Love is complicated. In Catholic teaching, it is complicated in multiple nuanced ways. Simply put, the Catholic faithful believe that God is love and everything more or less follows from there. The complicated part is in the details, and yes, God is in the details too.
“A misunderstanding about love is the confusion between ‘God is love’ and ‘love is God’” says Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy at Boston College in his 2011 essay “What is Love?”
“The worship of love instead of the worship of God involves two deadly mistakes. First, it uses the word God only as another word for love… Second, it divinizes the love we already know instead of showing us a love we don’t know. Consider that ‘A is B; does not mean the same as ‘A equals B’. ‘That house is wood’ does not mean ‘wood is that house.’”
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (section 1822) reads, “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.” When you peel back the Catechism and look at love in all its incarnations, however, it gets more complex.
“Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia” defines love as “Any strong affection, closeness or devotion to things or persons.” It then goes on to describe the Greek concepts of the four types of love: Storge, Philia, Eros and Agape.
Storge is familial love, or a fondness due to familiarity. Familiarity makes the heart grow fonder, or breeds contempt, depending on the relationship. In Ephesians 6:2-7 Paul instructs: “Children, honor your father and mother.” Then he quickly follows up by admonishing parents “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.” Essentially, you need to love your family because God says so.
Philos is friendship, the people we freely choose to be in our lives. Philos can also be love of neighbor, the kind of love Jesus spoke about when he commanded us to “love our neighbor as our self”. In order to love yourself, you need to take care of yourself and then extend that self-care or self-love to everyone you encounter. In Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Those who exhibit this kind of brotherly love get to go off with the sheep on Judgment Day, and those who don’t, presumably because they didn’t notice, like or approve of the stranger in their midst, go off with the goats.
Eros, or passion, is the most popular form of love and what we often associate with the word love. Eros obviously refers to the special and erotic love between a man and a woman but it can also refer to other life passions we might pursue in works or art or some other endeavor. However, Eros, without the other forms of love, becomes disordered and can leave one singing “Love hurts” over a flat beer.
Finally, Agape is the highest form of love, the kind of love that God is and gives to us. It is also the unselfish open-arms love we, when we’re being very good, give back to God. Kreeft points out that we should not confuse Agape love with kindness. Kindness is an emotion we feel from sympathy or empathy – we can be kind to just about anyone we choose whether we love them or not. However, Agape goes beyond kindness to actually willing or effecting what is best for another person. “It is painfully obvious that God is not mere kindness, for he does not remove all suffering, though he has the power to do so. Indeed, this very fact – that the God who is omnipotent and can at any instant miraculously erase all suffering from this world deliberately chooses not to do so — is the commonest argument unbelievers use against him.”
Agape can be tough love, but it is guided by the desire to move the beloved to what is best for him in order to achieve salvation. “We are kind to strangers but demanding of those we love,” says Kreeft. “Grandfathers are kind; fathers are loving. Grandfathers say, ‘Run along and have a good time;’ fathers say, ‘But don’t do this or that.’ Grandfathers are compassionate; fathers are passionate. God is never once called our grandfather.”
Love does make the world go ‘round. It is in the explosion that created the universe in the blink of an eye; it is in the tiniest quirks of quarks; it is what makes the soul of man different and exceptional from all of God’s other creatures. It is, quite simply, complicated.