To introduce the year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis wrote one of the most beautiful letters of his papacy, his Apostolic Letter Patris Corde. Throughout the letter, the Holy Father reflects on many characteristics of St. Joseph. In his reflection on Joseph’s title “most chaste,” Pope Francis defines chaste love as “freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life.” He continues, “Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery.”

This is reminiscent of the teaching of Pope John Paul II in Love and Responsibility where he makes it clear that the opposite of loving someone is using them.  Both popes point to a dangerous temptation that can distort our love for others. Love can easily turn unchaste when we desire to control and constrict the object of our love. In extreme cases, it ceases to be love at all – we simply use others for our own selfish ends. Note that neither pope limits his definition to the sensual dimension of chastity, but understands chastity to encompass our entire experience of relating to others. This, as with all virtues, is exemplified by God’s love for us. In Patris Corde, Pope Francis goes on to explain:

“God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom.”

It is clear then that God loves us in a chaste manner by leaving us free to be ourselves while encouraging us (both in his word and through his grace) to be the saints He made us to be. However, the question remains, “What does it mean to love God chastely?” The definitions given by John Paul II and Francis give us the key. We cannot approach God with an attitude of possessiveness that attempts to constrict and imprison God, and, most of all, we cannot attempt to use God for our own ends.

In the Gospel of Matthew there are only two times that Jesus expresses what can be seen as anger, and the cause of His anger in both cases can be clearly seen to be this unchaste love of God.  The first time is just after Simon made his great profession of faith and is named Peter:

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.  Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Mt 16: 21-23)[1]

We can see here that Peter is indeed expressing his deep love, concern, and adoration for the Lord. However, Peter is trying to make Jesus into the type of messiah that he wants him to be instead of accepting the plan Jesus revealed to him. Peter is encouraging Jesus to be the proud and powerful warrior messiah that the Jews had expected, rather than the meek and mild suffering servant that Jesus is.  Peter’s attempt to possess and control God was, understandably, met with a harsh rebuke.

The second time is when Jesus drives out the money changers and merchants in the Temple saying, “It is written: ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of thieves” (Mt 21: 13).   The Temple was a building meant to be the place of the highest expression of the love of God. However, the Jewish elite had turned the sacrifices mandated by the Law into a way to extort and rob the poor, and, not only this, they claimed that God demanded such extortion. This was not love of God, but instead using Him for their own selfish gain. Jesus’ anger at this mockery of love was, once again, understandable.

Pope Francis, in Patris Corde, goes on to contrast this with the way Joseph loved:

“Joseph accepted Mary unconditionally. He trusted in the angel’s words. “The nobility of Joseph’s heart is such that what he learned from the law he made dependent on charity. … Often in life, things happen whose meaning we do not understand. Our first reaction is frequently one of disappointment and rebellion. …The spiritual path that Joseph traces for us is not one that explains, but accepts.”

This, it seems, is the key to being able to truly love God chastely. We have to approach Him always with a sense of wonder, humility, and acceptance. This means that the primary way that we know God is by Him revealing Himself to us, not by us grasping at that knowledge. The danger when we try to rely too heavily on our own explanations is that we attempt to possess, imprison, and constrict God and then our love becomes unchaste. Instead of us being a part of His grand plan, this constricted false image of God, that we create in our mind, becomes a tool or a weapon wieled in our petty worldly plans.

How then does the fact that the Church has always encouraged deep intellectual study, especially among the ordained, fit into this? The key here is to have clear in our minds why we are seeking to know more about God. The correct approach is to seek knowledge about God only so that we can better serve, love, and please him. In this way, we will not be using God,  because we are seeking to unite our will with His will.  However, one must have the intellectual humility to recognize that God is always beyond my finite understanding. As St. Augustine said, “Si comprehendis, non est Deus[2] (If you comprehend, it isn’t God). There is also the well-known account of St. Thomas Aquinas, after receiving a revelation from God, leaving his great work of the Summa Theologiae unfinished and saying, “All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.”[3]

Finally, we can look to the comparison of Eve and Mary. Here we can see this difference between chaste and unchaste love once again. Looking at the story of the fall in Genesis we can see that, at first, Eve is loving and obedient to God, but the temptation of the serpent that convinced Eve to eat of the tree was, “your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” Eve then looked at the tree and saw that, “ the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom.” We see here that her desire to grasp at the knowledge of God was, in a sense, out of admiration of God’s omniscience, but the devil used intellectual pride to convince Eve to attempt to make God’s power her own.

Now let us compare this to the actions of Mary in the Gospel of Luke. When told by the Angel Gabriel that she would bear the “Son of the Most High,” she did ask how it could be possible, but the answer she received was not a full scientific and theological explanation but instead a request to trust that, “nothing will be impossible for God.” She then responds with her fiat, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your Word.” Here we see the desire to understand, but the preeminence of trust that is found in chaste love of God. We see this attitude continue throughout Mary’s life as she follows the will of God, but how she still “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Of course this posture of chaste humility towards God the Father was also exemplified by her son who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2: 6).

Any time we approach the study of God in an unchaste, possessive way, we are like Eve grasping at the tree of knowledge, attempting to make herself an equal with God. However, when we approach God in a humble and chaste manner, trusting in His will, He will slowly reveal Himself to us in a deeper more loving way than our feeble grasping could have ever obtained. May we all ask for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her most chaste spouse, St. Joseph, that we may return to an attitude of loving trust and submission to God and His Church, and that by reflecting on His revelation we may unite our will to His will so that we can love Him and our neighbor in a more proper way.


[1]Scripture texts, prefaces, introductions, footnotes and cross references used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC All Rights Reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

[2]Sermo 117

[3]“The Life of Saint Thomas Aquinas: Biographical Documents” (1959) by Kenelm Foster, O.P.

Image: By Guercino – gehimgs.pw, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77218157

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Adam Stengel started out studying to be a medical doctor, then moved to Honduras to start a family and pursue a love for missionary work.  He now lives in rural Arkansas with his wife and three children and is employed as a custom cabinet maker in a family owned shop.

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