All you need is love. …
So goes the refrain to the classic 1967 Beatles song by the same name. It’s also a tune I’ve been hearing from some Catholics in recent discussions. It’s the sort of one-liner one encounters often in debates about certain matters of doctrine, liturgical practice, or questions about whether such-and-such individual or religious group has fallen into heresy.
All you need is love. In other words: It’s OK to debate the finer points of a certain dogma, but at the end of the day, all that matters is “love.” It’s become the Catholic way of saying, Let’s agree to disagree—because ultimately, it’s assumed, the disagreement isn’t that important. Implicitly, the message is that ‘love’ is far more important than the arcane details of this or that dogma. It’s a sentiment that, much like the Beatles song, is beguiling in its simplicity. It even has a certain Augustinian ring to it.
Like all of the most powerful lies, this one draws its energy from a partial truth. Love indeed comes first in the Catholic faith. On this, my unnamed interlocutors are correct. But they believe the right thing for the wrong reason: love is paramount not because it helps us to brush aside the thorny thickets of dogma in favor of universally harmonious brotherhood of mankind. Rather, love’s primacy is established by dogma.
Consider the centuries-long debate over the addition of the Latin word filioque to the Nicene Creed. Against the objections of the Eastern Orthodox, Catholics have long affirmed the double procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son (filioque). Now, it doesn’t get more arcane than this, does it? But at stake is our very understanding of God as love (1 John 4:8). The Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit proceeds out of the mutual love between the Father and the Son (who, as the Word, is the Father’s perfect self-knowledge of Himself). As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Now love must proceed from a word. For we do not love anything unless we apprehend it by a mental conception. Hence also in this way it is manifest that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Son.”
What about some of the Church’s Marian dogmas, like the Assumption? Defined infallibly in 1950, this dogma holds that, after the completion of her life on this earth, the Mother of God was taken up, body and soul, into heaven. It’s a beautiful teaching of our Church, but is it really necessary that we affirm this, a dogma that only deepens the divide between Protestants and Catholics? Is this teaching really central to our faith? One Catholic writer sums up the issue well:
“[T]he attitude of many Catholics regarding Our Lady has changed. For them, the Assumption of Mary has become largely irrelevant—a doctrinal antique cluttering up the Church’s theological attic.”
But the Assumption of Mary is all about love: Mary’s love for God, her divine Son’s love for His Mother, and our sharing in Christ’s love for her. What we believe about Mary has always been inextricably linked to Jesus. To the extent that we love Jesus and become an adopted son of the Father through Him, Mary has become our Mother. What sort of son doesn’t love his mother? What sort of Christian doesn’t love the Mother of God? To concede such a doctrine to Protestants in the name of ecumenism may stir good feelings of brotherhood, but it is to compromise love itself.
Or again, take the Council of Trent, which infallibly defined scores of dogmas, using the dreaded Latin word for cursed, anathema, at least 150 times in its canons—not exactly a recipe for ‘loving Protestants as our brothers in Christ,’ if you were to listen to some Catholics today. But love was right at the center of the Catholic-Protestant divide, particularly on the issue of justification (how we are saved). Here’s what the council had to say in Canon 11 in the Decree on Justification:
If anyone shall say, that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity [love] which is shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, by which we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema [emphasis added].
At issue was the sola fide doctrine of the Protestant Reformers, who wanted to repudiate what they saw as the belief that salvation could be earned through good works. In their misplaced zeal, Reformers like Luther reacted by declaring that salvation was through faith alone. This false teaching had the (perhaps unintended) consequence of excluding love from the economy of salvation—a deeply problematic position that is an obvious affront to 1 Corinthians 13:13—And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity—which is why the Council of Trent made declarations like the one above.
As the declarations of Trent demonstrate, speaking of ‘love’ as something apart from the dogmas of the Church is absurd. Love is not something apart from Church doctrine. Rather, it’s at the heart of what the Church believes and teaches.
Furthermore, divorcing love from the truths of the gospel puts our message at risk of being co-opted by the broader culture. Because who can be against ‘love’? Who doesn’t want more love in this world? This was, after all the mantra of the Vietnam-era hippie movement and it is the subject of endless pop songs, not to mention the self-important pronouncements of so many celebrities.
One striking example is British actor Russell Brand, the star of raunchy flicks like Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Brand also recently hosted a FX channel talk show called Brand X. The show lived up to the last letter of its name: Brand frequently joked about his sexual proclivities and quizzed others about theirs. In one episode, he asked comedian Sarah Silverman to simulate a sex act on him. In another, he invited a porn star in his audience to perform a sex act on a student. (In fairness to Brand, despite the constant potty talk, his show did explore a number of important topics with great honesty and intelligence that is rare these days.)
Now Brand is the last person one would expect to have any sort of misty-eyed sentimentalism, but here is what he said about what inspires him, “I’m just trying to do things that are disruptive and unusual but ultimately underscored by love”—a lovely sentiment that came just after Brand made a lewd reference about how he found British soccer player David Beckham sexually attractive, which he promptly repeated during an appearance on Conan in November 2012.
Love may be all you need, but the love of the gospels is quite different from the kind of love espoused by Brand (what the doctors of the Church might call ‘disordered love’). When a Christian speaks about love, his language might include such words as virtue, chastity, and desire for God—such words and concepts are not in the vocabulary of our culture. When that message gets pared down to all you need is love, much gets lost in translation. Indeed, clearly something has gone terribly wrong if the message of the gospels were to become virtually indistinguishable from the lyrics to a Beatles song.
In fairness, I think some dogmatic minimalists may be confusing orthodoxy (believing the right things) with orthopraxy (doing the right things). They are probably concerned that debates about doctrine risk turning the faith into a matter of theory. They may worry that I would encourage a believer to stay home and read the catechism instead of working in a food pantry. Likewise, I suspect that in their minds, they think I’m worried that they would tell a food pantry to not bother about things like what filioque means.
The truth is that Catholic Christianity is not a zero-sum matter. We don’t pray to the saints instead of God. We don’t venerate Mary instead of worshipping her Son. We don’t pray the rosary instead of going to Mass. And we don’t force ourselves to choose between learning about the faith and practicing it. Such is the abundance of the divine love to which we are called. Such is the beauty of the Catholic faith.