On Loving the Unlovable

What exactly is the job of love? It is nothing less than the effort to promote the real and permanent good of another person.

Michelangelo, “Pietà,” 1498-1499
Michelangelo, “Pietà,” 1498-1499 (photo: Stanislav Traykov / Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5)

The Bible tells us that we must love both our neighbor and our enemy. Because the two are very often the same person, it can sometimes get a bit sticky. If your neighbor, for instance, is someone whose political views you find not only wrong but repugnant, how exactly does that work? Are you really expected to love him? And if he persecutes you, are you seriously expected to turn the other cheek? Out of love no less? If a nation to be loved must first be lovely, as Edmund Burke warns, can it be any different in the case of unlovely people?

Only if love is nothing more than soft soap and sentimentality, and not “the harsh and dreadful thing,” of which the prophetic Dostoevsky speaks, that may require the shedding of blood. Then, of course, there is never a problem. But that’s only a playacting love, one which will never confront the wrongdoer for the wrong he has done. A failure of love, at that level, simply leaves the job undone. It is certainly not how God loves us, or even how the artist loves the characters in a story he’s telling. In fact, it was the philosopher Jacques Maritain who said that God and the artist have that characteristic in common — that while they both love their creations, they judge them without sentimentality.

So, what exactly is the job of love? It is nothing less than the effort to promote the real and permanent good of another person. This cannot happen if we are unwilling to face the truth about his or her behavior. In other words, we must love them enough, not merely to desire what is truly best for them, but to actually do something to make it happen. If we are too cowardly to confront the sins and shortcomings of those we are obliged to love, then it is not a relationship animated by love. It is much closer to that of indifference, or even contempt, for the beloved. Indeed, it is no better than “senile benevolence,” which is the term C.S. Lewis uses to describe the rich relative who tosses money at his poor relation — in order to disguise the fact that he really can’t bear to be around him — but who will not give the one thing that truly matters, which is the gift of himself.

“In the evening of our lives,” says St. John of the Cross, “we shall be judged on love.” One can only truly love another person in the light of truth, which happens only when two people take one another seriously, that is, as beings destined to live forever in the company of God, his angels and his saints. “The terrifying compliment,” says Lewis, which God pays to each of us, taking with utmost seriousness the choices we make. Choices which, ineluctably, carry an ultimacy that propels us, like a rocket ship, in one of two directions: heaven or hell.

What complicates the issue for so many, of course, is the matter of forgiveness, especially when we regard the other as somehow undeserving of it. The predator priest, for example, who took advantage of our trust to ravage the innocent. Or the drug dealer who traffics in human destruction. Or maybe just the politician who changes his mind as often as his shirt.

Are we really expected to forgive such people? What if they will not repent? Surely they forfeit mercy at that moment!

Only in Christ is it possible to forgive the unforgiveable, to love the unlovely. We saw this, for example, in the witness of Maria Goretti, who actually forgave her assailant even as he was stabbing her to death. An amazing application of the principle laid down by Christ. And who among us is equal to a love that heroic and sublime? Only in Christ can it be done. In the school of Christ, that is, which is a school of charity. “At the great final examination,” declares St. Robert Bellarmine, “charity will the whole syllabus.”

On the centenary of her death in 2002, Pope St. John Paul II described the last hours of Maria Gorreti’s life, insisting on their “extraordinary relevance in our time.” Not only did she forgive her killer, going so far as to hope that they might someday meet in heaven, but the gesture proved to be a most wonderfully catalytic event — to wit, her own mother’s stepping forward to forgive him at his trial, his subsequent conversion in prison, culminating dramatically with the two of them standing together in the Square of St. Peter as young Maria Goretti is raised to the altar as a saint of purity and courage.

“Divine indulgence for human shortcomings,” declared the Pope, “is a demanding model of behavior for all believers.” But it is not impossible for those who cleave to Christ who, we mustn’t forget, forgave the shortcomings of all of us.