Sensuality and sentiment surely have a role to play, but they represent only the psychological state of love. Romantic love has much deeper dimensions that take us beyond ourselves toward the beloved.
Few individuals have written about marriage and family as creatively or perceptively as St. Pope John Paul II. At his canonization Mass, Pope Francis referred to John Paul II as the Pope of the Family, and that title is certainly warranted by this Pope's ample treasury of writings on marriage. John Paul II is especially well-known for his theology of the body which has captured the attention of many young people anxious to escape from the crude portrayal of sexuality offered by contemporary culture. But he is less well-known for another important work published in 1960 when he was Bishop Wojtyla called "Love and Responsibility." Thanks to the Daughters of St. Paul, "Love and Responsibility" has been recently republished in a new translation that more clearly unveils the riches of this meditation on romantic love.
Anyone who is thinking about marriage today should spend some time pondering the themes of this great work. Why is this book so important? Thanks to the sexual revolution's grip on our culture, there has rarely been a time with so much confusion about marriage and family life. In his "Letter to Families" John Paul II explained that this bewilderment is due to a deeper confusion about love and freedom. For many people, love means merely sexual desire and its mutual satisfaction, while freedom means liberation from those antiquated moral norms that confined sexual activity to marriage. This message is constantly propagated in the media and young people are easily persuaded that sexual liberation is one pathway to earthly bliss.
But Karol Wojtyla tells a very different story. Love is not just about sensual and emotional attraction. Sensuality and sentiment surely have a role to play, but they represent only the psychological state of love. Romantic love has much deeper dimensions that take us beyond ourselves toward the beloved. Love must always include charity, friendship, and moral unity. When two people love each other, they care about the other's good and rejoice in that good. And spousal love is a total sharing and complete union between two persons who give their whole bodily selves to each other permanently and exclusively. Spousal love, which culminates in marriage, is distinguished from counterfeit forms of romantic love by its ethical character. There is an enduring commitment as well as an assumption of responsibility for the other person that becomes the basis for the reciprocal gift of self. Only a person who is not bewitched by the powers of sensuality and emotion, can possess the freedom to make such an authentic gift of self to another.
"Love and Responsibility" is a profound and subtle work whose main ideas can help form the basis for sound marriage preparation. Thanks to Wojtyla's discerning eye, it is full of practical insights and questions that prompt young lovers to test the quality of their love. Is a couple mature enough to assume lifelong responsibility for each other and to deserve the enormous trust of the other person? Can this relationship achieve a genuine mutual belonging so that each truly leads a richer and expanded life thanks to the other? Can a person find herself in her prospective spouse who brings out the best in her or is she apt to lose her very soul? Am I choosing a spouse merely for her sexual qualities or because of her value as a person, a "somebody" with her own spiritual needs and aspirations? Finally, is this a free commitment, or are there certain coercive forces at work that undermine my freedom?
Marriage is one of the great possibilities that life has to offer, but it depends upon a responsible spousal love that can be elevated by grace. As Wojtyla's timely book makes clear, the focus must not be on the individual's self-fulfillment that sometimes crowds the beloved out of the picture. Marriage is a journey of mutual self-giving and receiving where each member of the couple loses himself in order to find himself.
DR. RICHARD SPINELLO TEACHES AT BOSTON COLLEGE AND ST. JOHN'S SEMINARY AND IS THE AUTHOR OF "UNDERSTANDING LOVE AND RESPONSIBILITY" RECENTLY PUBLISHED BY PAULINE BOOKS AND MEDIA.