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I discovered Aquinas quite by accident some twenty years ago. Hired to teach Medieval and Reformation theology at the University of Nottingham in the U.K., I found that my one Roman Catholic colleague, a liberal nun, was more than happy to allow me to teach the honors course on Thomas. Thus it was that the most traditional Protestant on faculty taught a regular class on the Angelic Doctor to a room full of mostly traditional young Roman Catholics. 

I have considered Thomas a treasured source ever since. In fact, I believe he is perhaps more important now than ever before, for we live in an age where Christians need to think clearly. Clear thinking depends upon precise categories and distinctions, and Thomas offers such things to his careful readers. 

For example, I noted in passing last week how the collapse of the distinction between love as passion and love as virtue has proved so confusing and catastrophic not simply in society at large but also in the Church. That is a point worth expanding. In the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas treats love as both a passion and a virtue. Love as passion is neither good nor evil because it originates in the appetites, not the reason. We might say love as passion is really love as a feeling. Love as virtue, however, refers to a principle of action rooted in the reason, connects to a wider understanding of human teleology, and thus is intrinsically moral.

We can clarify this distinction between these two aspects by looking at how the word love is used in everyday parlance. I fell in love with my wife because there was something about her which attracted me. Such attraction involved physical sensations. When calling her on the telephone to confirm our first date, I felt a mixture of excitement and desire. The sound of her voice set my heart beating a little faster. There was, and still is, a thrill to being in love with her which involves an attraction that has a physical aspect to it. This is love as a passion.

But love is also a virtue. For I am to love my wife not simply when I find her attractive but even when I do not find her to be so. In fact, perhaps it is especially when I do not find her to be attractive that my love as virtue is to be most clearly demonstrated.  Thus, the woman caring for her beloved husband who is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease or cancer may not feel much positive passion towards him but her actions exhibit love of a depth rarely seen elsewhere. Her behavior is rooted in love as a principle of action. That is what love as virtue means. Indeed, this is surely at the heart of Paul's understanding of marriage when he comments that husbands should love their wives as Christ loves the Church. After all, Christ gave himself for her in self-sacrifice when she was far from attractive. It was not passion which drove Christ's passion, but virtue.

Turning now to the modern world, we can see that the concept of love which is extolled as a virtue is in reality almost exclusively that of love as passion. Every time soap operas and sitcoms present love as constituted by physical sex (do they ever do anything else?), love as virtue is reduced to love as passion. Every time daytime talk show hosts make some declaration about morality based upon what they feel in their heart, then passion, not virtue, becomes the criterion of what is good and true. And every time an academic denies that there is an objective telos to human nature, passion masquerades as virtue and ethics is turned into aesthetics.

Perhaps this is the real issue in current debates about marriage. Robert George has pointed out that no fault divorce was the real watershed in the recent legal history of the institution. That changed marriage from a relationship of lifelong commitment to that of a temporary, dispensable, sentimental bond. Yet if we look at this through the lens of Thomas's distinctions, we can see that no fault divorce presupposes a prior definition of love as primarily passion, not virtue. Thus,  it is arguably not the redefinition of marriage but the redefinition of love which is the real problem underlying society’s current moral malaise. And that redefinition has much wider and more sinister implications. Indeed, as Thomas’s taxonomy helps us to see, it strikes at the very heart of what we consider virtue to be. 

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here

More on: Aquinas, Virtue, Love

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