Can we love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, as this Sunday’s Gospel teaches (Mk 12:30-31)? St. Thomas Aquinas answers no and yes.

We love what we perceive to be good. Usually, our bodily senses draw us to certain perceived good through our senses and emotions (we are often mistaken). However, the goodness of God is perceived by our intellect not our senses. In describing love for God and our neighbor, Thomas uses the Latin word, caritas. Translators generally translate this as “charity,” to distinguish this type of love from emotional love. Thomas affirms:  “… charity is not in the senses, but in the intellective appetite, i.e. the will” (2a. 2ae. 24, 1).

Although God is supremely lovable, His goodness is not obvious to us because our attention is primarily on visible and material things. For this reason, we need the help of the Holy Spirit: “For us to love God above all things in this way, it is necessary that charity be infused into our hearts (2a. 2ae. 24, 2, ad 2).

Thomas explains, “Charity can be in us neither naturally, nor through acquisition by the natural powers, but by the infusion of the Holy Ghost, Who is the love of the Father and the Son, and the participation of Whom in us is created charity” (2a. 2ae. 24, 2). Charity is a gift.

Faith, hope and charity are called theological virtues because the object of each one of them is God: “Charity attains God, it unites us to God” (2a. 2ae. 23, 3). Thomas maintains that we are unable to love fully without this special gift from God, which is the theological virtue of charity, that inclines but does not force our will to act in a loving way (2a2ae. 23, 2).

Peter Lombard, the twelfth-century author of the standard text of Medieval theology, taught that the theological virtue of charity was actually the Holy Spirit Himself. Thomas differed because, while the Holy Spirit inclines a person to charity, the human mind is not passive but freely chooses to act or not act in the way that the Spirit moves us (2a2ae. 23, 2).

St. Paul stated: “The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, Who is given to us” (Rom 5:5). Thomas affirms: “Charity is a friendship of man for God, founded upon the fellowship of everlasting happiness. Now this fellowship is not of nature, but a gratuitous gift …” (2a. 2ae. 24, 2).

The Spirit does not give this gift depending “on the condition of nature nor on the capacity of natural virtue, but only on the will of the Holy Ghost” (2a. 2ae. 24, 3). Paul declared: “All these [gifts] are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who gives to each, as He wills” (1 Cor 12:11).  The Letter to the Ephesians states: “Grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph 4:7).

According to Thomas Aquinas, love of God is a type of friendship because, “A certain mutual love is requisite, since friendship is between friend and friend: and this well-wishing is founded on some kind of communication. (2a. 2ae. 23, 1).

God’s communication to us is His own happiness: “There is a communication between God and us, in as much as He communicates His happiness to us. Upon this communication friendship must be established: ‘God is faithful by Whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son’ (1 Cor 1:9). The love that is based on communication is charity so it is clear that charity is friendship of God and us (2a2ae. 23, 1).

Our fellowship with God does not take place in our exterior body and senses, but in “our spiritual life in respect of our minds, and with regard to this life there is fellowship between us and God…” (2a. 2ae. 23, 1, ad 1).

We can love a person for him or herself as a friend but we also love those whom our friend loves or who belong to him or her. Thomas affirms: “So much do we love our friends, that for their sake we love all who belong to them, even if they hurt or hate us; so that, in this way, the friendship of charity extends even to our enemies, whom we love out of charity in relation to God, to Whom the friendship of charity is chiefly directed” (2a. 2ae. 23, 1, ad 2).

Thomas explains that God’s essence is charity, even as it is goodness and wisdom. Our goodness is a participation in God’s goodness and our wisdom is a sharing in God’s wisdom. In a similar way, our loves of our neighbors is a participation in God’s charity for them (2a. 2ae. 23, 2, ad 1).

Thomas likes the description of Christians as “wayfarers,” those on the way: “We are called wayfarers by reason of our being on the way to God, Who is the last end of our happiness.” He refers to Augustine that we approach God on the way “not by steps of the body but by the affections of the soul” (St. Augustine, Tract. in Joan. Xxxii). Thomas adds, “This approach is the result of charity, since it unites man’s mind to God” (2a2ae. 24, 4).

Thomas concludes: “It is essential to the charity of a wayfarer that it can increase, for if it could not, all further advance along the way would cease. Hence the Apostle calls charity the way, when he says (1 Cor. 12:31): ‘I show unto you yet a more excellent way’” (2a2ae. 24, 4).

Thomas explains that “An essential increase of charity means nothing else but that it is yet more in its subject.” Virtues are dispositions to act. Thomas states: “Charity is essentially a virtue ordained to act, so that an essential increase of charity implies ability to produce an act of more fervent love. Hence charity increases essentially … by beginning to be more and more in its subject. (2a. 2ae. 24, 4, ad 3).

It is God who increases charity in us: “God increases charity, that is He makes it to have a greater hold on the soul, and the likeness of the Holy Ghost to be more perfectly participated by the soul” (2a. 2ae. 24, 5, ad 3).

Just as natural habits don’t grow with every use of the habit so Thomas explains, “Charity does not actually increase through every act of charity, but each act of charity disposes to an increase of charity, in so far as one act of charity makes man more ready to act again according to charity, and this readiness increasing, man breaks out into an act of more fervent love, and strives to advance in charity, and then his charity increases actually. (2a. 2ae. 24, 6).

The growth in charity has no limit: “For charity itself considered as such has no limit to its increase, since it is a participation of the infinite charity which is the Holy Ghost. In like manner the cause of the increase of charity, God, is possessed of infinite power. Furthermore, on the part of its subject, no limit to this increase can be determined, because whenever charity increases, there is a corresponding increased ability to receive a further increase. It is therefore evident that it is not possible to fix any limits to the increase of charity in this life. (2a. 2ae. 24, 7).

Even our capacity to charity increase: “The capacity of the rational creature is increased by charity, because the heart is enlarged thereby, according to 2 Cor. 6:11: ‘Our heart is enlarged”; so that it still remains capable of receiving a further increase. (2a. 2ae. 24, 7, ad 2).

Thomas asserts that what is important is that a person loves as much as he or she can: “On the part of the person who loves, charity is perfect, when he loves as much as he can. This happens in three ways. First, so that a man’s whole heart is always actually borne towards God: this is the perfection of the charity of heaven, and is not possible in this life, wherein, by reason of the weakness of human life, it is impossible to think always actually of God, and to be moved by love towards Him. Secondly, so that man makes an earnest endeavor to give his time to God and Divine things, while scorning other things except in so far as the needs of the present life demand. This is the perfection of charity that is possible to a wayfarer; but is not common to all who have charity. Thirdly, so that a man gives his whole heart to God habitually, viz. by neither thinking nor desiring anything contrary to the love of God; and this perfection is common to all who have charity” (2a2ae. 24, 8).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection.