Catholic Encyclopedia: Love, Theological Virtue of
The third and greatest of the Divine virtues enumerated by St. Paul (1 Cor., xiii, 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 , by Divine infusion. "The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts,
by the Holy Ghost" (Rom., v, 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 , 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 , 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 (xiv, 23; xv, 14) emphasizes the feature of reciprocity which makes
charity a veritable friendship of man with God.
(4) Its , 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 (q.
(5) Its , 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 Matt., xxii, 39, and Luke, x, 27. Hence one and the same virtue of
charity terminates in both God and man, God primarily and man secondarily.
I. Love of God
Man's paramount duty of loving God is tersely expressed in Deut., vi, 5; Matt., xxii, 37;
and Luke, x, 27. Quite obvious is the imperative character of the words "thou shalt".
Innocent XI (Denziger, 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 (Matt.,
x, 37). St. Thomas (II-II, Q. xliv, a. 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).
The love of God is even more than a precept binding the human conscience; it is also,
as Le Camus observes, "the principle and goal of moral perfection."
As the 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 Cor xiii, 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 , always in the supernatural order, the love of God is
called "the greatest and the first commandment" (Matt., xxii, 38), "the end of the
commandment" (1 Tim., i, 5), " the bond of perfection" (Col., iii, 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, vii,
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 (Rom,.viii, 28), covers both the
acts elicited or commanded by charity. St. Augustine (De laudibus quartets) calls
charity the "life of virtues" (); and St. Thomas (II-II, Q. xxiii, a. 8), the
"form of virtues" (). 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
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.
II. 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
(1) 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
(Matt., xvi, 26), the acquisition of merits (Matt., vi, 19 sqq.), the Christian use of our
body (Rom., vi, 13; 1 Cor., vi, 19; Col., iii, 5). and can hardly be brought down to
practical points not already covered by more specific precepts.
(2) 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
(Matt., xxv, 34 sqq.), the best proof that we love God Himself (1 John, iii, 10), and the
fulfilment of the whole law (Gal., v, 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, xiii, 35), and a kind of moral identity
between Christ and the neighbour (Matt., xxv, 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 (Lev., xix, 34), but must
needs extend it, without distinction of Jew or Gentile (Rom., x, 12), to all the units of the
human kind, to social outcasts (Luke, x, 33 sqq.), and even to enemies (Matt., v, 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 , as
theologians a term it, possibly from a wrong rendering into Latin of Cant., ii, 4
(), 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,
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
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
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, in , II (New York,
1906), 426; SLATER, , I (New York, 1909), 179 sqq.;
BATIFFOL, (Paris 1905); NORTHCOTE, (London, 1907); GAFFRE, (Paris, 1908); DE SALES,
; PESCH , VIII
(Freiburg im Br., 1898), 226 sqq.; DUBLANCHY in s. v.
, with an exhaustive bibliography of the theologians and mystics who
have dealt with this matter.
J. F. SOLLIER
Transcribed by Gerard Haffner
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