What the Golden Rule can teach us about rightly-ordered love

The very first principle of the moral life is that we are to do good and avoid evil. Saintly minds have argued over the centuries that so long as a person understands the meaning of this statement, it is a self-evident truth with which no reasonable person can disagree. Of course, the challenge is, what is good and what is evil? This is a question that is increasingly difficult to answer today.

Jesus explains that the very first principle by which we begin to grasp the difference between good and evil is what we have conventionally come to know as the golden rule. We know this commandment in two forms: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” or “whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Mt 22:39; Mt 7:12). In either case the proper love of self is the foundation for knowing how to treat others. 

Self-Love as Self-Gift

The difficulty with the golden rule, however, is that if we do not have a proper sense of self-love, our determination of how we ought to treat others will be skewed. In other words, if self-love is self-seeking, our conscience will lead us to false judgments regarding love of neighbor. Thus, the more self-referential one becomes, the less able one can truly love their neighbor. 

For this reason, the proper love of self depends upon the love of God and our obedience to his commandments. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Mt 22:37-38). The implication is that by loving God above all, a person will perceive how best to love their neighbor since self-love will be rooted in the love of God. 

Because of the importance of the Golden Rule to moral integrity, Jesus clarifies its meaning in his Last Supper discourse:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34). What Jesus models throughout his life is a form of self-love whereby he offers himself as a gift and sacrifice to humanity—to all of us—on behalf of his love for his Father. In other words, the best way to love self is to offer oneself in service to neighbor, as illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

This is what Christians mean by charity, or in Greek, Agape. Jesus tells us that true love is not so much about what we desire or find attractive, but rather about offering our self to others in affirmation of human dignity.  ⊲

Does Love Have No Limits?

Today, we often hear people speak about “unconditional love.” This is how Jesus’ teaching is interpreted. The argument basically states that God loves us “unconditionally,” no matter what. The implication here is that Jesus’s love is entirely inclusive of everyone. After, all, Jesus associated with and called the social outcasts and marginalized to be his disciples. This is true and no one can dispute this. Divine love does not discriminate on the level of human dignity. 

However, this does not mean that Jesus accepted every form of behavior or every human intention. While Jesus indeed loves every person—he died for all—to remain in his love, He commands us to follow the “narrow way,” which he explains in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). In other words, God does not withhold his love from anyone. However, He also does not reconcile himself with sin. He commands us to be perfect as His heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).

The greatest illustration of the point is the story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). Jesus did not condemn her, but he also commanded her to sin no more. Jesus called the woman into covenant fellowship with him, but at the same time, called her to leave behind her sinful ways. Jesus’s love was not legalistic or punitive, but neither was it an accommodation to sin. His love is best understood as a transformative call to conversion.

One of the biggest challenges to the Christian notion of love today is the idea that we are not to judge. Jesus clearly teaches us not to judge others, lest we ourselves be judged (Mt 7:1-3). We are also to forgive others that wrong us and be merciful (Mt 6:14-15; Lk 6:36). Somehow not judging others has come to mean that we are not allowed to make moral judgments, especially when it comes to human sexuality. It ought to be obvious, however, that we cannot forgive an offense or show mercy toward another’s faults if we are not allowed to make any moral judgments. How would we know to forgive if we do not know we have been wronged?

The proper way to understand Jesus’ teaching here is to distinguish between making a judgment about the moral character of an action and condemning others in our hearts because of their sin. Christian love must always affirm the dignity of a person, and so embrace him or her—to love our enemies for example—but Christian charity can never embrace sinful behavior as acceptable to God. It is simply false to suggest that if I make a moral judgment, I am therefore not loving the other person whose actions are morally wrong.

Today we can observe many efforts to pressure us to not merely tolerate but to accept behavior and lifestyles incompatible with Jesus’ teaching in the name of inclusivity—even among Christians who clearly relativize Jesus’ teaching, as though Christians need to get with the times. For example, the slogan “love is love” and the demand for non-discriminatory laws more inclusive of various expressions of sexuality are often defended by an appeal to inclusivity and “unconditional love.”   

The problem is that this argument fails to distinguish between the person, whom we are commanded to love, and a set of behaviors that we cannot accept because they are incompatible with Jesus’ teaching about the dignity of the human person. 

The love of neighbor is God’s command to affirm the dignity of others through a gift of self. Jesus offers himself to us from the cross, not to gloss over sin, but to call the sinner to repentance. The command to love is not a license to disregard the moral law on account of the dignity of the sinner. To the contrary, according to Jesus’ example, the love of neighbor demands that, for the sake of human dignity, we call others to conversion and help others live according to their true dignity. 

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

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

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.