A Catholic Guide to Love, Benedict XVI style

Domenico Stinellis AP FILE – This April 19, 2005 file photo shows Pope Benedict XVI greeting the crowd from the … Continued

Domenico Stinellis


FILE – This April 19, 2005 file photo shows Pope Benedict XVI greeting the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica moments after being elected, at the Vatican.

Looking to Pope Benedict XVI for romantic advice might seem an unusual idea to some. What does a celibate Catholic man know about love? Lots, actually. In 2005, he wrote an entire encyclical on the topic,
Deus Caritas Est
, (God Is Love) in which he asserted:

Too often, Catholic teaching regarding love, sexuality, and marriage is misunderstood as an imposition and restriction on human happiness and freedom, when in fact the opposite is true. It is only in embracing sacrificial love and giving selflessly of ourselves in service to God and to one another that we find our life’s calling and attain lasting happiness. Our modern world, however, is loathe to recognize this difficult truth.

When it comes to teaching the truth about love, Benedict XVI is not afraid to be counter-cultural. On April 1, 2007, in his message for the 22nd World Youth Day, he challenged young people toward a greater, more selfless love than the world would ever require:

The idea of self-giving love and “together forever” is a foreign one to many in today’s pleasure-seeking, hook-up culture. In comparison to the more popular notions of “following your heart,” “finding yourself,” and “being fulfilled,” the thought of sticking it out with one spouse of the opposite sex through a lifetime of thick and thin, for better or worse, can seem an unromantic one, indeed.

“What if you wind up just plain unhappy?” I once heard a friend argue against monogamy and in favor of avoiding marriage altogether.

But that’s just the thing. Catholic teaching on the permanence of marriage between one man and one woman is not designed to spoil our fun; it has the goal of human happiness at its very core. We don’t find real happiness by flitting from one relationship to the next, always scanning the room for a better deal whenever that “magic feeling” begins to fade.

Thankfully, a Catholic understanding of marriage has little to do with that “magic feeling” and everything to do with love and family. Because guess what? That “magic feeling” always will fade, but we find real joy and satisfaction if we replace it with lifelong commitment and shared goals that nurture the next generation. God created men and women for greater things than themselves. For those of us called to the vocation of marriage, a permanent commitment to one union and to the children that result from that union is exactly what our hearts were built for, and where our happiness lies.

Pope Benedict XVI understands this kind of commitment to service and self-giving love because he has lived it. The Holy Father’s announcement of his resignation from the papacy earlier this week might have been a surprise to many, but the humble, generous spirit behind the decision is no surprise at all. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was reluctant to take on the overwhelming responsibility of the papacy in the first place. He confessed to praying he would not be elected pope during the 2005 papal conclave:

“At a certain point, I prayed to God, ‘Please don’t do this to me,’” he said. “Evidently, this time he didn’t listen.”

But Ratzinger said yes. Because he knew he was called to serve the Church as pope, even if the very idea overwhelmed him. He never imagined he was born for greatness, but instead humbly accepted his calling to be used for the good of the church as God willed.

“Dear brothers and sisters,” he announced on the day of his election, “the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in God’s vineyard. I am consoled by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and how to act, even with insufficient tools, and I especially trust in your prayers.”

We might never be called to lead a church into the next generation, but every one of us is called to love. We too are insufficient tools, called to serve God and one another in ways we might never imagine. Human beings are built for this kind of self-giving love and we find our purpose in it, through work, marriage, parenthood, and vocation.

As we strive to meet the challenge of our calling, we can find inspiration and encouragement in Benedict XVI’s quiet example of humility, service, and generosity. Thank you, Holy Father, for teaching us, challenging us, and inspiring us to love … all the way to the end.

Danielle Bean is publisher of Catholic Digest and the newly-released commemorative edition, Benedict XVI: Faithful Servant, Courageous Pope.

Read More On Faith and Valentine’s Day:

Kathryn Skaggs: A Mormon guide to love

Arsalan Iftikhar: A Muslim guide to love

Deepak Chopra: A seeker’s guide to love

Libby Anne: An atheist guide to love

Aseem Shukla: A Hindu guide to love

Mark Driscoll: A Christian guide to love

Danielle Bean: A Catholic guide to love

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  • tunghwei

    Love is wearing a condom in order to not infect your partner with HIV.

  • nkri401

    “Love is light” technically no.

    Water is life.
    Love is life.
    Ergo, Love is water.

    I suppose if one starts out insipid, you end up insipid, as well.

  • nkri401


    I really appreciate the way you illuminated the essence of love without all this insipid light stuff.

    Pun intended…

  • Tony Hogben


  • Denise R

    It’s the self-sacrifice that’s so tough for our culture. Well done, Danielle.

  • PaulSpence

    What a load of appalling drivel.

  • PaulSpence

    Spot on

  • Madame_DeFarge

    A permanent commitment to the union of marriage sounds great on paper, but Ms. Bean fails to mention what we should do if our spouses are abusive, cheat on us, or abandon us. Her answer would probably be to pray, pay and obey.

  • Madame_DeFarge

    Easy enough to tell others to sacrifice.

  • stonecarver1

    Well, Catholic priests, et al, do love to abuse children and love to try to force others to bend to their archaic beliefs, but as far as knowing anything about real romantic, fulfilling love between consenting adults they know nothing.

  • allinthistogether

    Yes, self-sacrifice is challenging in a culture in which we are taught to buy and consume and hoard in order to feel good. However, neigher god nor belief in god is a requisite for loving self-sacrifice. All of the noble and wise behaviors and qualities that were described in the column are just as often practiced by those who don’t believe in god as by those who do. And, certainly, many who believe in god do not practice self-sacrifice.
    Practicing compassion and loving kindness for others is a behavior that anyone can devote themselves to and get better act, and yes, such practice does make one’s own life richer. What we need is mindul loving – no preconceptions are needed.

  • cricket44

    There is no love without honesty. There is precious little honesty coming from the Vatican.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Out of all the contrived, insipid, news-cycle-fodder blurbs that have found their way onto the “On Faith” section of this website, this series on how different religions define “love” might be the absolute worst. The problem of religion can be verbalized a few different ways, but one way is to point out that it teaches us exactly this ^, that human beings only engage love through religious exhaltation, or that love might somehow be defined differently from one culture to the next. Love is one of the few things that we really do all have in common, which makes it a vulnerable target for simple religious people who can only make sense of the world if it is divided into tribes.

  • lepidopteryx

    I don’t trust advice on marriage from people who have never married. I don’t trust advice on sex from people who are celibate. I don’t trust advice on parenting from people who don’t have children.

  • tunghwei



    I thought that the catholic church’s teaching on love was that true love was only possible between a priest and an underage boy. Under god, of course, the catholics are big on god.

  • audivit

    The Washington Post is a tough, tough browd, Mrs. Bean. Thank you for having the courage to write and submit this article!

  • audivit

    How can a pyschologist give advice on suicide, depression, divorce issues when they have never experienced them?

    Reductio ad absurdum

  • audivit

    psychologist, rather