This is the first of a series of articles outlining Pope St. John Paul II’s thought on the human person and love, human embodiment and sexuality, as found detailed first in Love and Responsibility (LR), then in Man and Woman He Created Them (ToB), now more popularly known as the Theology of the Body. The articles are not so much focused on applying this teaching to the question of same-sex attraction as they are to the question of human sexuality as such. However, such an overview of human sexuality inevitably impacts our understanding of same-sex attraction; and so, after first broadly outlining St. John Paul’s teaching, a couple of articles will be specifically devoted to how this teaching touches upon the question of same-sex attraction.
‘Love is a union of persons.’ (LR 23) This quote appears early in the first chapter of Love and Responsibility, a philosophical reflection on human sexuality by the then Fr. Karol Wojtyła. The entirety of the text is devoted to what Wojtyła calls an ‘introduction of love into love,’ (LR xxiii) the introduction of personal self-giving love—the evangelical love of agape—into bodily sexual love—the passionate love of eros. For love is ultimately one, and both agape and eros must be interwoven within each individual couple’s relationship if sexual love is to remain authentically human and truly realise the union of persons for which it was intended. Why? Because ‘the affirmation of the value of the person as such is contained in the essence of love,’ (LR 26) and only an erotic love that is also agapeic can realise the proper gravity of this affirmation within the borders of a sexual relationship.
In the unity of his being, the human person naturally experiences the sexual drive as an orientation of his whole being toward another person, one who complements and completes him sexually. The sexual drive itself, and the experience of sexual desire that follows upon this drive, reveals that the human person is a limited being, a being that is radically incomplete and in need of another. In this neediness of sexual desire, we discern a natural tendency of the human person to go beyond himself and to find in the beloved the complement and completion of his being. The sexual drive and natural sexual vitality that follows upon it is disposed to being encompassed by the human will, and so permeated and infused with personal freedom. And it is precisely in this way that the natural love of the sexual drive—traditionally identified as an amor naturalis—is elevated and becomes the bedrock of personal sexual love, thereby becoming an integral part of the thoroughgoing realisation of the affirmation of the value of the person of the beloved.
Yet, this neediness of and open receptivity to the beloved is not all we find on the level of the sexual drive. The sexual drive also has an existential import, since it relates to the coming into being of the next generation. This existential meaning immediately reveals a further greatness of human sexuality at its most foundational level. According to Wojtyła, an individual man and individual woman, ‘by taking advantage of the drive in sexual intercourse, enter into the cosmic current, as it were, of the transmission of existence,’ (LR 38) and in so doing ‘serve the existence of another concrete person, who is their own child—blood from their blood and flesh from their flesh.’ (LR 37) This is truly a remarkable power, the power of a couple to co-operate with God the Creator in the genesis of a new human person, one’s own child and a child of God. The child is entrusted to the couple’s personal love so that their personal love expands to embrace the child and is thereby transformed into parental love, a love that then normally unfolds as the thoroughgoing affirmation of the person of the child. Through parenthood, the human couple realise a fulfilment of their individual personalities, and an incomparable deepening of their personal relationship through the shared common good of the life and education of the child, their child.
Through this natural orientation of sexuality to the different and complementary other, and its further orientation to the life of the child through the sexual union of the couple, the lovers transcend the confines of their limited and enclosed being, not only through their erotic strivings for one another but also through their further agapeic self-giving and sacrifice. Indeed, Wojtyła argues that this is the basic law of the person, what he variously calls the ‘law of the gift’ and the ‘law of ecstasy.’ (See LR, 44, 108, 281-5) The human person is the kind of being who as rational and free possess himself as a unique and unrepeatable individual, and precisely through such self-possession is able to make a gift of himself to the beloved, and, in a complementary fashion, receive the self-gift of the beloved. This is an ecstatic stepping out of oneself toward the beloved in the generous gift of self and humble reception of the other through which a communion of persons is realised, a personal union the Sacred Scriptures so eloquently calls ‘one flesh.’ The lovers are then able together to make a further gift of themselves to their child, ‘flesh of their flesh and bone of their bones,’ by placing their relationship under the blessing of fruitfulness. The person of the child is entrusted to their relationship, and their personal form of self-giving love to one another is transformed into a parental form of self-giving love to their child. This is the dual dignity of human sexuality: love and life.
How does this kind of personal sexual love typically form? Of what is it comprised?
Wojtyła maintains that love begins in fondness—fondness is as if love’s bud. Love as fondness—traditionally amor complacentiae—presents the beloved before the lover’s eyes as someone of distinctive value, a good in herself (For the following, see LR, 58-67). At the dawn of love, the lover begins to recognise the goodness and beauty of the beloved, both because of the various goods found present in the beloved (of a bodily, human, and personal kind), and because of the lover’s own sensitivity to these same goods. Yet, fondness goes still further than the recognition of the complex of goods inhering in the beloved and involves the apprehension of the preeminent personal value of the beloved. The lover is fond of the other simply for who she is in herself, notwithstanding the various inhering goods, and despite the manifold weaknesses and frailties. Fondness then becomes love properly speaking when this basic disposition to the goodness and beauty of the other is confirmed by a free act of the will, thereby becoming an enduring thoughtful commitment to thinking of the beloved as a definite good. Love as fondness is captured by the simple statement, ‘You are good.’
Love as desire—amor concupiscentiae—forms on the basis of love as fondness and is described by Wojtyła as a longing for the beloved precisely as a good for oneself. Through this passionate form of longing, the beloved appears in the experience of the lover as a good which if had would perfect the lover. The lover wants the beloved for himself because of the good that is found in the beloved. Now, even though this is a self-focused love, it should not be equated with selfishness in the ethical sense, and neither should this form of love be identified with sexual desire alone in abstraction from the desiring love of the whole person of the other. Rather, love as desire is simply one manifestation of our basic human need of the beloved person. Because we are finite by nature, and in consequence of the characteristic sexual differentiation of the human body, we are needful of the complementary good that is found in the beloved. Therefore, the object of love as desire is not merely the sexual body of the other, but the very person of the beloved who is so sexually embodied. Love as desire is captured by the statement, ‘I long for you because you are a good for me.’
Though both love as fondness and love as desire are of the essence of love, and are vital dynamisms of all personal sexual love, by themselves alone they are not the whole of love. Love’s completion is only realised through love as benevolence—amor benevolentiae—a love of good-will, where the lover not only affirms the good of the beloved (as he does in the loves of fondness and desire), nor merely seeks that good for himself (as in the love of desire), but also seeks the true good of the beloved herself. That is, the lover seeks the good for the beloved. Love as benevolence seeks the true good for the beloved and does so in a way that is true to the person of the beloved, in a manner that is proper to the human, personal, and uniquely individual being of the beloved. As such, this form of altruistic love is love in an absolute sense, and complements, perfects, and elevates all other forms of love. Love as benevolence contains the deepest affirmation of the good of the person of the beloved in willing the confirmation of the beloved in her completed goodness. It is captured by the statement, ‘I long for your good.’
With these three forms of love—fondness, desire, and benevolence—we have reached an understanding of the interwoven dynamisms of all truly personal sexual love, and indeed, in a sense, of all personal kinds of love. Yet, personal sexual love not only possesses this objective profile, but also has an intense subjective profile, since such love resonates deeply throughout the psycho-emotional life of the lovers. To this we will turn in the next article, but for now it is fitting to conclude with a quote from LR indicating the great human import of personal love:
Love is the fullest realization of the possibilities that dwell in man… the person finds in love the greatest fullness of his being, of his objective existence… true love perfects the being of the person. (LR, 66)
Robert McNamara is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, on their European study abroad campus in Gaming, Austria. He was educated at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) and Maynooth (NUIM), where he studied physics and applied science, and philosophy and theological studies, respectively, and at the International Theological Institute, Austria, where he completed a master’s degree in the theology of marriage and family. He is currently engaged in research studies at Liverpool Hope University towards a doctorate in philosophy, and is writing his thesis on the human person as understood by St. Edith Stein in her reading of St. Thomas Aquinas. Robert is an associate member of faculty at Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, U.K., and a founding member of the Aquinas Institute of Ireland, for which he currently holds the position of secretary, and at whose summer and winter schools he tutors. Robert is originally from Galway, Ireland.
Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility (Boston: Pauline, 2013).
John Paul II, Man and Women He Created Them (Boston: Pauline, 2006).