If I Marry, What Kind of Love Am I Promising?

Monday, 09-14-2020



Would you please explain the relationship between romantic love and the marriage vow?  I am engaged to a smart, kind, and devout woman whom I dated for a little more than half a year before I proposed to her.  We are good friends, and according to the testimony of both of our friends and family, we make each other better people and better Christians.  The only thing missing in our relationship is romantic love.  The romantic feelings I felt towards her during the first months of our courtship have cooled into the love found between best friends and family.

We have strictly practiced chastity.  I am physically attracted to her, but I do not feel the eros that corresponds to falling in love.  As I was discerning in prayer whether or not to propose, I was torn between the knowledge that she was a good woman whom I cared about deeply and who would make a good wife and mother, and the understanding that I did not feel the type of love which is common between newlyweds.  I decided that the obvious goods of the relationship outweighed other concerns, but in the two months since, the question has stuck with me without resolution.

Therefore, my question: Is romantic love good, or even essential, for the marriage vow?  Some Catholic writers describe marriage as the culmination and sanctification of the romantic love between two people in which it is transformed into lifelong fidelity and fruitfulness in service to God.  On the other, the true purpose of marriage is said to be self-sacrifice and charity to one's spouse and children in service of God, and the desire for romantic love is a potentially serious idol which may oppose that ultimate purpose.  So what should I think?



Since people use the word “romantic” in several different senses, and I’m not certain in which sense you intend it, any short answer I give you might be misleading.  In a chapter on the meaning of sexual love in my book On the Meaning of Sex, I spent some time disentangling four things that I call enchantment, charity, erotic charity, and romantic love, and I recommend the chapter to you.  But it would be pretty shabby to tell you “just go read it,” wouldn’t it?  So within that frame of reference, here is what I think.

The love promised in the marriage vows is what I call erotic charity.  This is what is essential.  The reason it can be promised is that it is a matter of the will, a commitment to the true good of the other person in the context of their procreative partnership.  By contrast, romantic love is a matter of the feelings, and cannot be promised.  Though romantic love is not necessary for a good and valid Christian marriage, it is certainly delightful to those who experience it.

Since erotic charity is a matter of the will and is assisted by grace, it abides.  Since romantic love is a matter of the feelings, it can come and go, even more than once between the same persons.  Although some husbands and wives worry that if romantic love fades, they no longer love each other, that is not true; so long as they have erotic charity, it is only the mode of their love that has changed.  So although romantic love is wonderful, yes, the insistence on it can be a destructive idol, as you say.

But some people desire romantic love very much.  If they don’t experience it, they come to feel that they are missing something, and this feeling of missing something can hinder their marriages.  This is a matter of individual temperament, and a person may not be able to help feeling that way.  For that reason, I wouldn’t say that a person who does feel that way is necessarily making an idol of romantic love.  So it is important for you to try to understand if you are that kind of person.

On the other hand, not everyone is susceptible to romantic love, and even among those who are, not everyone feels that he is missing something if he doesn’t experience it.  Knowing whether you are this kind of person requires careful self-examination.  But if you are like this, then you have nothing to worry about.

Let me know if this helps.


On the Meaning of Sex at Amazon

On the Meaning of Sex at ISI Books


What Is This Nominalism Whereof I Am Warned?

Monday, 09-07-2020



I listened to a podcast yesterday that mentioned the rise of nominalism and the bad consequences of its influence.  My fiancée admitted to me that she was having some trouble understanding forms and universals, and when I tried to explain it to her, I had some trouble articulating the concepts myself, even though I have some intuitive grasp of them.  Are there any books on metaphysics for beginners?



I don’t know of any easy books on the subject, but maybe I can give you a little start on the problem with nominalism.

Forms or essences.  Suppose Felix’s hair turns gray.  Would you say that because of the change, the man has been destroyed and no longer exists?  Of course not.  In fact, if he wasn’t still there, you couldn’t even say that he had changed.  Change in a thing presupposes some enduring thing that the change happens to; the enduring thing is still there, but something about it has changed.  We call that enduring thing the form or essence, in this case the form of a man.  We call that “something about it” an accident, in this case the accident of hair color.

The term “accident” here doesn’t have the same meaning as in the phrase “traffic accident.”  It just means something incidental to the essence rather than part of it.  The man can have a different hair color and still be a man.

Universals.  We just called Felix a man.  But why do we call him that?  Because he has the form or essence of a man, yes – by nature he is a rational animal, that is, an embodied being of the species that possesses the potentiality to function rationally.  But lots of other beings have the same form – Mary, Thomas, Sue -- so “man” isn’t a form of just one being, but of a whole set of beings with the same essence.  We call that a universal.

Nominalism.  Some people, called nominalists, say there aren’t any universals, only singulars.  They say that “man” is just a name, and we can give things any names that we want to.  If I want to call Felix, say, a dog, then I can.  Now it’s true that nothing stops me from calling Felix a dog, but the nominalist overlooks the fact that he isn’t the same kind of thing as those other things we call dogs, and we can’t change what he is by changing what we call him.  Names aren’t arbitrary; they ought to correspond to real kinds of things.  We use different names for different natural kinds so that we don’t get confused.  If you don’t believe in natural kinds – well, you’ve got a problem.

Nominalism is one of the early forms of the idea that reality doesn’t have any structure except what we impose on it.  You can see how crazy this kind of thinking has made us – some men imagine that so long as they call themselves women they are women, some people who support abortions imagine that so long as they call unborn persons non-persons they aren’t persons, and some twosomes, threesomes, and whateversomes imagine that so long as they call themselves married they are married.

God bless you and your fiancée.




What Comes Next?

Monday, 08-31-2020


The current system of education, both lower and higher, is getting ready to implode -- not as quickly as some expect, but much more quickly than others think, and the higher will go first.

Some have asked how to replace the system (for example with video instruction by superstars).

Foolish, foolish.  What they ought to be asking is how to replace the things that gimmicks like that can't replace.


Wouldn’t That Be Interesting?

Thursday, 08-27-2020


For all sorts of reasons, opinion polls mean far less than we think.

Some people don’t trust promises of anonymity, and either refuse to participate, or tell the pollsters what they think they want to hear.  This is especially true in an era when some opinions are subject to harsh penalties.  You can lose your job.

Some think they understand the question but don’t, especially when news coverage has been inadequate.  Are they being asked whether black lives matter, whether they agree with the actions of people who say black lives matter, whether they agree with the reported actions of people who say black lives matter, or whether they agree with their demands?

Some are systematically underrepresented because of how the pollsters divide people into groups and weight them.  Do they weight them according to how they are registered, how they say they are likely to vote, or how they voted in the last election?

Perhaps the best-known reason is that the answer the person gives depends on how the question is worded.  Are they asked whether they support restrictions on abortion on demand, or on “reproductive liberty” or “a woman’s right to choose”?

These problems aren’t easy to solve, partly because of the biases of the pollsters themselves.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  It would be interesting to poll the pollsters, but who could you trust to poll them? 

As to the problem of how to word the questions, though, here’s an idea:  Assign people randomly to groups.  Word the question differently for each one.  Don’t report “the answer.”  Instead report the differences in the answers.  Let readers make of them what they will.


What Should We Make of Integralism?

Monday, 08-24-2020



I have been trying to figure out what to make of the political theory called integralism, and would appreciate hearing your reflections.  Although it presents itself as distinctively Catholic, most Catholics seem to be against it, and people who invoke Thomas Aquinas seem to be found on both sides, as illustrated by this piece.  On these seas, I’m a babe in a basket.



This is not the first time I’ve taken this question, but I’ll try to answer more fully this time.  Although integralists seem to propose a relationship between Church and State that puts the Church in the drivers’ seat, precisely what they want is less clear than you might think.  Making the matter even harder to talk about is the fact that various writers associate integralism with all sorts of different propositions, for example about the purpose of law, the nature of the common good, and the apportionment of power among the branches of the government.  I would say that integralists and their allies are very right about some of these matters and very wrong about others.  Let’s break out some of the questions and address them one at a time. 

1.  Whether there is such a thing as religious neutrality.  No.  Whether implicitly or explicitly, every political order revolves around certain views of the goods, including the ultimate goods, and repudiates others.  The integralists are right about that.

2.  Whether the impossibility of religious neutrality implies that we should have a confessional state.  We should ardently pray for the State to be friendly and cooperative to the Church.  It would be wonderful if its rulers themselves adhered to the faith, though this means less than one might think because one can never know whether they mean it.  However, the whole notion of a confessional state is usually misunderstood.  In a sense, the Declaration of Independence already proposes a confession of faith -- it appeals to the laws of nature and nature's God, views Him in a way Christians can accept (even though they consider it incomplete), and presupposes a high view of the person whom He made.  But although the Declaration’s confession is declared, it is not enforced.  By contrast, although modern liberalism pretends to have no confession of faith, it vigorously imposes one, and the one it imposes is profoundly at odds with the one Christians profess.  One confession is declared but not enforced; the other is enforced but not declared.

3.  Whether the law should encourage the virtues.  Of course.  Barring tyranny and incompetence, what else does law ever do?

4.  Whether the law should encourage them by every means.  Certainly not; there are limits.  The reason for these limits is not that we suspend judgment about the virtues, but that we judge that overreaching undermines the virtues.  For example, the law can forbid acts of hatred, such as murder, but it cannot forbid hatred as such, which is an invisible movement of the heart that the law cannot detect.  Another illustration is that the law should not demand too much, too fast, of persons imperfect in virtue, or else wicked men may break out into yet greater evils.  Quoting Proverbs, St. Thomas drives home the point by remarking that "he who bloweth his nose too violently draweth forth blood."

5.  Whether the law should encourage "private" virtues.  Some opponents of integralism have urged this point of view against its defenders, but the question is poorly framed, because every virtue has public consequences.  For example, we may say that marital faithfulness is private, but family instability hurts everyone, and a statesman who cannot keep his vows to his wife certainly cannot be trusted to keep his promises to the citizens.  On the other hand, the critics would be right to say that not all acts of virtue have public consequences, and the law should concern itself only with those acts that do.  Honesty:  Should the law require that a teenager be honest in her diary?  No.  Should it require that a witness not perjure himself?  Yes.  Courage:  Should the law require timid persons to stand up to boors?  No.  Should it require soldiers not to desert their posts?  Yes.  Wittiness:  Should the law require citizens never to tell unfunny jokes?  No.  Should it require them never to tell libelous ones?  Yes.  You see where this is going.

6.  Whether the law should encourage not only the ordinary virtues, such as justice and temperance, but also the spiritual virtues, such as charity and faith.  It can't.  Ordinary virtues are acquired by the moral sweat of doing the right things until they become habitual, and the law can certainly call upon us to do the right things.  However, integralists need to remember that although not without the cooperation of the will, spiritual virtues are infused by the Holy Spirit, and the law can do nothing to instill them.  What it can do is honor them – and, as I said earlier, be friendly and cooperative to the Church, where the real spiritual action is going on.

7.  Whether the law should promote the common good.  Of course it should; law is a public institution.  Some critics have faulted integralists for saying so, but there has been a lot of loose talk on all sides about the common good, and promoting the common good has sometimes been viewed as though it were in competition with protecting individuals and their rights.  No, it is only at odds with the liberal notion of what it means to protect them.  Properly understood, the common good includes ensuring that individuals have the legal powers to conduct their own proper affairs, for instance to make fundamental decisions about the education of their children.

8.  In the name of the common good, should the law absorb or take under its wing those less encompassing forms of association, such as the family, which make their own proper contributions to the common good?  Of course not.  The State should respect subsidiarity, the principle that less encompassing forms of association should be honored and allowed to do their work.  These forms of association do not exist for the state; rather it exists for them.

9.  Should the primary decisions about the common good be put in the hands of a strong judiciary?  No.  Some integralists seem to think so, but the making of laws, and the adjudication of cases according to the laws, should not be combined in the same hands.

10.  Then should the primary decisions about the common good be put in the hands of a far-reaching and powerful executive?  Some integralists seem to take this view too, but I think it is wrong; the executive should cooperate with the legislature rather than taking its place.  One can certainly imagine a country in which the people have become too corrupt to choose wise lawmakers, so that the job falls to a king instead.  However, that is a desperate recourse, not an ideal.  Moreover, the making of a plethora of laws by a maze of executive agencies, whether or not called a royal bureaucracy, ultimately destroys the rule of law itself, because the rules become too complex and mysterious to be known, understood, or even obeyed.

One more point.  I hope no one on any side thinks the State should enforce the faith upon persons outside herself.  “Human salvation is procured not by force,” Isidore says, “but by persuasion and gentleness," and this is the Church’s doctrine too.  She does have the authority to teach the moral law that all men of good will accept, however cloudy their understanding of it may be.  But she has never claimed to be able to make detailed, authoritative prudential judgments within the envelope of this moral law.  Whatever opinions, even good opinions, a Pope may have about the best refrigerator gasses, or whether to drinking straws should be paper or plastic, such things are beyond the Church’s competence.  For that we have human institutions.


Why I Can’t Talk About Integralism

Public Worship, Public Error, and Indifference

Secularism and Its Children

Has Common Good Constitutionalism Anything to Do with Constitutions?

Interpreting the Law

Why Liberalism Is Illiberal, Part 1 of 2

Why Liberalism Is Illiberal, Part 2 of 2

The Strange Second Life of Confessional States


Repressive Tolerance Theory Rides Again

Thursday, 08-20-2020


A generation ago, the New Left followers of Herbert Marcuse preached the theory of “repressive tolerance,” which meant that tolerating the free expression of all opinions is repressive, because it hinders the triumph of the good ones.  Like socialism.

That was merely the first drip of a drenching wave of paradoxes that become more and more extreme.  In the old days, you had to express hatred to be considered hateful, and had to commit violence to be considered violent.   Now it all depends on your opinion.

If you have the right one, you can be called peaceful for brandishing an AK-47 on the street, hurling an incendiary device, or trying to burn down a building.  If you have the wrong one, you can be called hateful for proposing love.


Is There a Moral “Sense”?

Monday, 08-17-2020



I am relatively new to Thomism and find your blog posts helpful, but I have a question.  Does our knowledge of the natural law begin with sense data?  Is the natural law a sensible thing?  If so, by which sense?  St. Paul states that the natural law is written on the human heart.



Good question.  The senses do not immediately perceive the natural law – they don’t “see” or “hear” it -- because the senses, by themselves, perceive only singulars.  The eye sees only this apple, and the ear hears only this robin.  However, the rational mind has the power to recognize the universal forms implicit in the singular that we sense:  Apple as such, robin as such.  Thus, too, even though we encounter only particular instances of universal truths (for example that this door is open and not closed, and that this statement is true and not false), we are able to grasp their universality as well (for example that nothing can both be and not be in the same sense at the same time).

By the way, this power is one of our greatest distinctions from beasts, which never rise beyond the knowledge of singulars.  It also demonstrates the immortality of the human soul, because although the senses depend only on the body, the power to recognize the universal forms implicit in the singulars that we sense transcends the body, therefore does not depend on the body, and therefore can survive the body’s death.  On the other hand, this power also has limits.  For example, it is sufficient to work out demonstrations that God exists, and demonstration of certain other truths about Him, but it is not sufficient to show us the essence of God as He is in Himself, because He cannot be seen or touched.  Only in heaven will we see Him face to face, when the power of our minds is supernaturally elevated.  But we need not go further into these matters now.

Back to your question:  We know the first principles of practical reason, which are the first precepts of natural law, by means of the power of the mind St. Thomas calls synderesis and that I like to call “deep conscience” (by contrast with conscientia, which is conscience in application).  In much the same way that in the realm of theoretical reason I immediately grasp such principles as that, say, two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other, so in the realm of practical reason I immediately grasp the precepts that, say, I must not commit undeserved harm to another person.  All of the precepts of the Decalogue are knowable either as first principles, or as proximate implications of the first principles.

But besides synderesis, we have other help too:

2.  From various considerations we infer the reality of God, His blessings, our indebtedness to Him, and the fact that He Himself is our supreme good.  Putting all this together with synderesis we recognize that we owe Him obedience, and must never commit any act that is not rightly ordered to Him, for example scorning Him or giving created things the honor that only He deserves.

3.  From the order of our own souls and bodies we recognize that our powers have meanings and purposes; for example, the sexual powers are all about the procreative unity of the spouses.  From this we recognize that we should not conduct ourselves in ways that undermine and thwart these meanings and purposes, for example by having sexual intercourse outside of marriage.

4.  From the evidence of our lives we recognize that certain deeds have not just accidental but essential consequences.  From this we recognize that we should avoid deeds that have bad fruit, for example using heroin to get high.

Does this help?


Follow-up question:

Thank you so much for your reply.  St. Thomas' positions are slowly becoming clearer to me.

If I understand you and St. Thomas correctly, our intellects simply grasp first principles, including the first precepts of natural law.  But how do we reconcile the following two passages in his book On Truth:

1. Whatever is in our intellect must have previously been in the senses. (Q. 2, Art. 3, Reply to Objection 19)

2. There necessarily are some things in our intellect which it knows naturally, namely, first principles -- even though in us this knowledge is not caused unless we receive something through our senses (Q. 8, Art. 15).

It seems to me that these two propositions cannot both be true.  If we grasp first principles naturally, then they need not have been in the senses.    

Thank you for your patience and I look forward to reading your thoughts.  Thank you also for all your work.



I see your difficulty.  You are assuming that what is known naturally must be known innately, and must therefore be independent of the sensesSome of the revisionist natural law thinkers of the early modern period thought of natural knowledge that way, but St. Thomas doesn’t.  He believes in natural knowledge, but not in innate knowledge.

To consider the simplest example, I know naturally that good is to be done.  I wasn't born knowing this, and if I had never had the experience of anything good, I could not even have conceived the ideas that this proposition relates.  Having had such experience, however, I see for myself that the idea of what is to be done is “contained” in the idea of what is good, and is necessarily true.  How’s that?



Yes, this helps a lot!