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Jun 16, 2016

St. John Paul II’s Love & Responsibility: A Bird’s Eye View

Dr. Andrew Swafford

In 1960, then-Karol Wojtyla (later Pope St. John Paul II) wrote a book about love and relationships that still reverberates in the present.

In his words, the two main sources of this work are (1) the Gospel’s call to love (see Jn 15:12-13) and (2) human experience. As for the latter, one might wonder how a celibate man can claim “experiential” knowledge of love and sexuality; but he addresses this objection well: while the priest does not have direct sexual and marital experiences, he has indirect experience—by way of pastoral counsel of many different couples—that is much more extensive than the direct experience of a typical layperson ((trans. Grzegorz Ignatik, Love and Responsibility [Boston, Pauline Books & Media, 2013], xxi).


For Wojtyla, man is made ultimately for love; in making a gift of himself in love, man truly finds himself—truly finds the happiness for which his heart longs (see Mt 16:24-26). But when it comes to romantic relationships, there are things that can get in the way of this profound union of persons—things that can hinder the full blossoming of love.

Sensuality and Affectivity (Sentimentality)

Wojtyla breaks down what he refers to as the psychological experience of love, especially in its beginnings. Initially, we are drawn toward the “sexual values” of the person; these are good in and of themselves, but the danger here is to fixate on them in isolation and actually miss the person at his or her deepest level.

By “sensuality,” Wojtyla is referring to physical attraction. Over and over again, he notes there is nothing inherently wrong with this—it is part of the Creator’s plan to draw us into love; in fact, he states on several occasions that here we find the raw “materials” for love (ibid., 90). But this is not yet love: “For by itself sensuality is completely blind to the person and oriented only toward the sexual value linked to the ‘body’” (ibid., 91).

By “affectivity” (“sentimentality” in the older English translation), Wojtyla is referring to an emotional attraction, an emotional love (ibid., 92-3). This level is obviously deeper than sensuality, but for that reason can be deceptive. If not rooted in something deeper, this emotional experience of love can easily become unmoored from objective reality—from the objective truth of the other person and the relationship between the two.

Here, one is often prone to “idealization”—love goggles, as it were, where we see things in the other that perhaps aren’t really there (ibid., 94-5). I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we couldn’t quite figure out what our friends (or ourselves!) actually saw in the other person. This is the power of affective emotional love, a wonderfully binding force but one which can distort our vision.

As is borne out by experience, Wojtyla notes that often purely emotional love can turn to tragic disappointment in the end, when the relationship turns out to be something less than one originally thought.


As said above, there is nothing wrong with being attracted by the “sexual values” of the person, whether physical or emotional. But for Wojtyla, love is not something ready-made, something we just passively walk into. The task of love is to integrate these sexual values into the full context of the person. Since a person is greater than his or her sexual values, the task of love is to appreciate and admire these values in their proper context, as values of a particular person—and not divorce them in isolation from this fuller context. Wojtyla writes: “So, in every situation in which we experience the sexual value of some person, love demands integration, that is, the incorporation of this value in the value of the person—indeed, its subordination to the value of the person” (ibid., 105).

Chastity—Friend or Foe of Love?

For Wojtyla, the virtue of chastity is emphatically not a “no,” but a great “yes” to the person and to true love: “The essence of chastity lies precisely in ‘keeping up’ with the value of the person in every situation and in ‘pulling up’ to this value every reaction to the value of the ‘body and sex’” (ibid., 155). Chastity enables us to see the person, fully and truly, in every interaction.

If love is identified with simply a physical or emotional experience, then one could say that chastity is a foe of love (see ibid., 128); but such a view neglects the task of integration—and disregards the damage caused by non-integration.

But if love is greater than a mere physical or emotional experience, then chastity is actually the great friend of love. Without chastity, we get enamored and fixated on the sexual values of the person; we can’t see past their physical aspects or how the other makes us feel emotionally. Though we usually don’t realize it at the time, we can fall into a “needy” love—a love where the other “fills me up,” so to speak. We never come to love the person for who they truly are and never come to the point where we desire their good—what is objectively best for them—ahead of how we feel or what we desire.

In this vein, referring to the very title of the book, Wojtyla writes: “[L]ove separated from the sense of responsibility for the person is a denial of itself, and, as a rule, is always egoism. The more the sense of responsibility for the person, the more true love there is” (ibid., 113). And if we want “the good without limits” for the other, then “properly speaking [we] want God” for the other person (ibid., 119-20).

the virtue of chastity is emphatically not a “no,” but a great “yes” to the person and to true love

So if we claim to love someone, we always have to ask ourselves whether our actions are taking them toward or away from their ultimate end—toward or away from God. If our actions are taking them away from God, then our “love” for them likely has more to do with us than the objective good of the other. To this extent, it is a selfish love and not a true love.

One way I’ve put this to my students is by asking: “Would you advise your future teenage son or daughter to do what you’re trying to rationalize for yourself right now?”

The fact is sensual and emotional attraction develop faster than true and committed love. This is why chastity is essential for the full deepening of love: without it, love is arrested before it’s really had the chance to mature—before it’s really had the time to grow roots that will last (for a fuller account of this material, see my John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, ch. 7).

Chastity in Marriage?

Because chastity is the virtue that frees us to love—to love the person for who they are and to integrate their sexual values into the full context of the person—there is an abiding place for chastity in marriage. That is, marriage is not a license to use each other sexually. Chastity in marriage calls us to always engage the other as a person—even in and through the sexual act. The sensual and emotional aspects are wonderful and willed by our Creator. But they must always be contextualized by the person; it was in this vein that John Paul II famously said that “the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little.” That is, pornography shows too little of the person, in its attempt to reduce the person to merely his or her sensual aspects.

A Richer Experience of Love

In fact, in contrast to the “idealization” mentioned above, in the context of committed love in marriage, one begins to feel emotional attachment to the other as he or she truly is, flaws and virtues in all. In this way, the emotional aspect of love attaches to the real, not the idealized version of the other. With “properly integrated” and committed love, Wojtyla writes: “affection … acquires new properties …. [It] makes us affectively love the person as he truly is—not our image of him but the real person. We love him along with his virtues and vices, in a sense independently of the virtues and despite the vices. The greatness of this love is manifested the most when this person falls, when his weaknesses or even sins come to light. One who truly loves does not then refuse his love, but in a sense loves even more—he loves while being conscious of deficiencies and vices without, however, approving of them” (ibid., 116-7).

Indeed, I often tell my students that marriage is when your spouse will see you at your worst and love you through it.

How can we truly love those around us, seeking first and foremost their good, and rise above our spontaneous reactions and desires in the moment?

You May Also Like…

Jason Evert: Chastity is the Fruit of Love

You: Life, Love, and the Theology of the Body

The Beauty of Marriage from a Biblical Perspective


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