|The theological virtues: Faith, Charity, Hope|
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 22:34-40
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
“Which is the greatest commandment?” Such is the question of the scholar who put our Savior to the test. However, though this man was acting in behalf of the Pharisees, it is clear from the Scriptures, that he in fact had a deep desire to know Christ Jesus and to become his follower. The goodness of the man is more clear in Mark’s Gospel where our Lord commends and encourages him saying, You are not far from the kingdom of God (Mark 12:34).
The love of God and the love of neighbor is the hinge of the whole moral life. In the final analysis, it is love (i.e. supernatural charity) which determines our eternal reward – to die with charity is to die in the state of grace and attain to heaven, to die without charity is to die in mortal sin and to be condemned to the everlasting punishments of hell.
What then is the nature of this supernatural charity which fulfills the Law and the Prophets? Further, how does the love of neighbor relate to the love of God?
Charity as a theological virtue
Love is not an emotion, neither is it a feeling. Love is not a thought or an idea. Love is not even, in the first place, an action. Rather, love – we mean charity – is a thing, a virtue. Love (charity) is, to be precise, a theological virtue – which means that it comes from God as a free gift, and that it leads us back to God.
Love, first and foremost, is a theological virtue in the soul (specifically, in the will) which unites man to God. Love is a reality, a thing, a res (in Latin) – love is a “habit”, in the philosophical sense of that word: Love is a thing in me, in my soul (in my will), which allows me to do some action, namely it allows me to unite my will to the divine will.
There is only one virtue of charity
From the theological virtue of charity, which is given by God and which makes man to be good and just, flow particular acts of love. Though the theological virtue of charity is one, it is one simple virtue and power in the soul; yet the actions which flow from this virtue are manifold.
From this one virtue of charity flow many acts of love, love for God and love for neighbor. Still, in the first place, the virtue is one: there is only one theological virtue of charity, and this single virtue gives man the ability to love both God and his neighbor.
Hence, if we ask, “Do I love my neighbor with the same love with which I love God?” – our answer should, in the first place, be “Yes!” Indeed, there is only one virtue of charity, and from it flow acts of love both for God and for our neighbor.
The greatest commandment is twofold
And now we see why it is that Jesus could answer the question – “What is the greatest commandment?” – by referring to not one but two commandments, “Love God and love your neighbor.” These two commandments are not really two, but are united as one: Since it is the same love (i.e. the same virtue of supernatural charity) which gives rise both to love of God and love of neighbor.
It is precisely because there is only one theological virtue of charity that St. John could tell us that whoever does not love his neighbor does not love God.
The “love of esteem” and “intensive love”
However, a difficulty arises: We know that love of God, if it is true love, will make us love God above all else – above ourselves, above our family, and above all created things. However, we then have difficulty in reconciling this truth with the daily demands of our life: Can one really expect a mother to love God more than her child? Is this really possible? Certainly, we must admit that most mothers do not feel as intensive a love for God as they do for their child.
To answer this question, we turn to the great Dominican theologian, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange:
“Charity, even in its least degree, makes us love God more than ourselves and more than His gifts with an efficacious love of esteem, because God is infinitely better than we and than every created gift.
“Efficacious love of esteem is not always felt, for example, in aridity; and at the beginning it has not yet the intensity or spontaneity that it has in the perfect, and especially in the blessed. A good Christian mother feels her love for her child, whom she holds in her arms, more than her love for God, whom she does not see; yet, if she is truly Christian, she loves the Lord with an efficacious love of esteem more than her child.
“For this reason, theologians distinguish commonly between appreciative love (love of esteem) and intensive love, which is generally greater for loved ones whom we see than for those who are at a distance. But, with the progress of charity, the love of esteem for God becomes more intense and is known as zeal; in heaven its impetuosity will exceed that of all our strongest affections.” (from The Three Ages of the Interior Life)