Love and Responsibility: Required Reading for the Synod on the Family

Thanks to the Synod on the Family, the Catholic Church is now engaged in an intense discussion on sexual morality and married life. Yet if one listens carefully to the debates and polemics, it becomes evident that there is immense confusion about romantic love and, hence, about marriage itself. This confusion is not confined to the secular media or to a poorly educated Catholic laity.  Even a few bishops and cardinals do not appear to grasp the precise nature of spousal or conjugal love which is the foundation of marriage. In a private meeting of some European theologians, bishops, and cardinals preparing for the October 2015 Synod, there was talk of replacing a “theology of the body” with a “theology of love.” This proposal has clear gnostic overtones and is inconsistent with the Church’s well-grounded doctrine on marriage and anthropology. It suggests that love is some sort of disembodied reality that is not lived out and expressed through the body.  Pope St. John Paul II has always resisted the gnostic impulse by consistently reaffirming the personal character of sexuality.1

There has also been sporadic talk among some members of the hierarchy about the need for the Church to be more accepting of gay unions or cohabitation. Several bishops and cardinals have pointed out the “positive elements” in these sexual relationships, in which there is often sincere, mutual caring. Cardinal Schönborn, for example, finds something positive and even uplifting in homosexual monogamy where one share’s one’s life, joys, and sufferings with another.2 But this type of discourse, however well-intentioned, blurs the critical distinction between spousal love and friendship.

What lies behind this persistent confusion which has apparently found its way into the higher echelons of the Church?  Why the temptation to discard centuries of inspired teachings about love, marriage, and family? There are no simple answers to these questions. To be sure, the lack of good education has created a climate of moral illiteracy. But we cannot underestimate the influence of cultural elites who have little sympathy for the entire Catholic moral tradition. It is exceedingly difficult to think properly about moral issues in this ambient culture. There are pervasive biases even against the most reasonable standards of sexual morality along with a steady determination to rationalize a rejection of those standards. Yet, as John Paul II has taught, Jesus’ teachings will always be a “sign of contradiction” to the secular world. They remain a provocation and challenge to the nonbeliever, the moral skeptic, and probably the complacent Catholic.

The Church must make every effort to prevent this perplexity about spousal love and marriage from deepening, or it risks an even greater calamity. It’s essential to dissolve this confusion by reemphasizing the manifold meaning of personal love in a way that is both morally sound and reasonable. Perhaps, it is also possible to find a more suitable language, one that can resonate more powerfully in contemporary culture, in order to articulate the most fundamental truths about love and sexuality.

Where does one look for a fresh and in-depth treatment about love that can dispel this confusion in a way that is thoroughly consistent with the Catholic moral tradition? The perfect resource is Bishop Karol Wojtyla’s neglected book called Love and Responsibility. Unlike the philosopher-pope’s major opus, The Acting Person, this book has been written, not for the professional philosopher, but for a general audience. And unlike the Theology of the Body, Love and Responsibility is a philosophical work that aims to engage a broad spectrum of readers, including the non-Christian and the unbeliever. Bishop Wojtyla published this magnificent book in 1960, 18 years prior to his election to the papacy as Pope John Paul II. Well before the aggressive sexual revolution was underway, he saw the need to substantiate, with logical arguments, the New Testament teaching on sexual morality. That teaching is both “concise and sufficient,” and it allows us “to form quite clear views” on this subject (xxi).3  But the norms articulated in Scripture encounter resistance and, therefore, need some elucidation along with a spirited defense.  Wojtyla’s astute analysis is based, not so much on the arguments of natural law, but on the philosophy of personalism suggested by the work of Max Scheler. Perhaps, this is the “new language” some in the Church are seeking? Unfortunately, the older vocabularies of natural law and intrinsic evil no longer seem to have broad intellectual resonance. But almost anyone can sympathize with the theme of personal dignity and how that dignity is compromised through sexual exploitation. No mature person wants to be “used” or objectified by someone else. At the same time, Wojtyla the philosopher deftly employs the tools of his trade, including a disciplined method and precision of understanding, to penetrate through what love seems to be, in order to discover what it truly is.

Thanks to the Daughters of St. Paul (Pauline Books & Media), we now have a more accurate translation of Love and Responsibility,which has the potential to nourish a renewed interest in this book. The first English translation, which appeared in 1981, was certainly competent enough, but the new one makes Wojtyla’s sometimes difficult text more accessible. This translation undoubtedly comes at a propitious time. Bishop Wojtyla’s conceptual clarity and discerning eye is the perfect remedy for those perplexed by love and susceptible to fuzzy thinking that distorts vital moral truths.

We cannot do justice to the richness of this book in a few pages. But it would be instructive to sketch out, in general fashion, the broad lines of his discussion on the nature of love. This presentation will help readers come to appreciate Wojtyla’s invaluable contribution to the Church’s current debates about love, sexuality, and marriage. A key axis of this discussion is the nature of the spousal gift of self.  Since this love “stands at the cradle of the coming to be of human kind,” writes Wojtyla, responsible spousal love is “bound most closely with responsibility for procreation” (223).

The Personalistic Norm and Sexual Morality
Wojtyla’s distinctive personalistic approach to ethics is predicated on the idea that there is a wide chasm between persons and all other creatures. Only a person who has a soul intrinsically connected to a body is a “someone” rather than something. The great moral challenge is how to treat the person with the respect he or she deserves. Wojtyla argues with some insistence that there is a sharp dichotomy between love and use. Either we treat a person with loving kindness and care about his or her aspirations and needs, or we use a person merely to advance our own self-serving interests. Inspired by Immanuel Kant, he proposes the personalistic norm which asserts that “the person is the kind of good (who) may not be treated as an object of use” (25). Lying and coercion are prime examples of using or manipulating other people. This personalistic norm is the ultimate moral principle for discerning the propriety of human action.

The principal ethical focus of Love and Responsibility is the use of another person merely for sexual pleasure. Unlike lower creatures, a man or woman can isolate pleasure in the sexual act and treat it as a “distinct end of action” (17). If Frank has sexual relations with Ann purely for the pleasure of an orgasm, Ann’s body is simply a means for his self-gratification. In this case, he reduces “the whole personal richness of femininity” to Ann’s sexual properties in order to satisfy his errant sexual desires.4 Thus, we cannot use people in a general way, nor can we use them merely for the sake of a pleasurable experience.

However, there is a need to go beyond the personalistic norm in order to construct a proper sexual morality. We must also consider the sexual drive which is the foundation of conjugal love. This drive orients us to the sexual properties of a person of the opposite sex and makes romantic love possible. Above all, we must appreciate the teleology, or objective purpose, of the sexual drive.  Although Wojtyla’s exposition is not explicitly based on natural law reasoning, he does not ignore human nature, which includes the sexual drive, whose purpose is procreation. Just as we have senses to see, hear, and feel, we have been endowed with a certain sexual design in order to procreate. Contrary to the opinion of Freud and his followers, Wojtyla insists that the sexual drive “does not possess a purely libidinistic character, but it possesses an existential character” (47).  The ultimate meaning of the sexual drive is closely linked with human existence, and with preserving the human species. To use the drive solely as a means for pleasure is to contradict nature and suffer the deprivation of goods, such as conjugal communion and family. Sexual morality, therefore, is based on a “synthesis of the finality of nature with the personalistic norm” (51).   Unless a person acknowledges and respects the purpose of the sexual drive, he or she cannot faithfully adhere to that norm and treat the other person with love that is focused on his or her true good. Perfection through love is possible only if we are faithful to our sexual nature which allows for a bodily gift of self that creates a profound and fruitful interpersonal union. But, what precisely is love, and how is conjugal love differentiated from other instances of love such as friendship?

The Essence and Evolution of Love
At the heart of this book is Wojtyla’s exposition of the essential elements of human love. This account bears witness to the creative power of love and the promise of conjugal communion.  While all forms of love share the same qualities, Wojtyla has in mind romantic love between a man and a woman. Love begins as fondness, or attraction. A person is attracted to the sexual and spiritual values of another, and love begins to take shape. Attraction with a sexual component is instigated by the psychological forces of sensuality and affectivity that are often mistaken for love itself. Fondness evolves into “love of desire,” or longing for the other, who can fulfill the lover’s deepest aspirations. But true love always transcends desire and self-interest. It is altruistic and must include benevolence, willing the good of the other, and taking delight in that person’s good for his or her own sake. “Through benevolence,” writes Wojtyla, “we come as close as possible to what constitutes the ‘pure essence’ of love” (67). Love must also be reciprocal because it is “between” a man and a woman. Love is always something shared and interpersonal. Finally, when love is reciprocal, it matures into friendship, which constitutes a moral unity and commitment, a “doubling of the I,” in which a person’s will relates to the friend and to herself “with equal favor” (74). Friendship, which is enhanced by the warmth of sympathy and affection, is a deep personal union between two people who are fond of each other, and who strive in some way for the other’s good and well-being. Love, therefore, is always a “striving” and a “uniting of persons” (78).

There are many different types of love that manifest all or some of these common traits. All love must include some measure of benevolence, while deeper forms of love involve reciprocal sharing along with the personal union of friendship. But friendship is also a distinct type of love. Friendship differs from the sort of fraternal loving kindness owed to all persons because it includes a deeper level of moral commitment and caring. It also differs from maternal or paternal love, which is enhanced by the natural bonds of kinship. But all love, explains Wojtyla, is a “transition from ‘I’ to ‘we’” (77).

Spousal love goes beyond friendship and takes human love to a higher level.  Spousal love consists in giving one’s whole self to another: “the essence of spousal love is giving oneself, giving one’s ‘I’” (78). Unlike friendship, or even maternal and paternal love, spousal love is exclusive. Spousal love can involve a human person who makes a transcendent pledge to God through permanent vows. More typically, spousal love is lived out between a man and woman who give themselves completely to each other. Spousal love, “born on the substratum of the sexual drive,” is a total union and complete sharing between two persons on a physical, psychological, and spiritual level (97). This type of comprehensive union is only possible between a man and a woman who come together into a “mature totality of reciprocal self-giving” (81). Friendship requires reciprocity, but spousal love also requires sexual reciprocity (or complementarity) between a man and a woman, which makes a dual unity possible with one person ordered to the other for the sake of this full and more complete unity.5

Authentic spousal love, therefore, must be formed in close harmony with the proper end of the sexual drive, which makes the totality of this shared goodness possible. Spousal love is a full, bodily union of a man and woman, including their fertility and procreative capacity. When a man and woman love each other in this way, they enter into the natural order by participating in the divine work of creation. However, as persons, they transcend the natural order. Unlike animals, their sexual relations express mutual self-donation and a deep personal union. Men and women are persons who must give themselves to each other freely, and, yet, they are naturally ordered to procreation through that spousal gift of self. Sexuality, love, and procreation, therefore, are intrinsically linked together. Spousal love between a man and a woman is given a certain distinctive character by the nature of the sexual drive that distinguishes it from other types of love. Thus, “that I should love has its objective basis in the personal dignity of the recipient of action (the personalistic norm); however, how I should love has its objective basis in human nature” (51).

It follows that responsible spousal love can only be realized in a heterosexual marriage in which a man and a woman make a lifelong commitment and engage in sexual relations that are always open to life and do not explicitly thwart the procreative purpose of the sexual drive. The two become one flesh in the sexual act that is both unitive and generative, because it can be unitive only if it is generative, and vice versa.6 When sexuality is stripped of its unitive and procreative purpose, the sexual act is depersonalized as the other is transformed into a means of receiving pleasure. The only possible motive for such sexual relations that are not unitive and generative is mutual self-gratification which is tantamount to using each other’s body merely for pleasure. Such use is inconsistent with the personalistic norm and with the dignity of the person who should never be objectified. The foundation of Wojytla’s vision of human sexuality is the structure of the sexual drive which has its “objective greatness precisely because of (its) link with the divine work of creation” (41). That vision is never obscured by the dark shadows of gnosticism and Freudianism which have fatally misrepresented the sexual life of the human person.

What bearing does all this have on the confused statements of those bishops and theologians cited at the beginning of this article? It should be quite evident that there is a qualitative difference between friendship and spousal love. The latter is only possible for a man and a woman who commit themselves in marriage to a life of dedicated, reciprocal self-giving, a full and total union at the bodily, psychological, and spiritual level. There is no warrant for some kind of middle ground (such as a homosexual union) between friendship and spousal love that would permit sexual relations only as a sign of affection or source of mutual pleasure.  Such a view is inconsistent with the unitive and generative purpose of the sexual act, which can never be detached from fruitfulness (even if the act is not fruitful on a given occasion). To claim that the sexual drive lacks this “objective finality” opens the door to subjective interpretations of that drive and, ultimately, a dualistic conception of the person. Those who adopt such a view typically argue that the body and its sexual powers lack any natural structure or finality beyond what is given by the will.  As a result, the body is so separated from the spiritual subject that it cannot be integrated into the unity of the person.7

Thus, there is no moral justification for some sort of sexual friendship that “does not overcome the attitude to use imposed by sensuality” (192). When sexual intercourse is not an expression of a full and mature union of persons, it becomes “an opportunity to evoke pleasure or various degrees of delight” (137). This pleasure-centered attitude attributes to the sexual drive an egocentric meaning that results in the “hedonization of love” (138). For example, in a homosexual relationship, where a total personal union is impossible, can the act of sodomy really contribute anything to a sincere friendship beyond mutual pleasure? Many other mutually beneficial acts such as intimate conversation are far more effective in strengthening the bonds of friendship and expressing good will. On the other hand, a married couple who are completely united in the sexual act, and who respect the interior dynamic of love, form a unique interpersonal communion as they “open themselves to a new good, which is an expression of the creative power of love” (216).8

As Wojtyla points out, these non-marital relationships often masquerade as spousal love: “what is taken for love is the ephemeral amorous (erotic) lived experience alone” (217). But the amorous experience does not serve this personal union because it is not generative and unitive, and cannot create the goods of conjugal communion and new life. The “positive elements” in an intimate non-marital relationship are friendship and benevolence, which have nothing to do with sexual activity. When sexual relations are introduced, the only conceivable motivation is self-gratification. Any sexual activity that is non-unitive and non-procreative lacks generosity, and, therefore, it cannot surpass the stigma of use for pleasure, despite the surface appearance of romantic love. But using each other for the sake of pleasure is the direct opposite of love. In the long run, this libidinous behavior will most likely destabilize that friendship, and, eventually, erode those “positive elements.”

Karol Wojtyla’s elegant book, stamped with the disparate influences of Aquinas, Kant, and Scheler, invites us to consider the precise boundary between authentic spousal love and use for pleasure. The casual sexual affairs of the hookup culture are the most obvious example of use for sexual pleasure, but this interior attitude can encroach upon the amatory experiences of more committed couples. Some sexual relationships may assume the appearance of love and provide a cover for hedonistic behavior. But genuine spousal love, which “always wants to give, to create the good, to make happy,” contributes to the common good of conjugal communion and family community (119).

It should be evident that Wojtyla’s philosophical meditation on love has significant implications for the contentious issue of same sex unions. Homosexual relations lack the unitive significance of heterosexual intercourse, which allows a married couple to achieve its most profound personal unity by becoming a single reproductive principle. These sexual relations can provide only subjective satisfaction and, at best, an illusion of unity.9 Yet, many people, even within the Catholic Church, have embraced same sex marriage because they have been persuaded that it is better to be on the “right side of history.” And, indeed, same sex marriage now seems to have the force of inevitability in civil society. But we know from the past, that historical transitions never succeed unless they are rooted in truth. As prudent Catholics and Christians, we must strive, instead, to be on the side of moral truth which does not change, but remains constant and transcendent. Wojtyla’s book provides a defining moral perspective on the moral truths about love and marriage that can illuminate the way out of confusion and ethical falsehood.

  1. Fr. Robert Barron, “Bruce Jenner, the ‘Shadow Council,’ and St. Irenaeus,” Catholic World Report, June 2015.
  2. Cardinal Schönborn, “At Synod, Church Should Embrace ‘Positive Elements’ of Gay Unions and Other Sexual Sins,” LifeSite News, September 14, 2015.
  3. Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility trans. Grzegorz Ignatik (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2013). All page references in the text are to this edition. See also my concise commentary on this new translation of Wojtyla’s book:  Richard A. Spinello, Understanding Love and Responsibility (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2014).
  4.  Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), § 40:3.
  5. Cardinal Angelo Scola, Nuptial Mystery (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmann’s, 2005), 121. I am indebted to Cardinal Scola’s book for helping me formulate some the arguments in this discussion.
  6. Robert Reilly, “Failing to Make the Moral Case for Marriage,” Catholic World Report, June 2015.
  7. Michael Hanby, “The Civic Project of American Christianity,” First Things, February 2015, 33-39. See also Scola, Nuptial Mystery, 125.
  8. Germain Grisez, Living a Christian Life (Quincy, IL:  Franciscan Press, 1993), 653-4.
  9. Ibid.
Dr. Richard A. Spinello About Dr. Richard A. Spinello

Dr. Richard Spinello is an Associate Research Professor at Boston College where he teaches courses on philosophy, ethics, and management. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John's Seminary in Boston. He is the author of The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary, and Understanding Love and Responsibility: A Companion to Karol Wojtyla's Classic Work along with numerous other books and articles on ethical theory and applied ethics.


  1. Avatar Bob highsmith says:


  2. Avatar Bob highsmith says:

    Agreed. We need to speak clearly and forcefully on these core issues. A confused world has trouble hearing other voices.

  3. Avatar K J GEORGE says:

    Thanks to the Synod more Bishops and Church authorities show interest in family life. This is a great development. Sex is the physical manifestation of love between two individuals which is very important for life like food and clothing. Denying this is one of the causes of disruption of good family life. All the right-minded people expect a change of stand by the Church regarding good family life in the light of the discussion held during the Synod.

  4. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    How do you argue your position with a person whose experience contradicts the a priori assumptions in your position. The sexual encounters of homosexual couples report experiencing unitive love in their monogamous relationships. For someone with same sex attractions, the positive aspects of mutual love for each other cannot be denied.

    My reading of the Synod of Bishops indicates that the topics discussed were not limited to sexuality. Indeed, they discussed economic challenges, cultural diversity, slavery, and the devastation of war all of which impact how families experience life. In the end, there is no one model of family that fits all. We are all imperfect and sin colors how we live. The message of Jesus, who is truth, focused on mercy.

    How has the Catholic Church been merciful to those who live with the realization that their sexual orientation is different than the majority? When my family was faced with this challenge, I could not recommend that we seek help from the Catholic Church. Homophobia, not mercy, characterized the Catholic message for anyone gay person. Could it be we are where we are today because we did not respond with mercy to those needing to experience God’s mercy as they struggled with sexual identity.

    • Avatar John Bradley says:

      At One Time, The Term “Homophobia” Meant Hatred OF Persons Who Were Homosexual. Lately It Seemed.That The Meaning Of The Term Has Been Broadened To
      Include Simple DISAPPROVAL.of Homosexual Acts. The Reason, I Suspect, Is To.IntimidAte People From ExpressIng Such Disapproval. After All, No One, Least Of All A Christian Wants To Be Accused Of Hatred.

      There Is No Doubt That Some People Feel Such.A Strong Emotional Repugnance to Homosexual Acts That They May Fail To Love The Sinner. But Many People.Would Express.Disapproval Of Premariral.Sex Or Concubinage Among Heterosexual People. Does That Mean They Hate The Peoplw.Who CommirSuch Acts?

      While I Do.not Equate ThE Seriousness.Of The Sins Involved, If One Takes The Position That Telling Gays And Lesbians That They Should Refrain From Committing certain Sexual Acts, Even Though Those Acts May.Be The Only Way They Can Experience Sexual Gratification, Is The Equivalent Of Hatred, Then Must We Give Moeal Permission To Rapusts And.Pedophiles To Engage In Their Own Preferred Behavior, Or Else Be Guilty.Of Hatred?

      Hatred Is One Thing; Disapproval Is Another. Please Do Not Confuse The Two.

  5. Thank you Dr. Spinello for your outstanding article on St. John Paul II’s classic on human love and marriage that should be a source of many homilies to strengthen and protect Catholic marriages and families.

    I recommend your viewing the new five part DVD series, Invitation to Courageous Love, from the Church’s major apostolate to those with same sex attractions, Courage, Five men and two women, who had previously been in the homosexual lifestyle for many years, share their stories and their journey into the freedom and the happiness of living chaste lives.

  6. Assuming that homosexuals are born with a biology, or nature, that sexually attracts them to some persons of the same sex and not to the opposite sex, are practicing Catholics who are homosexuals required to be lifetime celibates? Priests and religious choose celibacy in order to fulfill their perceived vocations, and they receive many institutional and cultural supports to remain celibate. Homosexuals seem to have no choice in the matter, and yet they do not have any similar or institutional or cultural support for celibacy. On the other hand, homosexuals who enter a committed monogamous relationship with another homosexual can, and often seem to, enjoy a rich and full life of love for each other (a unitive experience) and sometimes for adopted children as well. True, they can’t procreate, but they can provide a better life for children procreated, but not wanted, by others.
    Did God make homosexuals because He wanted more virgins in this world?

  7. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Homophobia is a manifestation of fear not hatred. This springs from the understanding (now outdated) that intrinsically evil acts are encouraged by the evil one (Satan) who is constantly moving about the world seeking the ruin of souls and leading them to eternal damnation.
    This particular fear has been turned into a pejorative by those who wish to legitimize same sex practice. In this way they can use the legal system with its recently discovered ‘Hate Crimes’ to silence those that cling to traditional morality and its avoidance of all things that could be identified with the actions of ‘the evil one’. Beyond that, morally soft poorly catechized individuals can use their abhorrence of ‘hatred’ to justify any act between consenting adults. Hence, the elimination of any social sanction against these inherently evil acts and the stigmatizing of any that oppose them. A huge win for the evil one!

  8. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Carl — in answer to your two questions:
    Yes, assuming they take advantage of a proper confession for those times that they fail in their effort; and,
    God neither makes homosexuals nor wants more virgins in this world. He wants happily married heterosexuals that make babies to enjoy eternal life with Him in Heaven. That’s why He invented the whole process in the first place.

  9. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    ..”For someone with same sex attractions, the positive aspects of mutual love for each other cannot be denied.”
    This describes an ‘affection or attraction’ not human ‘Love’. Affection/attraction can exists between any two entities at least one of which is a sentient being and has many positive aspects.. For example, a person and their dog, two cats, a lover of daffodils and the plants which they nurture and grow.
    To claim that this is the same as the love between a man and woman is ludicrous.