The Primacy of Jesus, the Primacy of Love

by John Mallon

One of the most poignant misunderstandings about the Catholic Church in our time is the perception that it is primarily a moral system—a bunch of rules. The expression “Catholic guilt” is a commonplace cliché among many Catholics. Rules make little sense without some kind of understanding which provides a motivation to live within those rules.

Far from being a mere moral system or philosophy by a teacher from the past, Catholicism is a relationship with a person—a love affair, a romance, a marriage, a friendship, with the Man, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Some may say this downplays Christ’s role as Lord, but I disagree—it enhances it. True reverence flows from intimacy. The better we truly know and love someone the more we will reverence them.

Anyone truly in love speaks of their beloved with reverence. Love is a mode of knowing and this knowledge attained through love creates admiration, affection, respect, wonder, and yes, reverence. Christ is the Bridegroom who said, “I do not speak to you as slaves, I call you my friends.”

On the day before he was elected to the Chair of Peter, then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his April 18 homily at the conclave’s opening Mass said these words: “Let us now look at the Gospel, from whose riches I would like to draw only two small observations. The Lord addresses these wonderful words to us: ‘I no longer speak of you as slaves... Instead, I call you friends’ (Jn 15:15).”

He also said, “To our weak minds, to our weak hands, he entrusts his truth—the mystery of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; the mystery of God who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (Jn 3:16). He made us his friends—and how do we respond?”

And then: “The second element Jesus uses to define friendship is the communion of wills. For the Romans ‘idem velle — idem nolle’ [same desires, same dislikes] was also the definition of friendship. “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jn 15:14).

And, “a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.”

Suddenly, in the midst of this sublime homily, the future Pope exclaimed, in a manner reminiscent of the sudden exclamations in the Epistles of St. Paul, “Thank you, Jesus, for your friendship!”

Another translation of the quote from John 15:14 cited above is commonly, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” We can conclude that keeping the Commandments issues naturally from our love of Jesus. Indeed, what else? A person truly in love actually fears doing something that would hurt the beloved or create distance in the relationship.

To a husband truly in love, infidelity is horrific and unthinkable, not because it will get him “in trouble” but because of his love for his wife. This motivation of genuine fear of harming this precious love is referred to as filial fear, whereas the fear of simply “getting in trouble” is called servile fear. In his homily the Holy Father called this filial fear “a mature adult faith.”

The virtue of “fear of the Lord” has been reduced in modern times to mere awe due to the apparent “negative” connotations of the word “fear” in English. But its meaning is much larger and more beautiful.

Who would say a natural healthy dread of hurting someone we love is “negative?” Nevertheless, the late Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper says that servile fear of the Lord is better than no fear of the Lord at all, but filial fear is superior, more mature (see Pieper’s book, On Hope). Children fear running afoul of their parents until they grow up and learn the wisdom of their parents’ discipline of them. Again, a mature adult faith is what we seek.

More than anything, a lover dreads whatever will harm his marriage, be it with a spouse or with the Lord, namely, sin. Magisterial Church teachings come from Christ. A truly mature Catholic husband is informed and knows that contraception, for example, will harm his marriage, first of all by harming his wife physically, in the case of oral contraceptives, and in the case of barrier methods it will harm their love metaphysically by coming between their intimacy and total self-gift.

I once heard a young man say, “Using a condom is like kissing through a screen door!” Though I doubt he said this in defense of Catholic teaching, the analogy is a good one. Love longs for union and for that union to bear fruit. Catholic teaching always supports love in its higher form, not giving in to a terrible pragmatism that often passes for love. If true love were present in a relationship there would be no fornication or adultery because sin always harms love.

For readers of this magazine, much of what is said here is nothing new but it needs to be shouted from the housetops, because we are seeing a backlash to the grievous harm done to the Church in the past 40 years by dissent, which, in an ironic form of legalism, has pushed for a greater laxity in the Church’s moral teachings.

This backlash is taking the form of a new embrace of the opposite error to laxity: rigidity. Both errors are expressions of the aforementioned servile fear of punishment rather than the filial fear which issues from love and intimacy with Jesus. The dissenter attempts to alleviate the servile fear by denying or downplaying the possibility of punishment, while the embrace of rigidity focuses unduly on punishment. The Catholic in love with Jesus knows that sin is its own punishment and any distance from the Lord caused by sin is agony in itself. Thankfully, the Lord always stands ready to forgive at the asking.

The solution to the ideological Left/Right split that currently haunts the Church (and the rest of the world) is Jesus Christ. Following Christ in the Church is not a “middle of the road” path by any means, but Christ is the center of everything, and it is He to whom we should flee, front and center before the Tabernacle, not falling out the windows on the left or the right side of the Church.

Morality falls into place in the embrace of the true Bridegroom who is always embracing His Body, the Church. Knowing Jesus Christ in an intimate relationship of friendship and love is the answer to the opposite errors of excessive moral laxity and excessive moral rigidity. In Christ we are at home.

Isaiah spoke to this in his prophetic utterance: “The Lord will give you the bread you need and the water for which you thirst. No longer will your Teacher hide himself, but with your own eyes you shall see your Teacher, while from behind, a voice shall sound in your ears: ‘This is the way; walk in it,’ when you would turn to the right or to the left.” (Is. 30:20-21)

John Mallon is Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican magazine.




True reverence flows from intimacy.  … Love is a mode of knowing … Anyone truly in love speaks of their beloved with reverence.