Saint Augustine famously said ‘love, and do what you will’ thereby summarising the heart of the spiritual life in a similar way to Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians, where he said that ‘the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Galatians 5:14). This message sounds incredibly liberating, which indeed it is, though (as Saint Paul himself realised, often writing against the potential antinomian interpretations of the gospel that had arisen during his time) it can be taken in a way that leads to license and disregard for the objective commandments of the moral law.
I have no idea to what extent (if at all) Augustine’s words have been, or are, directly used to excuse various ‘enlightened’ or ‘progressive’ moralities that directly contravene or at least undermine the teachings of the Church, but the gist of the aforementioned saying is certainly invoked on a frequent basis by those who would wish to change these teachings to justify immoral lifestyles and actions. So in this light, I thought it may be useful to take a look at what Augustine wrote in its wider context:
‘…many things may be done that have a good appearance, and yet not proceed from the root of charity. For thorns also have flowers: some actions truly seem rough, seem savage; howbeit they are done for discipline at the bidding of charity. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether though spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.’
It is clear here then that the great Doctor does not wish to excuse the doing of whatsoever one pleases, as long as long as what one does is, in some way ‘loving’. Unfortunately one often sees all sorts of behaviour justified nowadays under the rubric of love, but these justifications betray a lack of understanding of the word as Saint Augustine would have known it, and as the Church still knows it. This essential dichotomy between Augustine and the modern world’s concepts of love could be summed up by comparing The Beatles song ‘All You Need is Love’ to the passage from Galatians above.
In the latter, Saint Paul effectively states that all we need is love, so that his and John Lennon’s sympathies seem to be superficially the same. However, what Lennon means by love is a self-indulgent hedonism, whereby anything goes, so long as noone gets hurt (at least intentionally, and in the short term; the psychological and sociological effects of free love where yet to be felt when Lennon wrote) – a vacuous exhortation to peace via indifference and boundless eroticism. Saint Paul and Saint Augustine are insisting on something rather different – namely, the divine agape, the love that is wholly concerned with the good of the other, that gives selflessly, and in the case of God Himself, pours itself out in a self-consistent act of pure gift. To live in concert with this love is to be in perfect harmony with God’s will, which cannot desire evil, and which instinctively chooses what is good, both for self and for the other. Hence Augustine continues:
‘Let charity be fervent to correct, to amend: but if there be good manners, let them delight thee; if bad, let them be amended, let them be corrected. Love not in the man his error, but the man; for the man God made, the error the man himself made. Love that which God made, love not that which the man himself made. When thou lovest that, thou takest away this: when thou esteemest that, thou amendest this. But even if thou be severe at any time, let it be because of love, for correction.’
So being a loving person, contrary to what the spirit of our age insists, is not always the same thing as being a ‘nice guy’ – sometimes, if we love someone and see them doing something which we know to be self-destructive or immoral, or both, we must lead them away from error and back to the truth. They may not like us for it at the time, but that is not the point. Love does not act in order to be thanked, it acts purely for the good of the other, without concern for what may befall it, it ‘bears all things…endures all things’ (1 Corinthians 13:7). But also we must consider the implications for ourselves – neither may we do whatsoever we may like just because we consider ourselves to be doing it in the supposed spirit of love. The freedom which we are heirs to in the life of the Spirit is not an excuse for license, but is ordered by and subordinated to charity, as Blessed John Paul II made clear in a General Audience in 1981, as part of his teaching on the Theology of the Body:
‘…in Galatians St. Paul emphasizes above all the ethical subordination of freedom to that element in which the whole law is fulfilled, that is, to love, which is the content of the greatest commandment of the Gospel. “Christ set us free in order that we might remain free,” precisely in the sense that he manifested to us the ethical (and theological) subordination of freedom to charity, and that he linked freedom with the commandment of love…Christ realized and manifested the freedom that finds its fullness in charity, the freedom thanks to which we are servants of one another. In other words, that freedom becomes a source of new works and life according to the Spirit. The antithesis and, in a way, the negation of this use of freedom takes place when it becomes a pretext to live according to the flesh…Anyone who lives in this way according to the flesh…ceases to be capable of that freedom for which “Christ set us free.” He also ceases to be suitable for the real gift of himself, which is the fruit and expression of this freedom.’
As presented here by John Paul II, we see that life in the Spirit, that is life lived in accordance with self-giving love, is indeed liberating, but also challenging, and that it most certainly does not give an excuse for license. It is fundamental to the gospel message that Christ has set us free from the sins that we had become enslaved to precisely because we believed that giving in to our impulses was the true mark of freedom – ‘for you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship’ (Romans 8:15). To be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4) means to enjoy a new freedom where one can freely choose the good, for self and other, unencumbered by the false freedoms we exercise when choosing things that have in reality gained control over us to the point where we are at the behest of our desires, not their master.
The world would indeed have it otherwise, and it is commonplace to hear arguments in the same vein as Lennon’s, that present true freedom as freedom ‘from’: from rules, from cultural conventions, from the teachings of the Church! But the freedom offered by God through Christ and in the Spirit is a life lived in harmony with divine love – an opportunity to be adopted into a life where selflessness is the norm. This is difficult for us, and requires constant vigilance as well as frequent recourse to the sacraments and prayer in order to reconnect with the source of that life. For most of us, I would imagine, our experience echoes to some degree that which C. S. Lewis describes here:
‘God knows, not I, whether I have ever tasted this love. Perhaps I have only imagined the tasting…Perhaps, for many of us, all experience merely defines, so to speak, the shape of that gap where our love of God ought to be.’
from The Four Loves (2002), p. 170, Harper Collins.
At any rate, whilst it is no new thing to recognise the difficulty of consistently living a life in concert with the divine charity, it is disconcerting to see movements within the Church (and churches) that would seek to diminish its challenges and replace it with an inferior love that challenges noone, allows all, and transforms nothing. I have written about the creeping secularisation of Western culture (including the Church) elsewhere, and do not wish to add anymore to that thesis, but simply to affirm that the principles of secularism that I outlined there can only be removed from our culture and defended against by a reaffirmation and fresh articulation of the true meaning of love – a love that requires sacrifice and courage, but that has the power to change the world again.