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Is Love a Choice or a Feeling?

“Love isn’t a feeling; it’s a choice.

I’ve heard it countless times in various Catholic educational contexts: high school classrooms, RCIA, marriage preparation, etc.

Is it helpful? Yes, and no. Without a broader education on the reality of love, especially when it comes to the love between men and women, I find it unrelatable.

We are human. Sexual attraction, while not everything, isn’t nothing, either, when it comes to choosing a spouse. Being human means we are both body and soul. One of the earliest heresies in the Church was the gnostic heresy, which denied the goodness of the body. (So much so that homosexual relations were encouraged because of their sterility . . . if you just had to relieve yourself of sexual frustration.) But we are also our souls, endowed with reason. We can’t just abandon our spouse if or when “that lovin’ feeling” fades.

Are we doomed to live out only one aspect of our humanity when it comes to marital love? Will reason or the emotions win out in the end?

Thankfully, the late Pope Benedict XVI can help us sort out how to understand love as an action, something we can choose and determine, and love as an emotion beyond our natural control.

Benedict discusses the concept of love in his first encyclical as Pope, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). He begins with the problem of language. The Greeks had four words to describe love’s four dimensions: storge (affection), philia (friendship), eros (romance), and agape(sacrifice). We don’t need to examine all four in order to show that love can be both a choice and a feeling. Just eros and agape, analyzed within the context of marriage, will get the job done.

Was Friedrich Nietzsche right about Christians, Benedict asks, when he said that Christians “poisoned eros”? That is, did Christians ruin all the fun with their emphasis on agape, or sacrificial love? Why so many rules around romantic love? What killjoys!

Whenever I hear Christian educators say, “Love isn’t a feeling; it’s a choice,” I can’t help wanting to agree with Nietzsche. But, notwithstanding what Christians might have done and continue to do, Jesus—who, as God, invented eros—certainly didn’t ruin eros. On the contrary, with the introduction of a distinct Christian understanding of agape, Jesus saveseros for us.

That’s more like it.

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