This is the third article a three-part series which I wrote for the Unofficial MODG Senior Newsletter. This article deals with the subject of the virtue of charity.
CHARITY, the third of the theological virtues, is defined in Prummer’s Handbook of Moral Theology as a virtue infused by God enabling man to love God for His own sake as the supreme good, and himself and his neighbor for God’s sake. Charity is the greatest of all the virtues, as St. Paul writes in the famous passage from his letter to the Corinthians. Indeed, as St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “the perfection of the Christian life consists radically in charity.”
St. Thomas is insistent on the point that, in this life, charity is greater than faith, the love of God is greater than the knowledge of God, despite the fact that the intellect is simply speaking a superior faculty to the will, or the heart. For God is so above man’s capacity for knowledge that man can only attain to a knowledge of God through the medium of his knowledge of finite creatures; thus, God is, as it were, brought down to the level of man’s own limited capacities. On the other hand, man is capable of loving God as He truly is in Himself, without having to pass through any medium. Thus, while in this life the knowledge of God brings God down to man’s level, the love of God brings man up to meet God. Therefore, the love of God in this life is superior to the knowledge of Him. But this will not be so once man attains his eternal salvation and the Beatific Vision in the next life; for then his knowledge of God will be perfect, as he will see God face to face, as He truly is in Himself.
The object of charity is divided into its formal and material components. The formal object of charity is the divine goodness, God Himself. God is infinitely good, Goodness itself, Holy beyond all comparison. Because such goodness is the object of the will, whose primary act is love, God ought most eminently to be loved by man. The material object of charity is all creatures, men and angels most particularly – excluding, Prummer notes, the damned in Hell, and the devil; for these are not capable of divine friendship. This distinction between the formal and material object of charity is not a distinction between two different kinds of charity, for both God and neighbor are loved by the same single act of charity. To love one’s neighbor with the love of charity necessarily implies the love of God, by definition; for it is this love of God which perfects and, indeed, enables the love of neighbor, raising it to the level of this sublime virtue. In charity, unlike knowledge, one loves God first, and without medium, for His own sake; and consequently, by this same charity one loves one’s neighbor, for the sake of that love of God.
The theologians teach that the love of charity is not merely affective, i.e. it is not a simple profession of love in the mind or on the lips; rather, it is proven to be true and genuine, indeed it is made more perfect, when it shows itself through the performance of good deeds and actions, as well as through prayer. In other words, charity is not merely affective love, but also effective love.
Because God and neighbor are loved with one and the same act of charity, and because the charitable love of neighbor only comes about by a genuine charitable love of God, it follows that the extent of the love of neighbor must be universal and inclusive. This is because God is in all men, or ought to be so, by sanctifying grace. Therefore, insofar as God is or can be in all men, one ought to love all men with the love of charity. This love extends even to one’s enemies; and indeed, it ought to extend to them, for one ought to desire God’s grace for them, that they may become children of God. Hence, we read in the scriptures: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute and insult you” (Matt. 5,44). However, as stated above, the love of charity excludes only the demons and the damned in hell: for these are no longer capable of becoming children of God. Nevertheless, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange writes, following St. Thomas, even the damned in hell are the object of God’s mercy, since they are in fact punished less than they fully deserved; and this ought to gladden our charity.
Although the extent of fraternal charity is universal and inclusive, there still exists within it a certain order, such that one need not love all of one’s neighbors to an equal degree of love. Universality of extent does not necessitate equality. Thus one may legitimately love some more than others, according to their closeness to God and to oneself. Prummer writes in his Handbook:
Charity derives from two sources—God and ourselves. The nearer anything is to either of these principles, so much the greater must be our love of it. Thus those who are better and more perfect in the sight of God are deserving of greater love than those who are less perfect, since they are more like to God. This refers to our reverence for and appreciation of such persons, not necessarily to our feelings towards them. Thus a son must have greater regard for a saintly person than for his own wicked father, but it is not necessary that he possess greater feelings for that person.
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange writes along the same lines: “We should have a greater love of esteem [i.e. reverence] for those who are better, nearer to God, although we love with a more sensible love [feelings] those who are nearest to us through blood, marriage, vocation, or friendship.” In regards to the love we have towards relatives and friends in particular, Prummer gives the following order: “wife (or husband), children, parents, brothers and sisters, other relatives, friends and benefactors.”
The virtue of charity is utterly necessary for salvation, for in it consists the very essence of Christian perfection. The virtues of faith and hope, though also necessary, cannot by themselves bring one to salvation; for even these virtues can exist in a soul in the state of mortal sin. Charity, however, is by its nature incompatible with mortal sin: for the man in mortal sin is for that reason incapable of loving God, until, by an act of repentance and contrition, he returns to the state of grace, and thus regains charity. Thus, St. Thomas writes, "primarily and essentially, the perfection of the Christian life consists in charity, principally as to the love of God, secondarily as to the love of our neighbor.” For
A thing is said to be perfect in so far as it attains its proper end, which is the ultimate perfection thereof. Now it is charity that unites us to God, Who is the last end of the human mind, since "he that abideth in charity abideth in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16). Therefore the perfection of the Christian life consists radically in charity.
As St. Paul so eloquently teaches, charity is the greatest of all the virtues, for by charity all other virtues acquire their intended efficacy. For what use are these virtues if one does not love God? In conclusion, it would be well to read the words of the Apostle himself:
I may speak with every tongue that men and angels use; yet, if I lack charity, I am no better than echoing bronze, or the clash of cymbals. I may have powers of prophecy, no secret hidden from me, no knowledge too deep for me; I may have utter faith, so that I can move mountains; yet if I lack charity, I count for nothing. I may give away all that I have, to feed the poor; I may give myself up to be burnt at the stake; if I lack charity, it goes for nothing… Meanwhile, faith, hope, and charity persist, all three; but the greatest of them all is charity (1 Corinthians 13:1-3,13).
 Prummer, Handbook of Moral Theology, pg. 95
 Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q. 184, a. I
 Ia, q.82, a.3
 Prummer, pg. 95
 Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Book 3, Chap. 20
 Prummer, pg. 98-99
 Three Ages, Bk. 3, Chap. 20
 Prummer, pg. 99
 IIa IIae, q. 184, a. 3.
 IIa IIae, q. 184, a. I.