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Luminous Teachings Left Out of Synod

By Rick Fitzgibbons

Saint John Paul II’s luminous writings on the nature of the human person, marriage and family life and sexuality have markedly improved the Church’s pastoral approach to spouses, youth and engaged couples. This wisdom based on the Church’s doctrines and his insights from his intense work with Catholic spouses and families over many years has not yet been fully integrated in the Church’s pastoral programs and was not cited in the first Synod on the Family.

In my forty years of professional work with several thousand Catholic spouses and families, I, like many Catholic mental health professionals, have found his writing to be a special gift for couples and youth and an ongoing source of insight and wisdom to guide our efforts to strengthen marriages and families.

John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility, Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World and Theology of the Bodyand Letter to Families can help spouses understand the nature of self-giving love they are called to in regard to romantic love, friendship, and betrothed love/intimacy in their sacrament of marriage.

Dr. Janet Smith believes that Love and Responsibility should be recognized as one of the great books of Western civilization along with Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Inferno and Augustine’s Confessions.

In Love and Responsibility St. John Paul II describes the movement of the heart, will, mind and body from romantic love to friendship to the total gift and surrender of oneself in what he describes as betrothed love.

Romantic Love

Romantic love is at an initial emotional stage of love.  It is fickle and cannot, in a lasting way, determine a person’s attitude to another.  Serious problems develop in Catholic marriages and in dating relationships because of an excessive reliance upon romantic love.  For example, unresolved family of origin sadness, anger, mistrust and insecurity can emerge and result in deep emotional pain that can be falsely blamed on one’s spouse.

John Paul II’s caution about relying excessively upon romantic love in Love and Responsibility should be communicated in Catholic families and schools, as well as  precana and marital enrichment programs. It should include the following:

  • People marry even when they have not established true friendship;
  • If there is a sense of loss of emotion of romantic love, spouses feel they are in a vacuum and believe that true love is over;
  • The emotions of romantic love are not strong enough to sustain friendship and sacrificial giving;
  • Excessive trust is placed in  romantic love and the development of true friendship based on trust and common goals can be minimized;
  • The feeling of the loss of a feeling of romantic love becomes the end of love itself which is a great defect in modern society;
  • Romantic love can never accomplish true unification;
  • True love does not consist primarily of a consuming romantic love (frequently accompanied by sexual relations);
  • It may hide the need for true friendship based on trust, common goals and sacrificial giving resulting in failures in marriage.


Romantic love must evolve into friendship. Here the will is decisive, always wanting good for the other and for oneself. When the two persons will their own good and the good of the other, they create a friendship based on trust, which results in a true unification.

True friendship takes time to develop, needs the emotional warmth supplied by romantic love, brings about a sincere commitment based on objectives and goal values, is tested in many ways including by its degree of independence from romantic love, is not confined to the emotions, has a distinctive feature of common sharing and sacrificing, creates a milieu of closeness of common sharing, work or vision, which prepares for the creation of the atmosphere needed for family life.

In this loving friendship there exists a particular responsibility — the responsibility for a person who is drawn into the closest possible partnership in the life and activity of another, and becomes in a sense the property of whoever benefits from this gift of self.  John Paul wrote that the greater the feeling of responsibility for the person the more true love there is.

This view of marital love differs completely from the psychological view of marriage, which is that one pursues one’s own happiness without any true responsibility for one’s spouse.

The unification of the two persons must first be achieved by way of love and friendship and sexual relations between them can only be the expression of unification already complete.  Many serious marital conflicts develop because true friendship with common goals and sacrificial giving was never established.

Pope Benedict wrote of the movement from romantic love to a deeper marital friendship in his first encyclical, “Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking into the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: love becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even, willing to sacrifice,” Deus Caritas Est, n. 6.

Betrothed Love

The true unification of persons takes place when the persons focus on the “we” instead of the “I.”  Betrothed love, which is self-giving and surrenders the “I,” goes out toward the other person to a far greater degree than love’s other forms.

Betrothed love goes even beyond friendship. It doesn’t seek just the good of the other, but totally surrenders to the other. By this self-giving, both the subject and the interpersonal relationship are enriched. By betrothed love, the relationship becomes more than friendship.

The most uncompromising form of love consists precisely in self-giving, in making one’s inalienable and non-transferable “I” someone else’s property.

In the order of love, a person can surrender to God, or to another person. However, by betrothed love, persons can totally give themselves to another. They can step out of their “I,” surrender their “I,” and in so doing, their “I” becomes enriched.

Jesus said, “He who would save his soul shall lose it, and he who would lose his soul for my sake shall find it again.” (Matt. 10:39)

Take away from love the fullness of self surrender, the completeness of personal commitment, and what remains will be a total denial and negation of it.

Jesus’ words “would lose,” and “shall find” go beyond the personalities norm, showing that persons have unique laws of development.

In marriage, the woman feels that her role is surrender, while the man’s experience is quite different. This viewpoint is insufficient, because examination of the marital relationship shows that the man should give himself in return for his wife’s self-giving.

If the man withholds this total surrender, then he is in danger of using his wife as an object. Even though their self-giving is different, both man and woman must make a mutual self-surrender.

Unfortunately this “gift of self” is interpreted as purely sexual. In truth, self-giving cannot be limited to sexual activity, because without a total self-gift, sexual activity is utilitarian. One can feel used. Here the personalistic norm is clearly in agreement with the moral code, which identifies marriage with the full surrender of betrothed love.

Marital intercourse, by focusing love on the spouse, helps to develop betrothed love. Only when limited to the spouse, can married love be truly ready for the child who is conceived from intercourse. This connection between sex and the person is manifest in the special awareness of the “I,” by which every sexual giving always requires a giving of the whole person.

Betrothed love absolutely needs the other forms of love, especially romantic love and friendship. Without these “allies,” self-sacrificing persons might find a void within themselves. They would then become helpless in the face of internal and external problems.

Contraception Harms Love

Contraceptive use harms romantic love, friendship and betrothed love psychologically by fostering the unconscious development of selfishness and mistrust of God and one’s spouse. Sexual giving always requires the giving of the whole person.

St. John Paul II wrote of the use of contraceptives in marriage, “Couples act as arbiters of the divine plan and they manipulate and degrade human sexuality — and with it themselves and their married partner- by altering its value of “total” self-giving. The innate language (of the body) that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid through contraception by an objectively contradictory language, namely that of not giving oneself totally to one’s spouse” (Familiaris Consortio, n.32).

He went on, “Safe sex” is radically not safe & indeed it is extremely dangerous. The danger is the loss of truth about one’s own self and about the family together with the risk of a loss of freedom and consequently of a loss of love itself” (FC, n.42).

Those planning the schedule for the next Synod of the Family in October 2015 should include the luminous wisdom of the icon of God’s mercy, St. John Paul II, to help Catholic marriages and families and the entire culture.

Rick Fitzgibbons, MD is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing, member of the Advisory Board of Catholics for the Common Good Institute and adjunct professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.