National Catholic Register


Love Isn’t All You Need

Here’s an amusing snapshot of the American genius for combining Puritan high-mindedness with base self-interest.


October 8-14, 2006 Issue | Posted 10/4/06 at 10:00 AM


Here’s an amusing snapshot of the American genius for combining Puritan high-mindedness with base self-interest.

It’s a press release for something called the “Campaign for Love and Forgiveness.”

Something called the Fetzer Institute has teamed up with the Public Programs Office of the American Library Association, six public broadcasting stations, and Paper Source to start “a series of community conversations — first about love and later about forgiveness. The campaign seeks to spark new attitudes and actions in relationships, in society and in the world.”

Also included in the initiative is an upcoming PBS film “The Mystery of Love,” virtual conversations on love at (, and “a national initiative to revive the art of letter writing as a creative means for connecting with others, preserving memories and sharing stories” using a special love and forgiveness stationery kit to be sold in Paper Source stores and online at

After all, “The impact of a handmade letter, written with ink on beautiful paper, is unmatched by any other communication,” says Sue Lindstrom, founder and chief executive officer of Paper Source.

There are two ways of looking at this fetching portrait of the way New England Puritanism and thrift have mutated into New Age spirituality, communitarianism and digital-age, focus-grouped profiteering. A pure cynic could see it as simply a marketing ploy, but I don’t think that’s fair.

There’s something deep in American DNA that drives this sort of thing. It’s not just about the ka-ching.

There’s a curious vestigial Puritan piety at work: a sense that one is here to “do good” as well as “do well.” So, on the whole, I think that between a corporation that is all about profit and this, I’d prefer this.

Some Catholics will be put off by the vague whiff of Boston/Marin County New Ageism it gives off. Partly that will be due to real theological concerns, but partly it’s also due to the fact that the besetting sin of one part of Catholicism is an allergic reaction that identifies love as weak-kneed “Kumbaya” 1960s’ spirituality.

I have zero empathy for those who let themselves be controlled by such allergies, and pray for the day that not a few Catholics get past the conflation of lovelessness and cynicism with orthodoxy.

On the other hand, I have real sympathy with theological concerns. It’s all well and good for New Age folk to recognize the vital need for love and forgiveness. I couldn’t agree more.

Similarly, I also recognize the vital need for humans to fly like birds. The hard part is implementation.

Back in the ’60s, the mantra was, “All you need is love.” This worthy sentiment comes close to Jesus’ entire commandment to the Church: “Love one another.”

The problem is that love, like forgiveness, is necessary but impossible apart from grace. So when the hippies grew up to be come yuppies and love evaporated as a mood, the slogan changed to, “All you need is a trust fund.”

Ultimately, it is only in union with Christ that love can solidify from a mood to a creed and a habit and not fade away into an ironic joke on the lips of aging baby boomers.

This is doubly true of forgiveness.

The Fathers of the Church said that the forgiveness of sins was a greater work of God than creating the universe. So while it is good that the love and forgiveness folk are calling attention to this crying need of the human heart, they are basically in the position of pre-Christian pagans unless they recognize that this is a classic example of the Law calling us to respond to grace.

The Law commands all sorts of good stuff.

The only problem: The Law gives us no help to do the good stuff. It just condemns us when we don’t do it. It’s like an X-ray that reveals the tumor, but does not heal the tumor. Telling people to love and forgive is great, but without grace (that is, the help of God through Christ) you might just as well tell people to fly without a plane.

Jesus commands us to do the impossible: Love our enemies. It’s hard enough for people who are trying to rely on him for help to do it. Trying to do it without him is doomed to failure.

That said, it’s better to try, fail and discover one’s need than not to try at all. So I have more sympathy with noble pagans who are alive to the moral law’s demand that we love and forgive than I do with Christians who sneer at calls to love and forgive as contemptible and worthless artifacts of “’60s’ spirituality.”

Best of all, however, is to not only hear the command of the law, but obey it through the grace of Christ. That’s when love and forgiveness hit the world with all the power of the Holy Spirit.

Mark Shea is senior content editor