Tough love: When loving your neighbor isn’t easy

This is a very difficult time for all of us.  The polarization of our political parties seems to be echoed in deep divisions right across our culture.  Acts of hatred and violence committed by extremists and opportunists shock us daily. Many of us are suffering rifts within our own families that feel unbridgeable.  Sometimes that is because we disagree politically. Sometimes it is because someone thinks that our failure to affirm their choices means we don’t love them. What is a Catholic to do?  How do we love one another as Jesus commands when there is so much hatred all around us and even directed toward us? What do we do when people think we don’t love them because we disagree with them?   

First, we must remember what a Catholic means by “love.” For us, love is not primarily a matter of emotion or attraction.  Nor is it an endorsement of all of someone’s thoughts and actions. Love is not an emotion or a judgment but rather a matter of the will.  To love people as a Catholic Christian means wanting what is good for them and, if possible, doing what is good for them, whatever our feelings about them or our assessment of their choices may be. To love someone who does not love us is difficult precisely because our feelings run the other way. And wanting what is good for someone sometimes means that, if we know that their choices are not good for them, affirming those choices would be an act of cowardice not of love.  Love of those who seem to hate us and love of those we disagree with – let’s look at these one at a time.  

Loving those who don’t love us 

Jesus understands well the difficulty of loving those who seem to hate us.  His command, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” is immediately followed by this caution:  “For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. … [R]ather, love your enemies and do good to them” (Lk 6: 32-33,35). 

This is not easy! Our resentment and even fear of those who do not love us may make it seem impossible to obey Jesus’ command to love them as we love ourselves.  But this is precisely why Jesus gives us this command as the second of the two great commandments: we cannot obey it unless we are already obeying the first: “‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’” (Mt 22: 37-40; Cf. Mk 12: 29-31 and Lk 10:27-28).   

Before we can mend any of our human relationships, each of us must first examine our own relationship with God.  Do I pray?  Do I come before him with the humility to wonder how I might have been a better Christian today?  Do I consider the beam in my own eye before I start complaining about my brother?  Am I mindful that God personally willed me into existence?  Am I grateful for that?  Do I accept his offer of help along the road in this life?  Do I aim myself toward eternal life with him?  This self-reflection is essential if we are to cultivate the love that Jesus commands. 

We cannot want the good for those who hate us or threaten us unless we recognize that they, like us, are sons and daughters of the God whom we love with all our hearts and souls and minds.  They, like us, were individually called into existence by God so that they, like us, might come to choose eternal life with him.  It is our common source and destiny in God that makes authentic human community possible.  This is what it means to establish the kingdom of God.   

So let’s resolve that the next time we are overwhelmed with anxiety or anger because of the words or actions of someone who does not love us, our first move will be onto our knees to pray for that person—to ask that God, who knows what is good for him or her, will bless this person.  And if we have an opportunity to do something good for this person, we should do it.

Loving those whose choices we cannot affirm 

For many of us, praying for our enemies comes more easily than disagreeing with someone we love about something that is important to them. But if we genuinely want the good of another, we cannot blindly endorse whatever they may happen to think is the good for themselves at a particular moment. That might be what they want, but as any parent knows, loving someone and giving them everything they want are not the same at all.  Giving a child everything he or she wants is, in fact, a very destructive form of negligence.   

Recent controversy over a deceptively edited portion of the film “Francesco” has brought to the fore once again the question of the loving response of the family to a member who is same-sex attracted and who chooses to engage in homosexual activity.  Through the Vatican Secretariat of State, Pope Francis has now formally clarified that when he said homosexual persons have a “right” to a family he was repeating a point he has consistently made throughout his ministry, i.e. that no family should mistreat or ostracize a member who is same sex attracted, even if that family member acts on that attraction.  To love this person is to want their authentic good, and among the most important of those goods is an open door and a welcoming ear.  That doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they say or cooperating in things that convey our approval of choices we can’t approve.   

Just as in our love for those who hate us, we cannot properly love those with whom we disagree if we are not already loving God rightly. If we believe that Jesus gave us the Church to be a reliable guide in discerning God’s will, then we must adhere to the Church’s moral teaching in our own lives and, when someone we love chooses something that the Church teaches is not good for them, we must continue to welcome them, continue to share as much of our lives with them as we can, and prepare to share the truth about God’s will with them if a time comes when they are ready to hear it as we mean it: in love. 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.