The Simplicity and Complexities of Love

A Reflection on Pastoral Sensitivity and the Importance of Teaching

(to be published in

Douglas P. McManaman

Those who are well versed in the sciences readily understand that although we are surrounded by ordinary and simple things, such as flowers, a cool breeze, oak leaves, water, bread to eat, etc., on another level these ordinary things are anything but simple. The biomolecular complexities of cell multiplication, photosynthesis, and metabolism took centuries to understand–and much of it is still not fully understood. These inexhaustible complexities are not incompatible with the simplicity and beauty of those very things of which they are constituent parts; rather, they are the conditions without which these simple and beautiful things could not exist–without photosynthesis and the complex biochemistry of nutrition, a simple flower could not exist. 

Love is very much like that. On one level, it is simple and beautiful; on another level, it is highly complex. Pope Gregory the Great suggests as much in his Moral Reflections on Job:  

How must we interpret this law of God? How, if not by love? The love that stamps the precepts of right-living on the mind and bids us put them into practice. Listen to Truth speaking of this law: This is my commandment, that you love one another. Listen to Paul: The whole law, he declares, is summed up in love; and again: Help one another in your troubles, and you will fulfill the law of Christ. The law of Christ—does anything other than love more fittingly describe it? Truly we are keeping this law when, out of love, we go to the help of a brother in trouble.

The simplicity is beautiful; for one would be hard pressed to find anyone who would take issue with his words. However, people have been disagreeing about moral issues and questions from the very beginning. The reason is that on a deeper level love becomes much more complex. Pope Gregory understood this. He continues: 

But we are told that this law is manifold. Why? Because love’s lively concern for others is reflected in all the virtues. It begins with two commands, but it soon embraces many more (emphasis mine). Paul gives a good summary of its various aspects. Love is patient, he says, and kind; it is never jealous or conceited; its conduct is blameless; it is not ambitious, not selfish, not quick to take offense; it harbors no evil thoughts, does not gloat over other people’s sins, but is gladdened by an upright life.

The more general the level of discourse, the easier it is to achieve certainty, and with certainty comes universal agreement. But as we descend to a more concrete level of discourse, matters become muddier and so agreement is much harder to achieve. Hence, the reason mathematical discourse enjoys universal agreement, whereas scientific matters, such as the cause of cancer or precisely how we go from sound waves in the environment to the perception of sound, are much less certain and result in best estimates that are tentative. 

The science of ethics exhibits the same pattern. Universal moral principles are rather simple: i.e., good is to be done, evil is to be avoided; one ought not to harm others; do not do to another what you yourself would not want done to you; one ought not to act individualistically, etc. But the science of ethics becomes far more complicated as we descend towards the concrete level of human action in the here and now, which demands more specific moral principles to properly address the richer and more variegated situations that life brings us. Few would disagree with the aforementioned principles, for they are nothing more than the most general outlines of what love implies (willing another’s good). But try suggesting that aborting a fetus, or euthanizing an elderly person, or having sex with a person you are not married to, artificial insemination, etc., are immoral acts and you will have an argument on your hands, perhaps a vicious one. The specific demands of love, their detailed implications in the here and now, are just far more difficult to uncover, and the reason is that human nature as well as human existence in the concrete are rather complicated. 

Moral permissiveness fails to appreciate the complexities of moral science, and yet most people understand that permissiveness is inconsistent with parental love. The rules of good parents are rooted in the love they have for their children, which is why no parent who genuinely loves their child will permit them to eat whatever they want, whenever they want, or stay out all hours of the night, come home when they want, etc. Such permissiveness is reckless; for love wills what is genuinely good for the other, which does not always coincide with what the child wants. But when it comes to the Church’s perennial moral teaching, especially in matters of sexuality, marriage, and the life issues (i.e., contraception, abortion, euthanasia, cohabitation, etc.), many people have a difficult time seeing that permissiveness does not necessarily equate to love, but is very often just as reckless. 

Another tension that poses difficulties for both pastors and teachers is that which arises between a pastoral approach to ministering to an individual student or member of the Church on the one hand, and the requirement to teach the class (or the congregation) as a whole. The pastoral approach to ministering to a person requires a great deal of experience as well as a firm grasp of moral and spiritual principles, from the most universal to the intermediate and to the most specific. It requires a mental attunement to contingencies, an understanding of human beings that only comes with experience, as well as circumspection, foresight, memory, docility, and a reasonably moderate degree of empathy. Moral philosophy does not carry such a burden; hence, it is much neater and somewhat easier. However, empathy can be inordinate, and inordinate empathy, like disordered passion, blinds the mind. It is hard to detect, because it feels like a superabundance of charity, mercy, and understanding. I can become so empathetic and sensitive to how my words might affect individual students or members of a congregation that I begin to teach or preach at a level that is so general that my message becomes obvious, completely innocuous, and unchallenging, leaving the faithful/students as a whole entirely ignorant of the basic demands of the moral law, both natural and divine. 

This is a very difficult apparatus to balance, to be sure, and persistent opposition can wear a person down (such as a pastor or teacher), especially if he does not have the support of the local ordinary or the administration. But the result of relinquishing one’s prophetic office at that level is inevitably a generation who are surprised to discover, for example, that in vitro fertilization, or artificial insemination, or leaving one’s spouse to live with another, or having sex with oneself, or pornography, etc., are morally wrong. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so this lacuna is eventually filled by popular culture. If the Church is unwilling to teach the difficult truths of personal morality, the world will oblige, and the result, among other things, is young engaged couples whose understanding of the nature of their own marriage is as nebulous as that of current popular culture. What is advantageous about a bold and challenging approach, more akin to St. Paul (“pray that speech may be given to me to open my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel”), is that it very often spawns personal encounters, which may begin acrimoniously, but will often become doorways that lead the individual to a more profound and meaningful life of faith. 

The greatest evil, according to ancient Greek wisdom, is the corruption of youth; for it was a capital offense–of which Socrates was falsely accused. The harshest thing Jesus ever said in the New Testament was that anyone who is a source of scandal to children (“causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin”), it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea: “Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Mt 18, 6-7). Those lines are worth thinking about. There is no doubt that hanging back, keeping silent, even on the grounds of “pastoral sensitivity”, is conduct that, in Scripture, merits condemnation; for the Lord said to Ezekiel: “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die’—and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade the wicked from their evil conduct in order to save their lives—then they shall die for their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked and they still do not turn from their wickedness and evil conduct, they shall die for their sin, but you shall save your life” (Ezek 3, 18-19).

The more we love something, the more pain we experience at the sight of its neglect, abuse or destruction–I remember how incensed I felt when I learned that my mother had slipped on an icy sidewalk in downtown Toronto; all she saw as she looked up were the legs of pedestrians stepping over her–no one stopped to help. The second Beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted”. We mourn because of the proliferation of sin throughout the world and its corrupting influence on the young; for the more we love God and all who belong to God, the more incensed we become at sin and the world’s indifference. The increased light of faith allows one to discern what really is sin and what isn’t, but more importantly, with an increased consciousness of sin comes a greater awareness of the profound mercy of God; for without an acute sense of sin, we lack a meaningful sense of that mercy. The most obvious reason for general irreligiousness is a lack of a sense or consciousness of sin, which in turn is the reason for a lack of awareness of the boundless mercy of God which moves a soul to gratitude and to love God in return. Moreover, God is drawn to poverty. F. X. Durrwell writes: “Not only the mercy, but the power of God is drawn to the weakness of sinful man, for when it is dealing with weakness, God’s power is mercy.” From this angle, a light and frivolous kerygma that consistently refuses to broach the subject of sin and issues of personal morality is really a kind of spiritual contraception that deliberately keeps God at bay, preventing His approach towards souls who have yet to realize their poverty of spirit–the irony is that such an approach is believed to be more fruitful. 

The complex science of morality is nothing other than the drawing out of the specific implications of the demands of love. To love another is to will his or her good. Intelligible human goods (i.e., human life, truth, leisure, sociability, marriage, religion and integrity) are incalculably superior to sensible goods (pleasure, complacency, relaxation, feeling good, enjoyment, etc.), and moral maturity is achieved when a person is able to sacrifice the latter for the former. Not everyone wants to grow up, but a significant number certainly do, and the Church has the conditions to make that possible, and one important condition for those who are open consists in a humble and charitable presentation of the moral heritage that belongs to us in the Church. Inordinate sensitivity only keeps people in the dark.

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