly, its distinctive feature, and superiority as well, is to be found less in its commands, or prohibitions, or even results, than in the motive which prompts its laws and prepares its achievements. The faithful carrying out of the “new commandment” is called the criterion of true Christian discipleship (John xiii, 34 sq.), the standard by which we shall be judged (Matthew 25:34 sqq.), the best proof that we love God Himself (1 John 3:10), and the fulfilment of the whole law (Galatians 5:14), because, viewing the neighbour in God and through God, it has the same value as the love of God. The expression “to love the neighbour for the sake of God” means that we rise above the consideration of mere natural solidarity and fellow-feeling to the higher view of our common Divine adoption and heavenly heritage; in that sense only could our brotherly love be brought near to the love which Christ had for us (John 13:35), and a kind of moral identity between Christ and the neighbour (Matthew 25:40), become intelligible. From this high motive the universality of fraternal charity follows as a necessary consequence. Whosoever sees in his fellow-men, not the human peculiarities, but the God-given and God-like privileges, can no longer restrict his love to members of the family, or co-religionists, or fellow-citizens, or strangers within the borders (Leviticus 19:34), but must needs extend it, without distinction of Jew or Gentile (Romans 10:12), to all the units of the human kind, to social outcasts (Luke 10:33 sqq.), and even to enemies (Matthew 5:23 sq.). Very forcible is the lesson wherein Christ compels His hearers to recognize, in the much despised Samaritan, the true type of the neighbour, and truly new is the commandment whereby He urges us to forgive our enemies, to be reconciled with them, to assist and love them.
The exercise of charity would soon become injudicious and inoperative unless there be in this, as in all the moral virtues, a well-defined order. The ordo caritatis, as theologians a term it, possibly from a wrong rendering into Latin of Cant., ii, 4 (ordinavit in me charitatem), takes into account these different factors:
- the persons who claim our love,
- the advantages which we desire to procure for them, and
- the necessity in which they are placed.
The precedence is plain enough when these factors are viewed separately. Regarding the persons alone, the order is somewhat as follows: self, wife, children, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, domestics, neighbours, fellow-countrymen, and all others. Considering the goods by themselves, there is a triple order:
- the most important spiritual goods appertaining to the salvation of the soul should first appeal to our solicitude; then
- the intrinsic and natural goods of the soul and body, like life, health, knowledge, liberty, etc.;
- finally, the extrinsic goods of reputation, wealth, etc.
Viewing apart the various kinds of necessity, the following order would obtain:
- first, extreme necessity, wherein a man is in danger of damnation, or of death, or of the loss of other goods of nearly equal importance and can do nothing to help himself;
- second, grave necessity, when one placed in similar danger can extricate himself only by heroic efforts;
- third, common necessity, such as affects ordinary sinners or beggars who can help themselves without great difficulty.
When the three factors are combined, they give rise to complicated rules, the principal of which are these:
- The love of complacency and the love of benefaction do not follow the same standard, the former being guided by the worthiness, the latter by the nearness and need, of the neighbour.
- Our personal salvation is to be preferred to all else. We are never justified in committing the slightest sin for the love of any one or anything whatsoever, nor should we expose ourselves to spiritual danger except in such cases and with such precautions as would give us a moral right to, and guarantee of, God’s protection.
- We are bound to succour our neighbour in extreme spiritual necessity even at the cost of our own life, an obligation which, however supposes the certainty of the neighbour’s need and of the effectiveness of our service to him.
- Except in the very rare cases described above, we are not bound to risk life or limb for our neighbour, but only to undergo that amount of inconvenience which is justified by the neighbour’s need and nearness. Casuists are not agreed as to the right to give one’s life for another’s life of equal importance.
TANQUEREY, De virtute caritatis in Synopsis Theologiae Moralis, II (New York, 1906), 426; SLATER, A Manual of Moral Theology, I (New York, 1909), 179 sqq.; BATIFFOL, L’Enseignement de Jésus (Paris 1905); NORTHCOTE, The Bond of Perfection (London, 1907); GAFFRE, La Loi d’Amour (Paris, 1908); DE SALES, Traité de l’amour de Dieu; PESCH Praelectiones Dogmaticae, VIII (Freiburg im Br., 1898), 226 sqq.; DUBLANCHY in Dict. de Théol. Cath. s.v. Charité, with an exhaustive bibliography of the theologians and mystics who have dealt with this matter.
About this page
APA citation. Sollier, J. (1910). Love (Theological Virtue). In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09397a.htm
MLA citation. Sollier, Joseph. “Love (Theological Virtue).” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Gerard Haffner.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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