Love Is Effective!
Douglas G. Bushman, S.T.L.
The Catholic Church teaches that Godís love overcomes evil and
causes a real change in us. This idea is a hallmark of John Paul
IIís theology: "Especially through his lifestyle and through his
actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which
we liveóan effective love, a love that addresses itself to man and
embraces everything that makes up his humanity. This love makes
itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering, injustice,
and povertyóin contact with the whole historical Ďhuman condition,í
which in various ways manifests manís limitation and frailty, both
physical and moral. It is precisely the mode and sphere in which
love manifests itself that in biblical language is called Ďmercyí"
(Dives in Misericordia, 3).
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is fully revealed in Jesus
Christ, by his mercy draws good out of evil. Though the full
realization of Christís victory over evil awaits its appointed time,
the Resurrection is a first fruit of that victory and shines forth
as the greatest evidence of the efficacy of divine love.
The miracles of Jesusódemonstrations of divine power over the
consequences of sinópoint to the power of Godís love to overcome sin
itself. Such is the lesson of the healing of the paralytic (Mark
2:10Ė11). Godís love is no less effective with respect to sin than
it is with respect to leprosy, blindness, and death. When he touches
us with his graceóthat is, his loveówe are really changed. We are
made holy and are justified. This consistent teaching of the Church
was restated by Vatican II:
"The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their
works, but according to his own purpose and grace. They are
justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they
truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this
way they are really made holy" (Lumen Gentium 40; emphasis added).
Anyone familiar with the issues of reformation theology and the
Decree on Justification of the Council of Trent will appreciate this
textís emphasis that a real change takes place in those who are
justified and become sons of God by faith and baptism. Trent defined
justification as a "translation from that condition in which man is
born as a son of the first Adam into the state of grace and adoption
among the children of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our
Savior" (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 250). It
emphasized that it "consists not only in the forgiveness of sins but
also in the sanctification and renewal of the inward being by a
willing acceptance of the grace and gifts whereby someone from being
unjust becomes just"(Ott, 251).
Trentís emphasis on the real effect of divine love has been recently
reaffirmed (July 8, 1998) by the Response of the Catholic Church to
the Joint Declaration of Catholics and Lutherans issued by
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical
Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Quoting pertinent texts from
the Decree on Justification, the Response identifies statements in
the Joint Declaration that "seem incompatible with the renewal and
sanctification of the interior man of which the Council of Trent
speaks." The Response comes back to this central reality of the
interior transformation of man with respect to the Catholic
understanding of good works and the reward of eternal life.
Scripture uses a variety of images in revealing the change that
takes place in us as a result of Godís love. The Catechism of the
Catholic Church quotes Gregory of Nyssa as a summary: "Sick, our
nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise
again. We had lost the possession of the good; it was necessary for
it to be given back to us. Closed in the darkness, it was necessary
to bring us the light; captives, we awaited a Savior; prisoners,
help; slaves, a liberator. Are these things minor or insignificant?
Did they not move God to descend to human nature and visit it, since
humanity was in so miserable and unhappy a state?" (CCC 457).
Godís love accomplishes something we cannot do for ourselves. It
forgives sins, causes conversion, justifies, and makes us children
Evidence for the Effectiveness of Godís Love
Without entering into detailed documentation and development, there
are several considerations that support the claim that Godís love is
1. This is the clear teaching of the Church. The texts we have
viewed stress the real change in us that constitutes justification.
We cannot justify ourselves. Even though there is a genuine
cooperation on our part with Godís grace, that grace (the term as
used here is synonymous with Godís love) is the cause of this
2. The lives of the saints bear witness to this real transformation.
The teaching of Trent is verified in the virtues and martyrdom of
3. A love that was not effective wouldnít correspond to our poverty
and suffering. Either we would not be saved, or we would save
ourselves. When people are wounded, they do not need a doctor simply
to cover up the ugliness. They need a doctor to stop the bleeding
and prevent a life-threatening infection. When people are sick, they
need a real cure, not a sympathetic bedside manner. What good is
love that does not bring about a real healing, a real change?
4. Many of Christís miracles changed people physically. Would it
make sense if Godís power was less effective in the spiritual and
moral realm? The liturgy captures this parallel between the physical
and spiritual in the prayer before Communion: "Lord I am not worthy
to receive you, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed."
This prayer is based on the words of the centurion who believed in
the efficacy of Christís word to heal his servant (Matt. 8:8). This
is the kind of faith the Church desires to arouse in us as we
approach Holy Communion.
5. Genuine human love is not satisfied with just telling someone, "I
love you." As all parents know, love does not rest until the one you
love has benefited somehow and is better off for having been loved.
Could Godís love be less effective than human love?
6. Godís word is effective, as we see in Genesis: "Let there be . .
. and so it was." We see it also in Isaiah 55:10Ė11: "For as the
rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but
water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to
the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes
forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall
accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which
I sent it." Should Godís word be any less effective when it is the
Word Incarnate of the New Testament?
7. We expect dogs to bark and cats to meow because those actions are
consistent with their natures. Similarly, Paul expects Christians to
act in a way becoming children of God. He would not do so if he did
not believe that they had acquired a new nature and become sharers
in Godís own nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Only God can bring about the
change in us from being powerless to keep his law (Rom. 7:14Ė23) to
living in the power of the love of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:1Ė5).
Otherwise, we would be saving ourselves; or else grace would have
been within us all along, and all we would need is a moving act on
Godís part to activate it. But Catholic tradition has understood the
role of Christ to be much more than simply stimulator to activate
what was already there. He is the mediator of Godís life, the
efficient cause of our salvation.
Catholic Doctrine Reconsidered
Let us now consider several elements of Catholic doctrine in light
of this efficacy of divine love.
1. The sacraments as real instrumental causes of grace. In and
through the sacraments, God loves us efficaciously by sending the
Holy Spirit as the fruit of Christís paschal mystery. "ĎSacramental
graceí is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper
to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive
him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the
sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful
partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union
with the only Son, the Savior" (CCC 1129).
The Catechism teaches that in the sacraments "the Father always
hears the prayer of his Sonís Church which, in the epiclesis of each
sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire
transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit
transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power"
(CCC 1127). If the Father hears the prayers of the Church, it can
only be because the Churchís prayer becomes one with the Sonís
prayer. And the Fatherís answer in the sacraments can be no
different than the answer he made to his Sonís prayer: "The Spirit
of truth, the other Paraclete, will be given by the Father in answer
to Jesusí prayer" (CCC 729).
The sacraments operate in virtue of the efficacy of Godís love in
the same way that the sacrifice of Jesus results in the outpouring
of the Holy Spirit. This has an apologetic and catechetical value.
The apologetic value is that a Catholic can show that a denial of
the causality of the sacraments entails an implicit denial of the
efficacy of Godís love, something for which there is rich biblical
evidence. This is something that, hopefully, no Christian would want
to call into question. The catechetical value is that it keeps faith
properly Christocentric and Trinitarian, based on the biblical
witness to the economy of salvation. It also serves to bolster
Christian hope, which is especially based on the efficacy of divine
love and operative in the celebration of the sacraments.
2. The nature of Christian morality. We saw that Paulís moral
exhortations invoke the principle that action follows upon being. We
must be renewed in our being if we are to conform our lives to the
demands of the gospel. We cannot become Christians by keeping
commandments. In the covenants God has made with his people,
commandments specify what is required in order to be good stewards
of the gift of new life. But life comes first: God first touches us
with the power of his creative and redeeming love; only then does he
give the commandments, as in the case of Adam and Eve. Further, we
are admonished that our love must be effective (see 1 John 3:18 and
Jas. 1:22Ė25). Only an effective love is a participation in Godís
own love, which is also effective.
3. The glory of God in Mary and the saints. An understanding of the
efficacy of Godís love helps people to understand the Catholic way
of giving God glory by drawing attention to the effects of his love
in the saints. As the Catechism teaches, "By canonizing some of the
faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic
virtue and lived in fidelity to Godís grace, the Church recognizes
the power of the Spirit of holiness within her" (CCC 828). Far from
deflecting attention from God, veneration of the saints is a way to
give him glory.
4. The role of witness in evangelization and holiness in
apologetics. Witness unites power to the proclamation of Godís word:
"The witness of a Christian life and good works done in a
supernatural spirit have great power to draw men to the faith and to
God" (CCC 2044, quoting Apostolicam Actuositatem). It has been said
that holiness is the greatest apologetic for the Church. Now we know
why: Holiness shows the active and transforming presence of Godís
love in the Church, despite human weakness.
5. The Church as sacrament. We are now in a position to understand
the pastoral significance of Vatican IIís teaching that the Church
is a sacrament or sign and instrument of unity. The Catechism uses
several different qualifiers when mentioning that the Church is a
sacrament, but the one that goes to the very foundation of the
entire economy of salvation is the one that links the sacramental
nature of the Church to Godís love.
The Church is the sacrament of "the mystery of Godís love for men" (CCC
776), the sacrament of "divine love" (CCC 515), or of the "loving
plan of God" (CCC 609). Every member of the Church is charged with
cooperating with Godís grace in order to show the power of his love.
This is how the petition of the Our Father is realized: "The
sanctification of his name among the nations depends inseparably on
our life and our prayer. . . . We ask that this name of God should
be hallowed in us through our actions. For Godís name is blessed
when we live well, but is blasphemed when we live wickedly" (CCC
2814). Renť Latourelle put it negatively: "If Christianity cannot
show in practice this change in the human condition, it confesses
its failure" (Christ and the Church, Signs of Salvation , 59).
The principle of the efficacy of Godís love is important for several
reasons. Since catechesis is by nature systematic, presenting the
faith as an organic whole, our discovery of the connection between
the efficacy of Godís love and the elements of Catholic faith
presented here serves this goal. The efficacy of Godís love is also
important for apologetics and ecumenical dialogue. As we have seen,
several elements of Catholic doctrine related to the efficacy of
divine love are points on which Catholic faith differs from that of
many non-Catholic Christians. Understanding that divine love is
effective also helps us understand the irreplaceable role of witness
During this time of a new evangelization, it is crucial that those
who respond to the Holy Fatherís call place more confidence in the
power of a Christian life to reach peopleís hearts than in programs,
techniques, and arguments. Apologetics and evangelization intersect
precisely at this point: presenting to the world, through our
changed lives, concrete evidence of the efficacy of Godís love made
manifest in Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
© Douglas Bushman, S.T.L., used with permission.