(I originally posted this on 19 April 2006 on the now defunct Catholic Catechism Discussion Blog.)
"Structure" isn't the first word most people think of, I bet, when they hear someone talk about love. Probably not the second or the third either. I doubt if it so much as makes most people's top hundred. But here we have this great whopping Catechism with its Parts and Sections and Chapters and Articles and sometimes capital-P Paragraphs and then some subdivisions for which I haven't seen a name but that are labelled with Roman numerals and (pant, pant!) then occasionally some further unnumbered headings and finally (whew!) the numbered paragraphs. It's all a bit overwhelming, isn't it? and for heaven's sakes why do we need all this bleedin' structure if we JUST WANT TO KNOW ABOUT LOVE, DAMMIT! I mean, really!
But the Catechism is very clear that it is in fact directed totally towards love.
The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love. (CCC 25)
How can this be?
In The Cruelty of Heresy, FitzSimons Allison, a retired Episcopal bishop, documents the cruel practical consequences of distorted teachings about God. He spends a good deal of time looking at the Docetic heresy, which he identifies as "the teaching about Christ's spiritual and divine nature that sacrifices his human and historical nature." In Docetism there is effectively no real Incarnation. Genuine love is a matter of relationship, of ongoing engagement with real people with all their problems and all their suffering. Much of what we in the West have thought of as love since the twelfth century, he argues, is a romantic idealization.
Denis de Rougement in his book, Love in the Western World, claims that the repressive measures, ostensibly successful in eliminating the Albigensians, succeeded in driving some of these teachings underground, only to have them rise again as operative elements in the traditional of romantic love in Western civilization. The same ideal of platonic (ideal) love feeding on the romantic agony and exquisite anguish of forbidden or impossible love, and invariably ending in death, is an element of the Albigensian form of Gnosticism.
In the romantic tradition (think Romeo and Juliet),
Lovers scarcely know each other and are more in love with love than with each other. Death always intervenes before there is any significant chance for two people to know each other as they really are. Death, therefore, obscures the need for [the] self-giving kind of love (agape) to supplement and save this romantic love (eros) from its essential preoccupation with self and its idealized projections. The end or destiny of romantic love as a religion is always death, either of the love or of the lovers. Thus death obscures for its adherents the essential self-centeredness and flight that is characteristic of romantic love.
So our society's distorted, ethereal notion of love is one that can comfortably exist in the absence of any sense of structure or form. One revisionist former pastor of mine used to talk, I thought, as if structure were simply a matter of having lots of rules, and arbitrary ones at that, but it's not. Structure is a matter of how things fit together, one with another. God is love. The Holy Trinity is love. Everything we need to know about perfect love we can see in the relationships among the Persons of the Trinity.
In contrast to that fickle and momentary "love" whose end is death, genuine love longs for life, eternal abiding with the beloved. Writes Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est:
Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25).
It is hardly any wonder that where "what can be known about God" is rejected (see Rom 1:19-21), the moral teaching of the Church is perceived as an arbitrary and unfair collection of rules, and love is believed to mean whatever we want it to mean. That is why it is so refreshing that the Catechism proceeds from the profession of faith as its Part One, in particular starting with the revelation "by which God addresses and gives himself to man" (CCC 14); the sacraments (Part Two), the life of faith (Part Three), and prayer (Part Four) are a natural outgrowth from this Part One.
"This catechism," paragraph 18 says, "is conceived as an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety" (emphasis in the original). St Paul's great chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, follows immediately after the analogy of the body as made up of many members, many organs, each giving of itself for the good of the whole.
The catechism should be seen "as a unified whole" (CCC 18 again). If we decide we don't need to believe in, say, the Assumption of Mary, the consequences may not be as immediately obvious as if we amputate a finger or a hand, but the damage to the integrity of the body is no less real. All the parts of the body have their functions; these may be too deep for me to apprehend in their entirety, but even so, I cannot afford to treat them as unnecessary.
So structure here in the catechism serves to illuminate relationship, serves somehow to lead our notion of love back from escapist Docetic fantasies and back to a more embodied reality. The catechism teaches us to love God as he really is instead of as we in our fallen state would rather have him be.