Catholics have long used social media to share the truths of the faith with friends and strangers alike. Sometimes tensions arise when the truths are among the “hard sayings” of Christ that many moderns find difficult to accept. Abortion, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality are all examples of subjects where tempers flare and accusations are flung that the defenders of orthodox Christian morality are being hurtful, if not hateful, toward those involved in these sins.
Apologists have worked hard to show the reasonableness of the Church’s teaching on these issues, but many people still claim to feel “hurt” or “hated” by Christians when presented with these defenses of Christian morality. Perhaps from frustration at not seeming to make headway in these dialogues, some Catholics have taken to attacking the very idea of feelings.
“Jesus doesn’t care about your feelings!” has become a common refrain in the social media wars I’ve observed. But is this true? Is Jesus apathetic about human feelings?
Jesus could be tough with his disciples—those who followed him every day and battled each other for the best places within the apostolic band (Matt. 20:20–24), or the one who complained when someone used her own money to buy precious oil to anoint Christ’s feet while he himself was dipping into his brother apostles’ common funds (John 12:3–8). Jesus could also be harsh with people who scrupulously observed minute legalities while ignoring more important obligations to aged parents (Mark 7:5–13).
Yet, what about the woman at the well, whose presence there alone at midday may indicate that she’d been shunned by her community (John 4:4–42)? Or the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3–11)? Or Zacchaeus, who may have done some terrible things, but who wanted to see Jesus so badly that he climbed a tree (Luke 19:1–10)? Or the sick woman who was so desperate for a cure that she touched Christ’s cloak, and then swallowed her fear to admit to what she’d done instead of slipping away into the crowd when Jesus asked who’d done it (Luke 8:42–48)? Or the centurion who said Jesus didn’t need to go out of his way for him; Jesus willing the centurion’s servant’s cure would be enough (Matt. 8:5–13)?
If someone was vulnerable, or in danger, or hurting, or repentant, or ill, or humble, Jesus didn’t pull out the rhetorical hammer and bash him over the head with his sins. He waited for a shunned woman to admit she had no husband before disclosing that he already knew her life story (John 4:17–18). He protected someone in danger of stoning and explicitly refused to condemn her before telling her to sin no more (John 8:10–11). He declared his intention to stay at a notorious man’s home before there was any overt sign the man was willing to amend his life (Luke 19:2–5).
Even in cases where Jesus knew ahead of time that he was going to take away the cause of suffering for someone, he first entered into the suffering with the afflicted persons. The very word compassion is taken from Latin roots that mean to “suffer with,” and Jesus suffered with those who suffered. He comforted grieving parents before raising their child from the dead (Luke 8:51–56). He wept alongside Mary of Bethany and the mourners at her brother’s grave before raising Lazarus from the dead, inspiring onlookers to comment, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:32–36). Evidently, it didn’t matter that Jesus already knew he would raise the child and Lazarus from the dead as signs of his messianic identity; love came first, truth followed.
A similar dynamic I’ve noticed in recent years is based in a common misconception about feelings and emotions, expressed more often, it seems, by Catholic women. Perhaps because women are often viewed as “too emotional,” or more prone to decisions based on their feelings, some Catholic women apparently think they must affirm that “love has nothing to do with emotions!”
First, we should understand that love (i.e., Christian charity) is a theological virtue “by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC 1822). That love is an action, seated in the human will, and is expressed by “will[ing] the good of another” (1766). But the Church also affirms that feelings and emotions, what it calls “the passions,” have a role to play in developing the virtue of love.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the passions as “emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil” (1763). The feelings inspired by passions either arouse “the attraction of the good” or inspire aversion to evil. If our passions are rightly ordered, they “[find] completion in the pleasure and joy of the good possessed” or they end in sorrow for evil and the anger required to resist that evil (1765).
Problems arise only when our passions are disordered, which is possible because of the concupiscence that is the result of original sin. The Catechism states:
Etymologically, “concupiscence” can refer to any intense form of human desire. Christian theology has given it a particular meaning: the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason. … Concupiscence stems from the disobedience of the first sin. It unsettles man’s moral faculties and, without being in itself an offense, inclines man to commit sins (CCC 2515).
Feelings are part of the human condition, part of our humanity that Jesus came to redeem, not to ignore or abolish. In his own earthly life, we see Christ rejoicing with his disciples after a successful mission (Luke 10:17–21); weeping as he predicted the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–44); and raging at the money-changers, who were profaning the Temple, in such a display of temper that his disciples remembered the messianic prophecy that “Zeal for thy house will consume me” (John 2:14–17). As the Catechism concludes, “In Christ, human feelings are able to reach their consummation in charity and divine beatitude” (1769).
When Christians confront sin, they often seek to “speak the truth in love.” That adage has its merits, since it reminds us of the necessity of witnessing to Christ, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). But there’s also a temptation to subordinate love, to treat love as secondary. Benedict XVI, in his speech before the conclave that ended in his own election, warned that truth and love must be kept in constant balance:
Truth and love coincide in Christ. To the extent that we draw close to Christ, in our own lives too, truth and love are blended. Love without truth would be blind; truth without love would be like “a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1).
If Christ’s own example during his earthly ministry was to offer love first and truth second, then perhaps the goal for Catholics is not so much “speaking the truth in love” but speaking love in truth.
For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So, faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:12–13).