Love as an Excuse for Grave Sin

In sinful secular society, love is often used as an excuse for grave sin. The adulterer says that he no longer loves his wife; he loves his mistress instead. So he justifies leaving his wife for his mistress on the basis of what is called love. Same-sex marriage is often justified on the basis of love; they say that if any two persons love each other, then gender is irrelevant. But we know from the teachings of the Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium that adultery and unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. So love is sometimes used as an excuse for grave sins.

In truth, every sin is in some way contrary to true love: the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self. Feelings of love may or may not be accompanied by true spiritual love. Acts that seem, to the fallen sinner living in a sinful world, to be an expression of love, or compatible with love might not be so, from the point of view of true spiritual love.

The entire moral law — all the positive precepts (“you shall…”) and all the negative precepts (“you shall not…”) — are based on the love of God and the love of neighbor as self. This threefold ordered love of God, neighbor, self is the basis for every moral precept, and the basis for the condemnation of every sin, whether mortal or venial.

Saint Augustine: “Love, and do what you will.”

The above famous expression of Saint Augustine is often misapplied and misunderstood. The Saint and Doctor of the Church was not justifying any sin, great or small, by means of love. He was not sweeping away the teachings of the Magisterium on morality, in favor of a vast over-simplification that would allow anyone to commit any sin, as long as the person judged himself to be acting out of love or to be a loving person. Rather, he was speaking of the connection between true spiritual love and the eternal moral law. Every sin is contrary to love, properly understood. Therefore, if you truly love as you ought, then all else that you do is not a sin. By definition, sins are contrary to love.

The full quote from Saint Augustine on this point:

“See what we are insisting upon; that the deeds of men are only discerned by the root of charity. For many things may be done that have a good appearance, and yet proceed not 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 you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” [Augustine, Homily on 1 John]

Augustine says that many acts “have a good appearance”, in other words, they seem moral to the fallen sinner, even when they are not compatible with charity (true spiritual love). Some acts seem unfair or mean, such as denying marriage to same-sex couples. But the basis for this denial is true spiritual love of God and neighbor. Other acts may seem like an expression of love, such as an unmarried couple who have premarital relations. But this type of act is contrary to charity, since it is gravely immoral.

I can be more specific. The Magisterium teaches that all morality is based on three fonts: intention, moral object, circumstances. All three fonts must be good for an act to be moral. But how do we judge each font, to see if it is good or bad? The judgment is ultimately based on the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self. Each intention, object, and set of circumstances, proceeding from the knowing choice of the human will, must be entirely compatible with this threefold love in order to be moral. A bad intention is bad precisely because it is contrary to love. A moral object is evil when it is contrary to this love. A set of circumstances often includes both benefits and harm to persons affected by the act. But if the harm outweighs the benefits, then the choice of such an act is contrary to the love of neighbor.

Saint John of the Cross wrote: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” This expression can be found in different wordings, all with the same meaning, including: “At the end of the day, we shall be judged on love.” and “At the end of our life, we will be judged on love”.

The same distinction between a proper understanding of the moral law versus the use of a vague concept of love to justify sin applies here. Since the entire moral law is based on the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self, we are judged on love alone. But that is simply a way of saying that all morality is based on a proper understanding of true spiritual love.

We could even extend this judgment to the distinction, among moral acts, between those that are perfect (or nearly so) and those that are very imperfect. Moral acts are not all equal in value. Having a nice healthy meal is moral. Feeding the hungry is also moral. But is not the latter a much more perfect act than the former? And why is that so? The latter act is greater when judged by the love of God, neighbor, self.

On the other hand, some persons spread heresy, promote false private revelation, and speak with contempt against anyone who tries to correct them, and then they use the expression of St. John to justify their unrepentant sins. They think that as long as their life has some love in it, their objectively grave sins are irrelevant, or are not sins at all. They use the term “love” to sweep away the complex, subtle, and profound wisdom found in Roman Catholic teaching on morality. They use the term “love” to reject Church authority, the Church hierarchy, dogma and doctrine, excommunication for heresy, and condemnation to Hell for unrepented actual mortal sin. They call themselves Catholic and attend Mass, but they have rejected most of what the Church actually teaches, often replacing it with claimed private revelation and/or baseless personal opinions.

Love and the Moral Law

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote about the relationship between true spiritual love (charity) and morality:

“Hence the precepts of love virtually include the precepts about the other acts. And yet we find that, for the sake of the laggards, special precepts were given about each act…” [Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 44, A. 3]

“To do good is more than to avoid evil, and therefore the positive precepts virtually include the negative precepts. Nevertheless we find explicit precepts against the vices contrary to charity….” [Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 44, A. 3]

The precepts of love — to love God and to love neighbor as self — implicitly include the precepts about all other acts. These precepts are divided into the positive precepts, which require certain acts, and the negative precepts, which forbid certain acts. The precepts of love are positive: you shall love God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. The negative precepts include: you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, etc. The positive precepts implicitly include the negative precepts, because the true love of God, neighbor, self implies that you should not murder, steal, lie, commit sexual sins, nor any other type of sin.

Why specify all the negative precepts, and discuss them at great length, when the positive precepts include the negative? Why not restrict moral teaching to nothing other than love God and neighbor? As St. Thomas says, “for the sake of laggards”, that is, for the sake of all us poor fallen sinners, whose judgment in morality is biased toward whatever we wish were true, whose hearts and minds are clouded by sin and concupiscence, and who spend too little time pursuing religious and moral truth. So the Church has many specific teachings on which acts are forbidden, being sinful for one reason or another. And we cannot nullify all those teachings by replacing them with a distorted and oversimplified understanding (or misunderstanding) of the word love.

All sin is contrary to the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self. So if your acts are truly the loving acts of a loving person, then those acts will be moral because they will not include any sins condemned by the teaching of the Church.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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