Richard of St. Victor explores an understanding of the Trinity based on an understanding of the nature of interpersonal love … in which God is viewed as a community of persons … he conceives of the Holy Spirit … as a third person: the “condilectus” (the co-loved).
It is a truism that our experiences impact our theology and how we approach God, hence the need for the science of hermeneutics. It is equally true that our theology can have an effect on how we approach our experiences. One need only think of the experience of pain when seen through the lens of redemptive suffering. Here, I intend to examine how our language about God affects the experience of infertility. 1 In particular, I will contrast the Augustinian concept of the Holy Spirit as the mutual love between Father and Son, with Richard of St. Victor’s concept of the Holy Spirit as Condilectus, the “Co-Loved.” I hope to show that, while the Augustinian view is open to interpretations that lend themselves to an understanding of infertility as a defective form of love, the theology of Richard of St. Victor more fittingly provides a theological basis for infertile couples to seek the perfection of their love in the Trinitarian image.
The Personification of the Love between Father and Son in the Augustinian Tradition
Augustine’s Trinitarian theology, influential on the whole of western thinking on the Trinity, presents the Holy Spirit as the mutual love between Father and Son. For instance, on the analogy of lover-beloved-love-itself, he writes in the De Trinitate: “Therefore, the Holy Spirit, whatever it is, is something common both to the Father and Son. But that communion itself is consubstantial and co-eternal; and if it may fitly be called friendship, let it be so called; but it is more aptly called love. … And, therefore, they are not more than three: One who loves him who is from himself, and One who loves him whom he is, and Love itself.” 2 Commenting on this passage, Yves Congar notes that Augustine arrives at this conclusion through seeking what is common to both Father and Son. Congar writes: “The Father, he says, is only the Father of the Son and the Son is only the Son of the Father, but the Spirit is the Spirit of both. … Although he is quite distinct, the Spirit is therefore what is common to the Father and the Son. He is their shared holiness and their love.” 3
Aquinas is another influential witness to the Spirit’s identity as Love within the Trinity. Thomas argues that the processions of Son and Spirit are according to intellect and will:
There are two processions in God; the procession of the Word, and another. In evidence, whereof, we must observe that procession exists in God, only according to an action which does not tend to anything external, but remains in the agent itself. Such an action in an intellectual nature is that of the intellect, and of the will. The procession of the Word is by way of an intelligible operation. The operation of the will within ourselves involves also another procession, that of love, whereby the object loved is in the lover; as, by the conception of the word, the object spoken of, or understood, is in the intelligent agent. Hence, besides the procession of the Word in God, there exists in him another procession called the procession of love. 4
Whether one speaks of Augustine’s analogy of lover, beloved, love-itself, or Aquinas’ processions through the modes of intellect and will, one can easily be left with the impression that the Holy Spirit is the personified love that exists between Father and Son. The priority of essentialism in the methodology of Augustine and Aquinas can seem to deduce the Person of the Spirit from the prior notions of mutual love or the act of will.
Certainly, this would be an incomplete reading of Augustine and Aquinas. However, this conception of the Holy Spirit as the personified mutual love of Father and Son has found echoes throughout the Christian tradition to our own times. Two examples will suffice. C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity: “The union between the Father and Son is such a live, concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. … What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.” 5 In Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed similarly explains: “The First Person and the Second combine in an act of love—love of one another, love of the glory of the Godhead, which is their own; and … the act of loving produces a state of Lovingness within the Divine Nature. … Thus, their lovingness, too, is Infinite, Eternal, Living, Someone, a Person, God.” 6 In both of these modern presentations of the Augustinian theory, the Third Person arises from the love of the Others—their mutual love is personified in another. It is only a small jump to read the analogy back into the human person, specifically into the human family.
Marital Love and Family as an Image of the Trinity and the Problem of Infertility
It was a daring theological move for Augustine to pass, by way of analogy, from human experience to the inner life of the Trinity. The opposite move is made when, from our understanding of the Trinity, we apply that understanding back to the experience of our humanity. If we can say that Augustine read God through the analogy of the human person, we can say that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, reads the human person in light of the Trinity: “God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image … God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion.” 7 While this vocation to love, and be in communion is universal, the Catechism later specifically connects the family to the mystery of the Trinity: “The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” 8
How, one may ask, in the light of the language gained from the Augustinian tradition mentioned above, could one speak of the Christian family as a sign and image of the communion of the Trinity? It’s not hard to see how, from the perspective of a Christian couple with a child, the Augustinian Trinitarian language could resonate with their experience. After all, a child born of the marital act of husband and wife is a very potent example of the personification of love; the self-gift expressed in the marital embrace becomes a third person quite literally. The words of Congar above regarding the Trinity are easily applicable to husband, wife, and child: “Although he is quite distinct, the Spirit is, therefore, what is common to the Father and the Son. He is their shared holiness and their love.” Could one not see in the birth of a child a mirror of this mystery? One could almost rephrase Congar’s statement: although a child is quite distinct, the child is, therefore, what is common to the father and mother. The child shares their genetics, their appearance, their name, their heritage, and is a living expression of their shared love.
This kind of idea of the family, and specifically, biological procreation, as a mirror of the Trinitarian life, as a personification of mutual love, has found expression in a popularized presentation of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Author Christopher West writes: “…God created us male and female so that we could image his love by becoming a sincere gift to each other. This sincere giving establishes a ‘communion of persons’ not only between the sexes but also—in the normal course of events—with a ‘third’ who proceeds from them both. In this way, sexual love becomes an icon, or earthly image in some sense, of the inner life of the Trinity.” 9
All this may seem quite fitting to a Christian couple holding their biological child, the fruit of their love. But what does this theology, albeit several steps removed from the original context of Augustine and Aquinas, say about those Christian couples who cannot conceive, who suffer with infertility? It seems to suggest the notion that, where the “normal course of events” fails to occur, there is something defective about the love of the spouses. Where the mutual love of spouses is not personified, it appears that the couple is an incomplete icon of the Trinitarian love, a failed image of God the Spirit who is the “Lord and Giver of Life.” Congar, in fact, though not specifically addressing human procreation, nevertheless uses language provocative of the topic when he says, “The Spirit was seen by Augustine as the end and the seal of intra-divine fertility, who communicates that fertility to us and is also the principle of our return to the Father through the Son.” 10
Given the essentialist nature of the theology in question, it seems an insufficient solution to suggest to infertile couples adoption or to be fruitful “in other ways.” After all, the Augustinian language speaks of the love coming forth (“proceeding”) from what is common to the two. Being fruitful in other ways, as rich and meaningful as that is, seems within this theological framework to be a second-class reality, a consolation prize, a band-aid over a gaping wound. And I would suggest that it is easy to read most treatments of this topic in Church documents in exactly this way. After explaining the crowning glory of marriage as the fruit of the spouses’ love in biological children, a brief mention is usually made about infertile couples who can also be fruitful in other ways. If the Augustinian Trinitarian framework allows such a reading, is there another approach that would give a theological basis for the full participation of infertile couples in the mutual love of the Trinity? To answer that question, we turn now to Richard of St. Victor and his theology of the Holy Spirit as Condilectus.
Another Approach: The “Condilectus” of Richard of St. Victor
In book three of his own On the Trinity, Richard explores an understanding of the Trinity based on an understanding of the nature of interpersonal love, a more relational concept in which God is viewed as a community of persons. For Richard, however, the Holy Spirit is not just the bond of love between Father and Son. Rather, he conceives of the Holy Spirit from the beginning as a third person: the “condilectus.” This Holy Spirit is not the “beloved,” dilectus, but the co-loved, the object of shared love, con-dilectus. Congar notes that, while largely following Augustine, Richard does not use Augustine’s analogies of understanding and will, but rather derives the whole Trinity from the concept of perfect love. Hence, Richard sees the Trinitarian faith as confessing, in the words of Congar, “one Love and three lovers.” 11 Congar describes the critical difference we are interested in here by saying that “… there is a transition here from essentialism to personalism …” 12
Richard’s theology is based on the experience of love, and the understanding of love as diffusium sui, or self-diffusive.13 In God, this perfection of caritas necessitates a trinity of persons as the self-diffusive love seeks a most perfect state of self-giving. In an argument akin to St. Anselm, Richard says that since God is the supreme good, “true and highest love cannot be absent … since nothing is better or more perfect than charity-love.” 14 However, he notes that no one is said to have true charity-love if he only loves himself. Rather, this kind of love must be turned toward another. Thus, true charity-love entails a multiplicity of persons.
Richard further argues that nothing in the created world could serve as the beloved of this perfect love. “Charity-love expressed by him, who supremely loves someone else who should not be supremely loved, would be a disordered charity-love.” 15 That is, only God is the fitting beloved of this supreme charity-love: “in order for fullness of charity-love to reside in the very Divinity, a divine person had to be united with another person of his same dignity, and thus, also divine.” 16 Again, the nature of love requires that in God there be a multiplicity of persons, and that the persons be equally divine.
He then argues that, since “to want to be much loved by him who is much loved is typical of love. … therefore, there can be no joyful love that is not also reciprocal.” 17 Hence, just as Richard moved from true goodness and love to multiplicity of persons, so he moves from the nature of supreme joy and happiness to the necessity of the reciprocal character of the love of the persons. Further, from the supreme generosity of God, which is his glory, Richard concludes that the omnipotent Divinity not only has the power to grant love to another, but also chooses to do so. For God to be able to share this love, but to nevertheless hold it to himself would be to God’s shame. “What is there more glorious, rather, what is more magnificent than the desire to allow others to participate in everything that one possesses? It is thus evident that there can neither be a tight stinginess, nor a disorderly generosity, in that highest goodness, and in that supremely wise reason.” 18
Thus, “confirmed by a threefold testimony” 19 of the supreme goodness, happiness, and generosity in the Godhead, Richard concludes that there must exist in God a plurality of persons, reciprocally sharing a mutual love. Notice here that the Third Person is not derived from this mutual love, and is not identified with it. The mutual love of the two is one reality, and we will have to look for the source of the Third Person elsewhere. How this is done will have an impact on the theology of infertility to which we shall return.
Richard then goes on to say, that if true love requires multiplicity of persons, God’s immutability necessitates that these persons be co-eternal. 20 Further, the perfect charity-love of the Divinity also requires that the persons are equal, since only an equal person is worthy of this supreme love. 21 By this point, then, Richard has shown that the nature of God as supreme goodness, love, happiness, and generosity leads us to confess in God a multiplicity of co-eternal, co-equal persons, exchanging supreme reciprocal love. This, however, applies to only two persons. How then, does Richard proceed to understand the Third Person of the Trinity?
Richard returns to the divine characteristics of supreme charity, happiness, generosity, and glory which he used to establish mutual love in God. Now, however, he uses these same attributes to establish the existence of shared love, thus establishing that God is triune. He begins by re-examining the nature of perfect charity, a kind of love that which no greater could be conceived. Such a love would be of the most excellent kind. Such an excellence of perfect love he finds in the two sharing that with a third:
And in authentic charity-love, the greatest excellence seems to be this: to will that someone else be loved just as we are. Actually, nothing is more precious and more admirable in reciprocal, burning love than one’s desire for someone else to be loved in the same fashion by him who is supremely loved, and by whom one is supremely loved. Therefore, the witness of perfect charity-love consists in desiring to share (with someone else) that love of which one is the object. 22
The perfection of love, then, consists in the two who share mutual, reciprocal love, to will that another be drawn into that love. Where mutual love faces the temptation to turn inward on itself, and be self-consumed and self-sufficient, the self-diffusive love of which Richard speaks must tend toward expanding beyond even the most perfect mutual, reciprocal love of the two. Hence, Richard says (and here, his terminology is important to notice, as it applies to our question of a theology of infertility):
Thus, it is necessary that those who are—and are worthy to be—supremely loved seek, with the same desire, someone else to be included in their love, and (seek) to possess (him) in absolute concord according to (that very) desire (of theirs). As we can perceive, then, perfection of charity-love requires a Trinity of persons. In fact, without this, (charity-love) cannot subsist in the fullness of its totality. 23
We shall have occasion to consider this passage in light of a theology of infertility later. For now, it is worth noting that there is no question here of the Third Person simply arising, as if automatically, from the mutual love of the two. Rather, the mutual love for the two, in finding perfection, seeks a third with whom to share this love. This third is not simply the beloved, dilectus, but the object of mutual love shared, or the co-loved, which Richard calls the Condilectus. In fact, Richard himself notices the distinction between his theory of the condilectus and the mutual love theory:
If we analyse (sic) (this) concord, (we notice) that the bond of love is multiplied three-fold in it, so that where the suspicion of lack of love could have risen more easily, certainty (of love) is confirmed by a more profound union. Then, in this way, because of the addition of the third person of the Trinity, it happens that charity-love is in agreement, and that love is communitarian and never exclusive. 24
Furthermore, the perfection of supreme happiness argues for this condilectus. For, if one of the persons could not, or would not, seek this shared love, then the other would certainly grieve at this defect:
If each of (these persons) truly loves the other profoundly, how can one see the defect in the other without suffering? In fact, if one of the two sees the other’s shortcoming, and is not saddened by it, where will the fullness of love be? If he sees it, and is saddened by it, where will the fullness of happiness be? 25
Finally, Richard returns to the supreme generosity and glory of God. The generosity of God in this shared love overcomes any kind of divine shame that may occur due to a lack of generosity. Such shame would, of course, be a diminution of divine glory. Richard says:
Thus, if this omission were to be often present in those who love each other—whom we have already mentioned—each of the two would not simply suffer because of that which (each would see) in the other, but also would be ashamed of that which (each would see) in himself. 26
In the next section, I would like to examine how this Trinitarian theology of Richard allows more naturally for a positive theology of infertility. From such an approach follow some practical pastoral applications relating to the experience of infertile couples.
Practical Applications of Richard’s Theology to Infertile Couples
Kevin Ellis, in his article “Searching for an Impotent God,” has said “… that infertility and impotence are made worse by the negative correlation of words that surround them, such as barren and inadequate.” He goes on to argue that “this will always be the case as long as humans see themselves as created in the image of a deity who is always potent.” 27 In a similar vein, I would argue that, so long as our doctrine of God views the Holy Spirit primarily through the Augustinian lens of the mutual-love theory, infertile couples will easily view themselves as defective icons of Trinitarian love. The Trinitarian theology of Richard’s Condilectus, on the other hand, offers a theology whereby infertile couples can be seen to participate more fully in being an icon of Trinitarian love. This is achieved by seeking the Condilectus in another person while recognizing that generosity overcomes shame, and by experiencing our grief for the other as a salvific mirror of God’s love.
1) Seeking the “Condilectus”
Following Richard’s analogy based on the experience of love as it leads him to the Trinity, we can then move back to humanity, and ask how this vision of perfected, Trinitarian love can be mirrored in human love. Richard himself gives us this description:
Let us carefully observe the value and property of co-love (condilectio) and we will soon find that for which we are searching. When one feels love for someone else and he is alone in loving another, single one, he certainly has love, but he has no co-love. If two people mutually love each other, and reciprocally demonstrate a very intense desire, this affection—going from the first one to the second, and from the second to the first one—is dispersed and, so to say, turns in various directions; there is love on both sides, but there is no co-love. On the other hand, we rightly speak of co-love when a third (person) is loved by the two, in harmony and with a communitarian spirit. (We rightly speak of co-love) when the two (persons’) affects are fused so to become only one, because of the third flame of love. 28
Thus, the human person grows in the image of the Trinity by overcoming self-centered isolation, and moving toward a self-transcendent relationship with another. The same is true of husband and wife; perfection in love comes by seeking to share that love with another.
In the framework of Richard’s Trinitarian theology, however, this “other” does not arise more or less automatically from the love of the two. Recall, rather, that Richard speaks of the two “seeking” the other with whom they will share their love: “Thus, it is necessary that those who are—and are worthy to be—supremely loved seek with the same desire someone else to be included in their love, and (seek) to possess (him) in absolute concord according to (that very) desire (of theirs).” 29 For the infertile couple, there is no connotation here of a love failing to be personified through procreation, but the vocation of all Christian husbands and wives to seek a condilectus. While the most natural way is through a biological child, this is by no means the only way. Interestingly, Congar notes that Salet translates condilectus as “a common friend.” Through this lens, seeking the condilectus in someone other than a biological child is not of secondary meaning, but is still an essential aspect of the human person’s imitating divine love.
Consequently, when one reads passages such as the one below from the Catechism, it can be read more easily as fitting this paradigm of Trinitarian love as explained by Richard:
The Gospel shows that physical sterility is not an absolute evil. Spouses who still suffer from infertility after exhausting legitimate medical procedures should unite themselves with the Lord’s Cross, the source of all spiritual fecundity. They can give expression to their generosity by adopting abandoned children, or performing demanding services for others. 30
So, the first pastoral or practical implication of this theology is the deep need for the infertile couple to seek the condilectus in their marriage. This is particularly critical if the experience of infertility has caused the spouses to retreat into their own pain, their own hobbies, jobs, etc. If they are not gifted with a biological child, this process of seeking may have to be more intentional. The passage above from the Catechism speaks specifically of adoption, a very natural way for an infertile couple to seek a third with whom to share their love, and thus image the Trinity. Other ways may be equally as fitting such as caring together for an aging relative, inviting those who are lonely into one’s home, etc.
Another point of Richard’s theology may also be instructive here. As we saw above, he argues that the object of mutual and shared love must be equal to the lover. In the case of the Trinity, that meant the beloved could not be a created person, but must be coequal, must also be God. Can we not also say something analogous about seeking the condilectus in human circumstances? For this shared love to be most excellent, and to most reflect that of the Trinity, is it not fitting that the condilectus be equal to the husband and wife, that is, be a person? If that is the case, this means that things like hobbies, causes, charities, even the experience of infertility itself, cannot suffice as the object of shared love or interest of the couple. Rather, the human love of the couple must seek a human person to be its condilectus. The following passage from Pope John Paul II implicitly affirms this:
It must not be forgotten, however, that, even when procreation is not possible, conjugal life does not, for this reason, lose its value. Physical sterility, in fact, can be for spouses the occasion for other important services to the life of the human person, for example, adoption, various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families, and to poor or handicapped children. 31
Richard’s theology of the Condilectus also touches on the theme of shame. Recall what Richard said regarding the hypothetical case of God being unable, or unwilling, to share love and, therefore, lacking in generosity: “Thus, if this omission were to be often present in those who love each other—whom we have already mentioned—each of the two would not simply suffer because of that which (each would see) in the other, but also would be ashamed of that which (each would see) in himself.” 32 It is generosity in shared love that opposes shame.
Shame can be a powerful experience in the midst of infertility. One can experience shame at not being able to give one’s spouse children, or not giving one’s parents grandchildren. There can be a sense of shame in being childless in a Church that sees in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the couple’s generosity. 33 In the midst of this experience of shame, Richard’s theology of the Trinity calls the infertile couple to generosity all the more. The infertile couple is called to be more intentional and deliberate about giving themselves together to a condilectus, of making of themselves, as a couple, a sincere gift to another person with whom they share their love. If Richard’s theology has any insight into the experience of shame, it is that shame cannot exist where generosity abounds. If one is focused on the needs of the other, to that degree, one is less focused on one’s self, on the experience of shame, and the more one can find in infertility an impetus to love in extraordinary forms. And since infertility is a condition of the couple, it is as a couple that they must engage in concrete acts of generosity. This again makes sense of passages like those above from the Catechism and Familiaris Consortio. Not only are infertile couples called to concrete love of another, they, as a couple, image the love of the Trinity. It is also a concrete step in overcoming the experience of shame in infertility.
2) The Salvific Experience of Grieving for the Other
Finally, from Richard’s understanding of the Condilectus, we can examine the experience of grieving for one’s spouse in the midst of infertility. Recall what Richard said regarding the Condilectus and the supreme happiness one finds in God:
If each of (these persons) truly loves the other profoundly, how can one see the defect in the other without suffering? In fact, if one of the two sees the other’s shortcoming, and is not saddened by it, where will the fullness of love be? If he sees it and is saddened by it, where will the fullness of happiness be? 34
Richard’s point, of course, is that since God must be perfectly happy, he cannot be saddened by any defect in one of the other Persons. Hence, no defect, like the inability or unwillingness to share mutual love, can exist.
However, I would like to suggest that Richard offers us here what I would like to call a “counterfactual divine attribute” that can give us a glimpse of another way in which the infertile couple can image the Trinity through their love. Richard is saying here that if (per impossibile) the Father saw a defect or shortcoming in the Son, the divine love, being the supreme love, is the kind of love that would grieve for the other. 35 If that be the case, we can see the human experience of grieving for the other as a reflection and participation in this “counterfactual divine attribute.”
Infertility can be experienced as a kind of death. It is a death of dreams, plans, a family name, an identity. And while all one’s own sufferings can be salvific, 36 and one must certainly grieve for the loss one personally experiences, this reading of Richard’s theology indicates that there is something of the divine love in grieving for one’s spouse’s loss. In grieving and sorrowing for one another, that experience is a further reflection in the married couple of the Imago Dei of the Trinitarian God.
If my insights above are correct, I believe that in Richard of St. Victor, one finds a Trinitarian theology that has the ability to speak to the experience of infertility more readily than the Augustinian mutual-love tradition. I have briefly shown how this different approach offers both a path for infertile couples to see the love of their marriages as imaging the love of the Trinity, and how it offers some practical pastoral approaches to those suffering with infertility.
Can one speak of a theology of infertility? Certainly the experience of infertility touches many areas of belief. Moral theology deals with the ethical approach to reproductive technology; sacramental theology would do well to examine the possibility of liturgical rites recognizing the experience of infertile couples; pastoral theology needs to be able to address the despair and anger at God that accompany infertility; and we have here touched briefly on Trinitarian theology as it may impact the experience and understanding of infertility. I hope this brief reflection may serve to spur on more investigation into the intersection between our faith and the experience of infertility.
- For a similar approach, see Kevin Ellis, “Searching for an Impotent God,” Contact 141 (2003):11-16. ↩
- Augustine, De Trinitate, VI, 5 (7). ↩
- Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005), 78. ↩
- S.Th. I. q. 27 art. 3. ↩
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), 152. ↩
- Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 106. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2331 ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2205. ↩
- Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2004), 8-9. ↩
- Congar, I Believe, 81. ↩
- Congar, I Believe, 87. ↩
- Congar, I Believe, 87. ↩
- All quotations are taken from Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity, trans. Ruben Angelici (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2011). ↩
- Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity, III, ii. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., III, iii. ↩
- Ibid., III, iv. ↩
- Ibid., III, v. ↩
- Ibid., III, vi. ↩
- Ibid., III, vii. ↩
- Ibid., III, xi. ↩
- Ibid., III, xi. ↩
- Ibid., III, xx. ↩
- Ibid., III, xii. ↩
- Ibid., III, xii. ↩
- Ellis, “Searching for an Impotent God,” 11. ↩
- Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity, III, xix. ↩
- Ibid., III, xi. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2379. ↩
- John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 14, emphasis added. ↩
- Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity, III, xii. ↩
- See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2373. ↩
- Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity, III, xii. ↩
- Certainly we get a glimpse of God’s heart as Christ mourns for the dead Lazarus (Jn 11:35) or for Jerusalem (Lk 13:34), but we’re not concerned here with how human love conforms to the sacred humanity of Christ, but to the love of the Trinity. ↩
- Cf. Col. 1:24. ↩