Paul Catalanotto: Refusal to love is also refusal to live

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To focus attention on the fifth anniversary of his apostolic exhortation on marriage, Pope Francis has dedicated 2021 to a year-long reflection on Amoris Laetitia. Photo: CNS photo illustration, Mike Crupi

There is a phenomenon in Western society where men and women enter into a partnership that in most ways resembles a marriage; yet, marriage has never occurred.

These partners have maybe dated and lived together for decades and even have children together. However, they never marry, often to the frustration of the woman in the partnership. Why exactly is this?

The late 20th Century German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand sheds light on people who are in relationships but refuse marriage and illegitimately reject love.

Dietrich von Hildebrand was a twentieth-century German philosopher who converted to Catholicism and wrote sternly against Naziism to the point that he had to flee Germany to save his life.

“Love, in some sense, is nothing other than an invitation to great joy and suffering, so they shy away from it.”

He later helped clarify the Catholic Church’s teaching on the marital act, and he influenced and inspired the life and writing of Popes, notably Pope Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.

He is sometimes referred to as the philosopher of love and beauty as he wrote extensively on marriage, love, and beauty.

His text The Nature of Love is the culmination of Hildebrand’s thought on love. Though highly philosophical, which can make him a challenge to read at times, Hildebrand proposes three illegitimate refusals of love in the book that can serve as a call to examine the complexities with a single’s person’s struggle with love. Are our struggles to find love our own fault, the other person’s fault, or both?

Dietrich von Hildebrand was a twentieth-century German philosopher who converted to Catholicism and wrote sternly against Naziism to the point that he had to flee Germany to save his life. Photo: CNS
Dietrich von Hildebrand was a twentieth-century German philosopher who converted to Catholicism and wrote sternly against Naziism to the point that he had to flee Germany to save his life. Photo: CNS

Hildebrand’s three illegitimate refusals of love are helpful, not so much in diagnosing others but in self-examination of our own motives as to our struggle to find love. So, I present, briefly, the first of Hildebrand’s three illegitimate refusals as a kind of relationship and dating examination of conscience.

The first illegitimate refusal of love is anchored in a combined spiritual sluggishness and a shrinking away from commitment.

This refusal is closely bound up with mediocrity as the person who rejects love finds every experience of great intensity fearful. They are afraid of losing themselves in intense joys or griefs. Love, in some sense, is nothing other than an invitation to great joy and suffering, so they shy away from it.

These persons “wish to linger with small joys in the state of harmless happiness … in which they feel themselves to be master of the situation … lacking any element of surprise or adventure.”

“Hildebrand proposes three illegitimate refusals of love in the book that can serve as a call to examine the complexities with a single’s person’s struggle with love.”

These individuals will choose the easy road for its ease and not because it is right: virtual relationships, romance novels, drinking buddies, and/or routines chosen over real relationships with others that take effort.

This refusal of love, though not sinful, is repulsive because it is ultimately an “unwillingness to accept the gift of love.” It is repulsive in that humans are made for love and to illegitimately refuse love is akin to a person who rejects food when they need nourishment.

Next, we’ll examine Hildebrand’s other two illegitimate refusals of love: fear of being disappointed and the idol of independence known as the ‘Bachelor Mentality.’