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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. 

Dr. Susan Selner-Wright
Dr. Susan Selner-Wright is an Associate Professor and the Archbishop Charles Chaput Chair of Philosophy at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.
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