A few weeks ago my pastor and I were talking and he mentioned that he has not been able to find a clear, direct definition in the Catechism of the Catholic Church of the theological virtue of charity. "Ah," I thought for a moment, "he must be kidding." After all, the theological virtues are rather important, and love, we know, is the greatest of the three. And the Catechism—as he and I fully agree—is a wonderful work, invaluable in so many ways.
But he wasn't kidding: a definition of charity is indeed rather hard to find in the Catechism. Hope, we read, "is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit" (par 1817). Faith "is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself" (par 1814).
Charity, or love, is far more elusive. "Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God" (par 1822). Which begs the question: what is love? The Catechism, quoting the Angelic Doctor, state: "To love is to will the good of another" (par 1766). Which begs at least one question (at least for me): "How do we will the good of God? Does that make sense?" It's one thing to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done," but another to say, "I want what's best for God."
The Catechism tell us that charity "governs, shapes, and perfects all the means of sanctification" (par 826), it "keeps the commandments of God and his Christ" (par 1824), it "is superior to all the virtues" (par 1826), and it "upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love" (par 1827). Perhaps the closest the Catechism gets (unless I've missed it) to a formal, direct definition is: "charity demands beneficence and fraternal correction; it is benevolence; it fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous; it is friendship and communion..." (par 1829).
Echoes of this are found in Deus caritas est, where Pope Benedict XVI states: "Love is indeed 'ecstasy', not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: 'Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it' (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25)." (par 6)
Margaret H. McCarthy, assistant professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at CUA (Washington, D.C.), speaks for many when she writes, "When, however, we have to say what love is, things are not so simple. ... If we look at all that we ascribe to love, we notice that it is by no means easy to draw it all together." ("'Husbands, Love Your Wives as Your Own Bodies': Is Nuptial Love a Case of Love or Its Paradigm?", from Love Alone Is Credible: Hans Urs von Balthasar as Interpreter of the Catholic Tradition, volume 1, [Eerdmans, 2008], p. 261).
Josef Pieper, whose writings on the theological virtues are rich and profound, said that after he had written on faith and hope, "I more than once gave up in the face of the task of writing about the theme of 'love', which I had, at any rate, put off to the end; and after a few years of futile attempts, I had finally resigned myself never to accomplishing an adequate presentation" (Faith Hope Love [Ignatius, 1997], p 11). Pieper may have downplayed his impressive abilities, but he never downplayed the mystery of love.
It's difficult, even impossible, to fully define love because love, in the end, must be experienced, encountered, lived, accepted, reciprocated. Von Balthasar, who said a great deal on the nature of love, wrote, in Love Alone Is Credible:
Similarly, a person who contemplates a great work of art has to have a gift–whether inborn or acquired through training–to be able to perceive and assess its beauty, to distinguish it from mediocre art or kitsch. This preparation of the subject, which raises him up to the revealed object and tunes him to it, is for the individual person the disposition we could call the threefold unity of faith, hope, and love, a disposition that must already be present at least in an inchoative way in the very first genuine encounter. And it can be thus present because the love of God, which is of course grace, necessarily includes in itself its own conditions of recognizability and therefore brings this possibility with it and communicates it. ...
It is not possible that Christ could have written books ("about" something, whether about himself, about God, or about his teaching); the book "about" him must concern the trans-action between him and the man whom he has encountered, addressed, and redeemed in love. This means that the level on which his Holy Spirit expresses himself (in the letter), must necessarily itself be "in the spirit" (of the love of revelation and the love of faith), in order to be "objective" at all. To put it another way, the site from which love can be observed and generated cannot itself lie outside of love (in the "pure logicity" of so-called science); it can lie only there, where the matter itself lies–namely, in the drama of love. No exegesis can dispense with this fundamental principle to the extent that it wishes to do justice to its subject matter.
The drama of love. That is what the Catechism invites readers to encounter and experience and live. Aspects of it can be described. As with the Trinity and the Incarnation and the Eucharist there are things that we do know about love, but true love—whose source is God—is also a mystery. You might know it when you see it, but it could be very difficult to describe what you've seen, not because it is unreal, but because it so very real. "God is love," states the Catechism, "and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image . . .. God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion." (par 2331).
• The Encyclical: God’s Eros Is Agape | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• "Love Must Be Perceived" | Hans Urs von Balthasar
• Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics | by Fr. John R. Cihak
Carl E. Olson grew up in a solidly Fundamentalist home but found himself increasingly drawn to Catholicism in his twenties. After earning a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas' Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies, Carl became the editor of Envoy magazine. He now works for Ignatius Press. He is author of Will Catholics Be ‘Left Behind'? and The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code.