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Distortion of Morality and of Love of Neighbor

This shift of emphasis is also expressed in a distortion of morality. First of all, morality is stripped of its transcendence and reduced to relations among men. One fails to sec that all morality unfolds between God and man. Even if in many sins we do wrong to other men, the moral evil of the wrong, the moral disvalue of our behavior, is always directed against God. God is offended by sin. The wrong which I do another can be forgiven me by him; but the sin, the moral evil of my behavior, can only be forgiven me by God. I am responsible to God for the sin. The transcendence of moral good and evil, which points beyond this world and our earthly existence into eternity, is related to the fact that the drama of moral good and evil unfolds between God and man.

Secondly, one distorts morality by reducing it to love of neighbor. We have already mentioned that many sins are immediately directed against Cod and that they lie outside of the sphere of love of neighbor: for example, the sin of pride the non serviam (I will not serve) of Lucifer, the sin of impurity, the sin of lying (even if it does not involve any deception which harms another), the sin of disobeying the positive commands of God. Furthermore, there are sins which are based on a wrong which I inflict on myself. Suicide is only a wrong against myself, not against another, unless there are special circumstances. But the immorality of suicide, the sin of it, is directed, as in every sin, against God. The sin of me playing Lord of life and death, of arrogating a right which I do not possess, is committed in euthanasia, in which I perhaps even do good to a suffering person. If even a deed which does another person good can be morally wrong, can be a sin offending God, then it is clear that morality cannot be reduced to love of neighbor, and even less to human relations.

A distortion of love of neighbor goes together with this distortion of morality. The very expression in German, Mitmenschlichkeit, shows the humanitarian perversion of love of neighbor. This perversion comes mainly from the separation of love of neighbor from its root in the love of Christ. Here, too, this separation is not put forward as an explicit, heretical thesis. We are not here speaking of the patently foolish statements of those priests and laymen who say: if atheists have neglected the love of God, they have cultivated the love of neighbor, whereas Christians have neglected the love of neighbor in cultivating the love of God; Christians and atheists must, then, learn from one another, and complement one another. This is sheer nonsense. But here we are speaking of an insidious poison, of tendencies which, by false emphases or by silence on certain truths, undermine the substance of the Christian revelation and the teaching of the holy Church.” 58

This subversion of Christian truth occurs when love of neighbor is said to be the only actualization of the love of Christ, or when love of neighbor is said to be identical with the love of God in and through Christ.

Love of neighbor is indeed a necessary fruit of the true love of God. If there is no love of neighbor, there is no true love of God. Love of neighbor is a test for the authenticity and the extent of our love of God. But it is by no means the only manifestation or actualization of the love of God.

The fact that one thing is a test for the presence of another, does not mean that this thing is the only manifestation and actualization of it. Whether a man is honest is surely a test for his moral standing. If someone is dishonest and is deceitful in small things, it perhaps reveals that his whole moral character is bad. But this does not mean that honesty is the only manifestation of a man's moral attitudes, nor that it is their only possible actualization. Consider how the love of God in and through Christ manifests itself apart from love of neighbor. Consider every deep repentance over our sins; consider all the virtues. especially purity and humility, as well as acts of adoration of God, acts of obedience toward the positive commands of God and His holy Church. The love of God shows itself in resisting temptations to do something morally wrong, in obeying God rather than man, in resisting public opinion, in being free from human respect, and in countless other attitudes which are not forms of love of neighbor. But the highest manifestations of love of God, the highest actualization of love of Christ, the deed which reaches beyond every other moral deed and attains to sanctify, is the death of a martyr, which can obviously not be interpreted as a fruit of love of neighbor. In the whole Christian tradition martyrdom has held the highest place, and every martyr has been numbered among the saints on the basis of his martyrdom.

But above all there is a full actualization of love of Christ when we respond directly to the incomprehensible holiness of Jesus by showing Him adoring love and loving adoration. When we examine our conscience and awaken repentance in ourselves, there is an actualization of the love of God we direct ourselves immediately to God, we accuse ourselves before Him, and feel the pain of having offended Him: now all this is a pure manifestation of the love of God.

We find a special manifestation of this love in the contemplative adoration of Christ, in the commerce intime with Jesus, such as we find in mystics. like St. Catherine of Siena. The importance of the direct love of Christ in her dialogues with Jesus, should make it clear what the actualization of this direct love is, and what a sublime value it possesses. But of course this direct love of Jesus is in no way limited to the mystics.

All this shows clearly how nonsensical it is to make the even more radical statement that love of neighbor is not only the one possible manifestation of love of God, but that they are both identical. In this thesis the nature of love of God and love of Christ is utterly misunderstood. One no longer sees that this love is a unique value response to the infinite holiness of God and of Christ, one no longer understands the nature of this love and its difference from any kind of love for a creature. One has thereby ceased to understand the center, the soul of the Christian Faith. One has simply eliminated the first of Christ's two greatest commandments (“You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole mind, with your whole strength”) and pretends that there is only the second of the two commandments. This is surely the most catastrophic of all the consequences of this-worldliness and of the shift of emphasis which we discussed above.

Essential Difference between love of God and love of Neighbor, and the Relation between Them

In my book Das Wesen der Liebe (The Nature of Love). I have dealt at length with the radical difference in kind between love of God and love of neighbor. Here I limit myself to certain points developed in the eleventh chapter of that book. The love for God and for Christ, the God-man, is the adoring love of the creature, it is a love in which I ultimately abandon my very being to the Lord. It would be idolatrous blasphemy to show this love for any creature, and in reality this would not even be possible.

This deep qualitative difference is expressed in the formulation of the two great commandments. The first is: “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole mind, with your whole strength.” But the second is formulated this way: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Furthermore, the love for God and for Jesus is a value response par excellence, whereas in the love of neighbor we approach and embrace our neighbor with a holy goodness which, as we shall see, is exclusively a fruit of the love for God and for Christ. The love of neighbor, which we should show even to an odious and repulsive man, indeed, even to an enemy of God, is not awakened and motivated by the beauty of the neighbor. A pure value response toward the character of such men would rather have to be the radical rejection of them, it is only the holy goodness which unfolds in our love for Christ and which, having received the seeds of it in baptism, we show toward such men despite their disvalues it is only this which enables us to see the ontological value which each of them possesses as imago Dei (image of God), and to see the sacred dignity which each possesses because Christ died on the Cross for him.

As a further fundamental difference between love of neighbor and love for Christ, let us add that the love for Christ brings with it the yearning to be united with Him who is infinitely holy. In this love the intentio unionis (desire for union with the beloved) is in the foreground, whereas in the love of neighbor this intenlio unionis plays a much smaller role than the intentio benevolentiae (desire to confer good upon the beloved). The love for God and for Christ is more similar to marital love than to love of neighbor, as far as the prominence of the intenlio unionis goes. This point of similarity is the basis of many analogies in the liturgy, and is expressed in the language of the mystics. The love for Christ, the loving adoration and contemplation of Him, is an infinite source of happiness, a climax of frui (contemplative enjoyment). But none of this is found in love of neighbor or love of enemy this love is a source of happiness only in the very different way that through it we dwell in the kingdom of holy goodness. The “beloved,” he to whom we show love of neighbor, is not a source of happiness, but rather the union with Christ which is actualized in the love of neighbor is the source of happiness.

When one emphasizes the dependency of love of neighbor on love for Christ, these words of Christ are quite often cited as an objection: “Whatever you have done to the least of my brethren, you have done to me.” In The Trojan Horse in the City of God I have dealt with the misunderstanding which is at the basis of this objection. But I want to take up the matter again, since this misunderstanding is so widespread.

In these words, love of Christ, direct response to Him, as well as loving obedience, are presupposed. For we would all be ready to help Christ if we should encounter Him personally. The fact that love for Christ is presupposed, is clearly shown when, after Christ speaks the surprising words, “I was hungry, and you did not give me to eat, naked, and you did not cloth me,” He is then asked, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, and not give You to eat?” By Christ identifying Himself with the least of His brothers, a link is established between the deed of love of neighbor, and the love for Christ. This gives us a totally new motivation for loving our neighbor. But this link in no way involves any identification of love of neighbor and love for God. This encounter with Christ in the least of men is something wonderful, something mysterious but what is found is not the individual character of such men, not their value. but rather the merciful love of Christ, the embrace of His love. Thus the sense in which He is present in our neighbor in no way eliminates the infinite difference between the sacred humanity of Christ and all other men.

Someone might object: what has been said holds only for bad men who neglect their neighbor and who excuse themselves by saying that they have not neglected Him; but how are we to understand the words of Christ to the good, “You fed me when I was hungry, you clothed me when I was naked.” These, too, answer. “Lord, when did we feed you and cloth you?” Do we not have here a finding of Christ in our neighbor? If Christ can say, “What you have done to the least of my brethren, you have done to me,” then the good deeds done for our neighbor refer to Christ, even if they were done with reference to our neighbor rather than to Christ.

But to all this we have to say that even here there is no question of finding Christ in our neighbor. This is shown in their answer, “Lord, when did we meet you and feed you?” What they did was to follow the commandments of Christ. Christ, who has said, “Whoever loves me keeps my commandments,” has enjoined love of neighbor upon us. But following His commandments a clear consequence of loving Christ is obviously quite different from finding Christ in our neighbor. The radical difference in kind, and even the qualitative difference, between the love for Christ and the love of neighbor is in no way blurred.

Furthermore, we have to distinguish here between two different meanings of “find.” it can mean that someone, such as a saint, can somehow disclose to us the reality of Christ. In this sense, as we will see, we do not find Christ in our neighbor. But if we take “find” in the sense of “encounter,” then there is a meaning to the statement that we find Christ in our neighbor. But this encounter with Him has quite a special character; it is radically different from every direct contact with Christ. When we turn to Christ in prayer, and when he touches our heart in a special way, this contact has a completely different character from every encounter with Him in our neighbor. This contact is the source of the highest and most sublime happiness which we can experience on earth (unless we receive mystical graces), for the vision of Jesus face to face in eternity will be the source of our blessedness. This personal contact with Christ is the real finding of Him and Jesus delights and intoxicates our souls, and fills them with happiness.

We find a distant analogy in the case of a saint, who reflects the infinite holiness of Christ. But this is not at all true of our neighbor. Only as a fruit of loving Christ, in the realization that Christ, too, loves our neighbor, in the knowledge that He has said, “What you have done to the least of my brothers, you have done to me,” only thus can we attain to true love of neighbor and encounter Christ in our neighbor, see him in the light of Christ. Then we find in him, not exactly Christ, but a preciousness and loveableness which he has through Christ, as one sent and loved by Him. So we see that even the words of Jesus addressed to the good, “What you have done to the least of my brothers, you have done to me,” in no way blurs the radical difference in kind and the qualitative difference between love for Christ and love of neighbor. We can never experience Christ in our neighbor, and the response of love to Christ makes love of neighbor possible in the first place.

We repeat: we can never experience Christ in our neighbor. Our neighbor is in no way an “epiphany” of God he does not disclose to us an incomprehensible holiness he is a man with all his weaknesses, and sometimes laden with terrible disvalues. Qua neighbor he has no qualitative similarity with Jesus at all. Thus the finding of Christ in our neighbor involves no revelation of the sacred humanity of Christ, nor any response to a reflection of His sacred humanity. We can see this clearly in comparing our love for a neighbor with the love which a saint can engender in our hearts. The saint is a reflection of Jesus, he has a qualitative similarity with the sacred humanity of Jesus, he is an imitation of Christ, however great the difference which remains between him and Christ. In the saint we can discover something of the unique quality of holiness. He is thus in his holiness a way for us to reach Christ. Reverent love for him contains a weak analogy to our love for Christ. This love, which for instance Brother Leo felt for St. Francis of Assisi, is a pure value response.

In order to meet Christ in our neighbor, especially in the suffering and the needy, we have to have already found Christ and have given a value response to His infinite holiness. Here “find” means that we see in our neighbor someone who is loved and redeemed by Christ, and that we know that we should treat him as such. Love of neighbor is a command of Christ, and there is a link in Matthew 25 between our relation to our neighbor and our relation to Christ, because Christ has said, “Whoever loves me keeps my commandments.” Every act of love of neighbor is a glorification of God, as is all supernatural morality, and every manifestation of love of neighbor refers ultimately to Christ.

It is not as if love of neighbor were only an act of obedience to Christ. That would be a great error, against which I have written in many of my works (especially The Sacred Heart, and the chapter “False Reactions” in The Trojan Horse). 59 No, love of neighbor implies a real interest in our neighbor as such, as this unrepeatable unique individual. But real love of neighbor demands the love of Christ, which precedes the love of neighbor and is radically different from it. It demands holy goodness in our souls, and the direct love for Jesus of which it is constituted. Only in direct. loving confrontation with Christ can He let this holy goodness, which is the essence of caritas. unfold in our souls. It belongs to the nature of love of neighbor that we approach our neighbor with this holy goodness. even before we have responded to him individually. And only through love for Christ, only through the freeing of our vision by direct value response to Him, can we discover in our neighbor despite all his ugliness, his mediocrity, his hostility to God the ontological value which he possesses as Imago Dei (image of God), a value which cannot be destroyed as long as a man lives, not even by himself. 60

Here we have to mention the particular loveableness of those who suffer; this is something which not every one who is our neighbor possesses. The suffering which a man has to bear is a cross which God has imposed on him. All suffering which has the character of a cross confers a certain aura on him who suffers it is something which should fill us with a certain reverence. Through Christ and in Christ all suffering and all crosses have become something honorable.

There is of course a noble pity which is purely natural and which presupposes neither the Christian Revelation nor the love of Christ. There is a humanitarian love of man, and much good has been done for men as a result of this pity and a natural readiness to help. But as I have shown at length in my book, Das Wesen der Liebe (The Nature of Love), these attitudes are radically different from Christian love of neighbor. True love of neighbor necessarily presupposes, as we have shown above, direct love for Christ, a value response to His sacred humanity and to the self-revelation of God in Him, and this is something radically different from humanitarian love of neighbor.

It is bad enough that one distorts the love of neighbor by failing to understand that it is rooted in the pure love for Jesus; it is bad enough that. caught up in a false this-worldliness; one is more concerned with one's neighbor than with obeying. loving, and glorifying God. But in addition to all this we cannot fail to recognize the materialism which lies in the fact that one emphasizes mainly that love of neighbor which refers to material goods. In sermons and even in pastoral letters we constantly hear about the struggle against poverty and war but little about spiritual goods for our neighbor and about that burning zeal for his salvation which consumed all the saints and all homines religiosi (religious men).

We have already mentioned that real love of neighbor finds its highest expression in an interest in his sanctification and eternal salvation. But here we want to mention some of the expressions of true love of neighbor. It is for instance love of neighbor to console in their worries those lonely persons who are not supported by any human love, to surround them with human warmth; to listen patiently to our neighbor, to sympathize with him in his psychic and spiritual sufferings, to be patient with him, to rejoice with him in his happiness, to stimulate him intellectually, to disclose values to him in the realm of beauty, to disclose truths to him; to give him the spiritual help he needs to come closer to Jesus: and there are many. many other ways of showing love of neighbor.

What we have said here about the relation between love of God and love of neighbor. has always been understood in the Church. What was the main theme in the writings of the great theologians and mystics? Whether we look to the Confessions of St. Augustine, to the Itinerarium (The Journey of the Soul to God) of St. Bonaventure, to the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, to the writings of St. Theresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross, to the Theotimus of St. Francis de Sales, or to the many writings of the great Cardinal Newman in all these works we will find in the foreground the love of God, the love for Jesus Christ, although love of neighbor as a necessary fruit of love for God is done full justice. In all of them we find the intimate relation between the two loves clearly stated but each is always in the right hierarchical relation to the other, and the two are never identified.

But today? Where are the theologians who still speak of the direct love for God, of the commerce intime with Jesus? What sermons, pastoral letters, or encyclicals deal extensively with the nature of the direct love for God, for Christ Jesus, and with the difference between this love and love of neighbor, and with the way in which love of neighbor is grounded in love for God?

How Neglect of love for God Leeds to Distortion of Love of Neighbor

The distortion of the sacred humanity of Jesus, of which we spoke above, and the resulting failure to understand the love for Christ (we have said that this love is the axis of sanctification and of the whole Christian life) also necessarily leads to a distortion and watering down of the love of neighbor itself. One sign of this distortion is the cry for peace which can be heard everywhere in the Church, and the failure to remember that Christ not only said that He came to bring peace, but also that He came to bring the sword (Mt. 10:34).

Love of neighbor is confused with a cheerful willingness to give in. One no longer understands that real love of neighbor just as often has to say “No” to the wishes of our neighbor as “Yes.” Through the disastrous shift of emphasis which lies in this-worldliness, one has lost sight of the great drama of human existence the fall of man, his redemption by Christ, the fact that justification calls for sanctification, the responsibility which we have as a result, the fact that this life is a status viae (a pilgrimage), that we face the alternatives of eternal blessedness and damnation, of heaven and hell. True love of neighbor demands that we be awakened to this drama; our unique interest in him is possible only when we see him in the light of this drama. Love of neighbor is impossible in the presence of mediocrity, of the repulsiveness of evil pride, of the deadly oppressive atmosphere of an enemy of God like Hitler, unless we see our neighbor in the light of the objective tragedy which these attitudes involve. Then we see in our neighbor a man who was created in the image of God, called by God to similitudo Dei in personal sanctification and to eternal union with God, but who has brought the most terrible guilt upon himself, who is facing the terrible judgment of God, who has rejected the redeeming hand of Christ. Only in this supernatural light, against the background of this tragedy, is it possible to show him true love of neighbor. As soon as we lose sight of the supernatural situation of man and see everything in the light of this world, it not only becomes impossible to show love of neighbor toward the enemy of God, but this love is deprived of all its power and depth.

No sooner has one forgotten that the eternal salvation of our neighbor has to be our main concern for him, than real love of neighbor becomes impossible. No sooner does one cease to understand that love of neighbor does not seek fulfilment of all his wishes, than this love becomes a weakness and a way of giving in. No sooner does one forget the words of St. Augustine. “Interficere errorem, diligere errantem” (“kill the error, love him who errs”), than one loses all understanding for real love of neighbor. Love of neighbor can only be rightly understood when we realize that we live in a situation in which we are bound to reject all moral mistakes and even many non-moral disvalues, in which we have to struggle against error and evil struggle against them with all our might but in which love of neighbor extends even to him who errs, who is evil. even to him who is the enemy of God. We can understand love of neighbor rightly, and its holy power, only when we see it against the background of all those acts which reject what is wrong. To this we are called, indeed obliged.

The Mysteries of the Faith Interpreted as a Means for love of Neighbor

Some Catholics who indeed believe in the dogmas but who are primarily concerned with the improvement of the world, regard the Incarnation, the Redemption, sanctifying grace, all as means for the growth of love of neighbor. (They express this not so much in an explicit statement as in their attitudes.) Fraternal charity seems to them the goal for the sake of which God does everything that He does. They no longer see the incomprehensible glory of the Incarnation as such, this manifestation of the infinite love and mercy of God, and fall down in adoration. They no longer see the ultimate seriousness of the economy of Redemption the horror of being separated from God, the in umbra morlis sedere (sitting in the shadow of death), and then the tremendous source of all true joy, the Redemption through Christ, of which the Church sings at Easter: “Agnus redemit oves: Christus innocens Patri reconciliavit peccatores” (“The lamb has redeemed the sheep: Christ who was innocent has reconciled sinners to the Father”). The Redemption makes the eternal happiness of the individual possible, and this is incomparably more important than any earthly progress.

When we say that such Catholics fail to understand the tremendous gift of sanctifying grace, which makes it possible for us to become holy and thus and this is the most important thing of all to glorify God, they would protest that they do believe all this. But the proof that they have fallen prey to this-worldliness is their unconscious tendency to look upon all this as a means, and to set as their main goal fraternal charity and earthly peace.

In this way one becomes blind even to the real glory and specific value of love of neighbor. For as we saw, this love is possible only as a fruit of our love for Jesus Christ; by its nature it flows from a love very different in kind, from love for Christ and for God in and through Christ. This love cannot be compared with any love for a creature. It is a value-response to God's incomprehensible holiness.

Love of neighbor is no longer understood in its specific value, and as a glorification of God; instead, one sees mainly its effect in improving the world. This is a particularly dangerous form of this-worldliness, because here the objective hierarchy of things is totally reversed, and one falls into a kind of religious utilitarianism without at all understanding its incompatibility with the teaching of the Church.


58. “Today one does not try to lead man to Christ. rather Christ is reduced to the merely human and the social. Christ has indeed sent us pastors to men. but this was so that we might lead them to Him, so that they might through Him receive grace and come to the Father.” Quoted in Una Voce Korrespondenz, Januar/Februar, 1972, from the letter of a Lutheran pastor to a Roman Catholic priest.

59. However grave this error, it is a lesser error than today's tendency to reduce love of God to love of neighbor, as the following consideration will show:

In every case in which one identifies different things, there is a very great difference, according to the “direction” which the identification takes. For example, the identification of body and soul can take the form of reducing the soul to the body (materialism), or of reducing the body to the soul and thus denying the full reality of matter (as in Berkeley's spiritualism). Similarly, there is a great difference between the pantheism which divinizes nature, and the pantheism which makes God a part of nature, that is, which naturalizes Him.

The “direction” of an identification is something different from the error of the identification itself, from the error of identifying different things. It is a fundamental error not to distinguish body and soul. But prescinding from this error, there is the question whether in this identification one denies the body and matter, or the soul and spirit. This latter is by fur the graver error. Thus today in the Church when one identifies love of God with love of neighbor, one commits the much worse error of reducing the love of God to the love of neighbor. rather than the other way around. In earlier times one sometimes reduced the love of neighbor to the love of God though this identification occurred only on a very limited scale, among certain devout nuns rather than among significant theologians. In this identification one tums love of neighbor into a mere act of obedience toward Christ one thinks that. if one is motivated by the love of Christ, it is enough to treat one's neighbor as il one loves him. But today's danger of reducing the love of Cod to the love of neighbor is incomparably worse and more dangerous, first because it is not limited to small groups but is found among theologians, in pastoral letters, and other places, and then secondly and especially because the direct love for Christ is far more important than love of neighbor, and because love of neighbor is possible for us only if we have the direct love for Christ, only if love of neighbor is objectively grounded in the love for Christ.

60. This horrible confusion, which overlooks all these essential differences, also manifests itself in the dreadful practice. especially in America, of replacing the pictures and statues of saints in the churches, and even of Jesus, with pictures of poor and suffering men.


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