The Greatest Commandment and Sex

If we do not understand the reality of love in the relationship of husband and wife, we do not understand God.

(photo: Register Files)

This Sunday’s readings—from Deuteronomy and Mark—repeat the Shema Yisrael. That proclamation—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our Lord, the Lord alone!”—is what every devout Jew declares every day. The Great Commandment, to love God with one’s whole heart, mind, soul and being, is preceded by the command to acknowledge the supremacy of the One God.

“I AM the Lord, Thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods besides me.”

So proclaims the First Commandment. The First Commandment and the Great Commandment teach the same thing: to acknowledge God in love as the Supreme One in my life.

I can acknowledge God as Supreme. Both Commandments tell me to acknowledge Him as supreme in my life.

And lest anyone posit some false difference between the Old and New Testaments, note that the Shema Yisrael commands us not just to acknowledge or honor Yahweh, but to “love” Him with one’s whole heart, mind, soul and being.

Yes, the New Testament did in fact specify the teaching of the Old by not just acknowledging that God should be loved but that God is Love (1 John 4: 8, 16).

God is not “Love” as some impersonal being, some “Force” of love with us. God is a Person, indeed, Tri-Personal, a Communion of Persons. God not only calls us on to love Him but He is Love incarnate, and He gives us, made in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27, i.e., the image and likeness of Love), the model of love, i.e., the model of humanity, Jesus Christ.

There are, of course, critics that want to stay at this 20,000 foot level, disappointed I want to take the discussion “down” to the level of Catholic sexual and marital ethics. Quite the contrary: the Church (and I) want to take that discussion “up” to the dignity and value it truly has, away from the devaluation and depreciation to which that popular caricatures (and not uncommon practice among “Catholics”) reduce that morality.

For the Church teaches what it does about marriage and sex not because they are “dirty” or even “of this world.” It is, rather, the opposite: because marriage and sex can model so noble realities as God’s relation to His People, the Church cannot settle for less (even if its members, including its clergy, have).

To love God—who is Love and who is Father (Ephesians 3:15)—is to love and value the dignity of marriage and sex.

Now, there will be critics who insist that I am drawing the wrong lines, and that “love of God and neighbor” has nothing to do with Catholic sexual ethics as currently taught. I utterly disagree.

If we do not understand the reality of full, absolute, self-giving, permanently indissoluble and fruitful love in the relationship of husband and wife, we do not understand God. Whoever does not love his neighbor he does see can’t love the God he doesn’t (1 John 4:20).

But in identifying the “Greatest Commandment,” Jesus did not discard all the rest. Affirming the primacy of love of God does not mean “do whatever else you want.” Jesus Himself is clear: He did not come to abolish the Law, even in the least dot on its “I” or cross of its “T” (Matthew 5:17-18). The same First Reading that introduces the Shema Yisrael also reminds us faithfully to “observe all the [Lord’s] statutes and commandments” (Deuteronomy 6:2; see also v. 17). Loving God means keeping His Commandments (1 John 2:4).

This last point is very important, especially in light of today’s Gospel. There is a tendency to think that, in affirming the Love of God as the Supreme and Greatest Commandment, Jesus gave us a waiver on all the rest. St. Augustine’s “Love God and do what you please” can be grossly misunderstood.

And it has been, in Antiquity and today: what goes around, comes around. Paul’s community of Corinth was a port town with a highly sexualized culture. Just as we use the euphemism “lady of the evening” for a prostitute, so Antiquity called them “Corinthian girls.” When the Corinthian Christians heard of Paul’s message of “love” and “freedom from the love,” some took it as an indulgence of their sexual liberties. Remember, do you think that the God I “love” is preoccupied with the details of sexual morality?

So, when Paul write to the Corinthians, he addresses the issue of a believer living in an incestuous relationship—and excoriates the Corinthian community for failing to call that errant brother to moral task (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-8). He certainly does not say that we can “love whom we will” or posit some kind of sexual “equality.”

In our own day, some variation of this same “loving God means never having to worry about the sexual details” trope likewise prevails. Its crudest form was the situation ethics, in vogue especially in the 1960s from such thinkers as Joseph Fletcher (Situation Ethics: The New Morality and Hello Lovers! An Invitation to Situational Ethics) and, I would argue, John Giles Milhaven (Towards a New Catholic Morality). As long as one “loves,” there are no moral absolutes—which is why Fletcher was ready to tolerate eugenics and Milhaven’s “new Catholic morality” jettisoned any absolute moral principles.

In our own day, a certain mushy situationalism endures. It doesn’t admit that there are no moral absolutes, because that would clearly run up against Catholic moral teaching (especially as reaffirmed in Veritatis splendor and Evangelium vitae). Today’s situationalism pays lip service to the principle while gutting it in practice: the moral absolute is a “theoretical” moral absolute, but there is a difference between “moral principles” and “pastoral practice.” Moral principles are “aspirational,” something we should “strive” for out of charity, but recognizing we might not necessarily reach there.

Well, there’s nothing in the Ten Commandments that says “try not to steal” or “not bearing false witness” is an “aspirational goal,” but we should “accompany” perjurers. Yes, we should accompany them – to the nearest confessional where they can admit they are perjurers and turn from the path of falsehood. And we do not expect thieves to “try” to give up stealing, aware that a little burglary here or the occasional shoplifting there needs “pastoral accommodation.” So, why do we indulge such “flexibility” on the Sixth Commandment? Jesus told the woman caught in adultery “go and sin no more” (John 8:11), not “have a pastoral dialogue about reaching the ideal of monogamous and exclusive marriage.”

And on this point, one of my favorite reflections is a scene from the classic film, Dr. Zhivago. When Laura confesses having fornicated with Komarovsky, the Orthodox priest asks her, “And what did Our Lord tell the woman caught in adultery?” “‘Go and sin no more,’” Laura replies. “And did she?” asks the priest. “I don’t know, Father!” is her surprised answer. “Of course you don’t. No one does! The flesh is not weak, it is strong! Remember that!”

We might learn a little wisdom from that movie priest. Undoubtedly, had she sinned again and sought the Lord’s pardon, He who forgave “seventy times seven times” would have. But the subsequent sin is still a sin (even if her personal culpability might perhaps be diminished). Because she “loved” Jesus for what He did for her did not exempt her from following His Commandments, or make it any less important to seek pardon again if she fell. Indeed, her love of the Lord should have strengthened her resolve “to sin no more, to do penance, and to avoid whatever leads me into sin.”

So, in reflecting on today’s Gospel, know that loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and being does not excuse from the rest of the Commandments. Truly loving God means recognizing how that love is expressed in those Commandments, because those Commandments are not roadblocks but roadmaps that chart the path to Love Himself.