Re-Reading Love and Responsibility

Someone presumptuous enough to recommend some readings for those attending the 2015 Synod on the Family could undoubtedly put together an impressive list of books on marriage and sexual morality. Arguably, at the top of any such list belongs Karol Wojtyla’s classic work called Love and Responsibility. An appreciation of marriage as an indissoluble conjugal union presupposes a proper understanding of romantic or spousal love. For anyone open to the truth about such matters there is no better place to look for an exposition of love than Love and Responsibility.

This philosophical meditation was first published 55 years ago in 1960, when the cultural landscape was quite different. However, it seems to have anticipated the present code of sexual ethics which recognizes no constraints on sexual activity other than mutual consent. Love and Responsibility did not appear in English until 1981, three years after Cardinal Wojtya become Pope John Paul II. Its limited popularity is probably due to the fact that it has always been overshadowed by the Pope’s more prominent work, Theology of the Body.

Thanks to the Daughters of St. Paul, there is a new translation of Love and Responsibility that merits close attention because of its welcome precision. While the original translation was certainly competent, the new one is more consistent with the personalistic tone of Wojtyla’s provocative work. The translator, Gregorz Ignatik, has done a masterful job of capturing the subtleties of Wojtyla’s Polish prose which is not always clear or graceful. More importantly, this new translation allows the reader to see more exactly how Wojtyla’s book sheds light on the critical issues at the center of current debates about marriage and family. Karol Wojtyla meets philosophers on their own turf in order to persuade his readers that the sexual moral norms presented in Sacred Scripture can be substantiated by purely rational arguments. The result is a book that makes a lasting impression: an engaging response to the creed of absolute sexual liberation and the deconstruction of marriage.

Wojtyla’s openness to different philosophical paradigms such as phenomenology gives him a fresh context to deal with these issues even though he never loses his metaphysical gaze. Love and Responsibility begins with an account of the human person, which lays the groundwork for his moral synthesis. Thanks to his or her rational nature, the person is an embodied, self-determining moral subject. Unlike the rest of material creation, the person is someone rather than something. The person lives his or her life “from within” in a way that revolves around the pursuit of truth and goodness.

There is a temptation to use persons the way we use material objects, to regard them as a pawns under our control. However, this moral attitude is inconsistent with a person’s nature. When we use someone in this fashion we treat that individual as an object rather than a free subject. Hence, argues Wojtyla, we are obliged to treat the person as an end and never as a mere means or an instrument. This requires respect for every person’s morally reasonable, self-chosen ends, rather than use of a person merely to achieve our own ends.

Wojtyla refers to this supreme moral principle as the personalistic norm, which serves as the axis about which his discussion on sexual morality revolves. If this general principle holds, it follows that it is also morally unacceptable to use people as sexual objects purely for our own satisfaction, even if the other person consents. With this standard in place, Wojtyla articulates three themes that serve as the central pillars of his sexual morality: the existential meaning of the sexual drive, an integral view of romantic love, and a personalistic vision of chastity.

Misunderstanding about love and sexuality often begins with confusion about the nature and purpose of our sexual capacities. The sexual drive is not an irrepressible instinct but a natural orientation to a person of the opposite sex. Wojtyla insists that we should not reduce the sexual drive to a biological force at our disposal. The “liberated” man or woman of the twenty-first century tends to regard the sexual drive simply as an instinct that should be emancipated from repressive cultural norms. But Wojtyla understands this sexual drive in a completely different way.

He argues convincingly that the sexual drive has an existential meaning, because the primary end or purpose of this drive is the perpetuation of the human species.   And yet the sexual drive is also the source of spousal love that leads to marriage. Thus, the sexual drive is the foundation for both love and procreation. Thanks to sexual reciprocity, this drive opens the way for a man and woman to fully love each other, and the sexual union formed by that love is naturally open to new life. Sexual union, love, and procreation, therefore, are intrinsically linked together.

When love is forcibly detached from procreation, it loses its “special character” and can no longer develop properly or come to fruition. Marital love must always be in harmony with the procreative purpose of this drive or mutual self-gratification begins to displace a full and fruitful union of persons. Moreover, thanks to this procreative meaning, there is nothing banal or ordinary about sexual activity. On the contrary, we must recognize the “proper greatness” associated with the sexual drive. A married couple experiences this “greatness” when they freely and conscientiously take up the task of procreation and provide a being with the gift of existence which is the source of all other perfections.

But what is the nature of this love between a man and a woman that is often set in motion by the sexual drive? Modern culture has grossly distorted the truth about love and seduced people into forgetting the link between sexuality and procreation. As a remedy, Wojtyla provides a phenomenological account of love which slowly discerns its ultimate meaning. His integral conception of love includes a metaphysical, psychological and ethical analysis. Wojtyla’s “metaphysical” analysis describes the common elements of human love which includes fondness (or attraction), longing for the other, and benevolence. Benevolence brings us close to the essence of love which is altruistic and always seeking the good of the beloved. Love must be reciprocal, and it must also include the moral union and commitment of friendship enhanced by the warmth of sympathy.

The most radical form of love is spousal love which is more than willing the good of the other but “giving oneself, giving one’s ‘I.’” This reciprocal self-giving becomes a total union of two persons, which is expressed and fortified through the sexual act. Spousal love is the pathway to the perfection of the human self that comes from the unconditional gift of oneself to another.

Love also includes a powerful psychological dimension. Spousal love is energized by sensuality and affectivity. Sensuality represents a spontaneous experience of the corporeal sexual properties of a person of the opposite sex, while affectivity is an experience of less sensuous properties such as feminine charm. While this dimension of love has a role to play, love is often falsely reduced to its psychological profile. Many people confuse sensuality and affectivity with the mature, responsible love that comes only from an intimate personal union and a caring for each other’s well-being.

Finally, love has an ethical dimension because love is a virtue as well as a passion. Authentic spousal love is distinguished from counterfeit versions by this ethical character. There is an enduring commitment as well as an assumption of responsibility for the other person’s welfare that becomes the basis for the reciprocal gift of self. Also, love must be unencumbered by sexual compulsion or obsession so that it can be freely given and received. Without freedom, the gift of self loses its authenticity and perfective powers. Spousal love, which goes beyond friendship and benevolence, must transcend sensuality, and it must be shaped by permanence, exclusivity, and a mutual belonging that allows each person to find him or herself in the other.

The third pillar of Wojtyla’s sexual morality is his personalistic vision of the virtue of chastity. Many people misconstrue chastity as prudishness, and philosophers tend to equate chastity with the virtue of temperance. But chastity is far more than the regulation of our desire for sexual pleasure. Chastity is the moral habit of being able to see a human being of the opposite sex with a certain moral depth so that one always recognizes that individual as a person rather than an object for use. Love requires the support of chastity to ensure that sexual relations are never depersonalized This virtue allows us to look beyond a person’s attractive body in order to transparently perceive the whole person as a being with an inner, spiritual life, who is not to be used simply for another’s gratification.

Only the chaste person, who affirms the dignity of the other, is free enough from lust or disordered sensuality to make a sincere gift of himself to another.  Thanks to chastity, the virtue of love is not overwhelmed by passion or emotion so that unselfish spousal love can flourish.

Wojtyla’s ultimate concern in this treatise is an ethical one: how does the human person avoid using others for pleasure and live up to the high calling of love, especially marital love? To answer this question Wojtyla turns to new sources that allow for a fresh philosophical articulation of love and chastity coherent with the Catholic tradition. For those who have not recently read this book, it may be a good occasion to take a second look with the help of this new translation. For those who are unfamiliar with Love and Responsibility, a careful reading will uncover a suitable moral framework that penetrates to the heart of what is wrong with our contemporary sexual culture.

Richard A. Spinello


Richard A. Spinello is an Associate Research Professor at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary, and Understanding Love and Responsibility: A Companion to Karol Wojtyla’s Classic Work along with numerous other books and articles on ethical theory and applied ethics.

  • Frederick

    Nice work, but Dude, where’s my car?

  • Lou Iacobelli

    It’s the moral framework found in Love and Resposibilty and the Theology of the Body that young people need to direct their sexuality, marriage and family life. This is a much needed post to counter our culture obsessed with politcal corrcetness and “sexual rights.” By the way, I have tried to put together a list of resources for the World Meeting of Families that aslo applies to the 2015 Synod on the Family,

  • St JD George

    Beautifully written Richard. I will add this book to my ever growing list. I may have to retire before I can get to all the books growing on it daily it seems, ha. It is amazing how far we’ve fallen from grace, and particularly in this one area of understanding God’s gifts. When I see our culture embrace sodomy as a natural act, promote the hook up culture and the explosion of pornography one can’t help but weep. We are beginning to reap a spoiled harvest of rotten fruit from these acts against God as we no longer value the beauty of family and children. Predictably, God will turn his back on cultures who turn their back on him in showing more passion for the killing of his holy innocents in the womb or after birth and become self absorbed in sexual deviancy over their care and nurturing in loving families.

  • BXVI

    Yes, but the whole point of the synod, from the point of view of the “progressives” supported by Pope Francis, is to discredit (or at least move beyond) the riches that St. John Paul II provided. Note the complete exclusion of any discussion of his writings at the synod, and of course the intentional exclusion of anyone from the JPII Institute on the Family.

    These are dark days.

  • Tamsin

    A married couple experiences this “greatness” when they freely and conscientiously take up the task of procreation and provide a being with the gift of existence which is the source of all other perfections.

    I wasn’t feeling too spiffy this morning, but now… I’m feeling pretty good.

  • hombre111

    Wolyljas ‘ ruminations were based on St. John of the Cross and conversations he had with students during his campus minister days. Like your average European philosopher, he sat down at his desk and had a conversation mostly with himself. He had a chance to listen to real couples from all over the world when Pope Paul VI summoned a committee to discuss the birth control question. He passed. Shared inquiry and a humble admission of fallibility are the only real way to the truth. I have read Theology of the Body until my copy is marked from beginning to end. Even theologians say it is a tough thing to understand. Because of its difficulty, it will fade away except for the loyal few. We await a better conversation.

    • Phil Steinacker

      Really? The theologians you cite – and I suppose, by implied admission, you – must be terribly stupid.

      Sure, St. John Paul’s writing can be a little dense, even for rather bright people, but any truly intelligent Catholic willing to study (and read his “Love and Responsibility” along with it) can process it. I know dozens of folks who’ve made his language our own, although it was a challenge at first, but just like anything new and foreign to our hearts, that strangeness and the related comprehension difficulties disappeared proportional to our reading, study, and discussion.

      No, I recognize your “name” and count you among the NCR liberals who seek to undermine this great work by St. John Paul. In fact, I believe that several months ago you posted a comment online to the effect that St. John Paul would soon be forgotten, and that only John XXIII would be remembered. With all due respect to John XXIII – who most liberals would despise if they only knew more about his views than they know about his initiating Vatican II – that was as laughable then as your present claim that TOB is too difficult for your liberal theologians to grasp.

      • hombre111

        Seminarians and scholars study the Vatican Council, its history, and what it continues to accomplish. Saint John XXIII’s name will always come up as the man who convened it. People will study Saint John Paul’s impact on the collapse communism, which is already becoming a footnote to history. I am not sure how many people will be interested in his effect on the Council, except to say he tried to derail it. His efforts to further centralize the Church will be noted as a negative, along with the fact that he left the Church more divided than he found it. Theology of the Body? Maybe scholars will mine his wisdom, but the ordinary person will pay more attention to the more accessible writings of Christopher West. .

    • michael susce

      “Like the average European philosopher, he sat down at his desk and had a conversation with”
      1) The experiences of the horror of living under the Nazi regime
      2) Attending an underground seminary were he could have been executed and one of his fellow seminarians, who did not show up to meet JPII on the way to class, was caught and executed
      3) The experiences of being a bishop and cardinal under the horror of living under brutal communism where one of his many assistants were brutally beaten in the street as a warning to JPII.
      4) Knowing full well the horrific treatment of other prelates in other countries, who were tortured and poisoned.
      hombre111, the intellectual hatred you have for this SAINT is satanic….. There can be no other explanation. And I have been viewing this site for two years. May God have mercy on your soul. You are on my prayer list.

      • hombre111

        Thanks for the prayers. In my life, there have been seven popes, two of them saints, and I put them all in perspective. All you said about St. John Paul is true, and a great part of his story. But he became pope, not just of the Church under communist rule, but of the whole church, and he approached the inner workings of the Church with the patriarchal siege mentality necessary for survival, when survival wasn’t the issue. Instead of leading the Church to study, understand, and live the Vatican Council, he reacted with fear and tried to limit its effect. He could understand the oppression of priests under the Nazis and the communists, but he could not understand the oppression of Catholics by Oligarch Catholics in Latin America. And so, they had to beg him to go to the tomb of Oscar Romero and he put obstacles in the way of his canonization. He sided with the conservatives and divided the Church. A saint is a saint, but that does not mean that everything he did was wise or brilliant.

    • GG

      Paul VI did not form the committee. He inherited it from the previous Pope.

      • hombre111

        That is true. He then tried to stack it with conservative bishops who then listened to the lay people and changed their minds. Paul followed the minority, in part because he was wanted to preserve papal authority. Now that was a great success. It was the greatest blow to papal authority in centuries.

        I honestly think Paul was being prophetic in what he said. I think that HV was a communications disaster and needs to be thoughtfullly re-written.

    • Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouve

      Karol Wojtyla was actively engaged in discussion with young people and married couples from the earliest days of his priesthood. That simple fact is clear to anyone who has even the most basic knowledge of his life.

      • hombre111

        Thanks, Sister. Yes, he listened to young people and young couples as a campus minister, which is only a good place to start. The real discussion comes in conversations with older couples who are in, or who have been in, the struggle to to raise a family. By then, he was on the bishops’ track, climbing the echelons, no longer in touch with ordinary people. That is the way it works in the Church. People argue that he heard confessions. Yes he did. But did he listen, or did he simply lay down the law? People who knew him well said he had few doubts and few questions about anything. The committee convened by Pope John XXIII, which he did not attend for whatever reason, would have given him that chance. Those lay people certainly changed the minds of the conservative bishops Pope Paul added to the committee.

    • bonaventure

      Pope Paul VI summoned a committee to discuss the birth control question. He passed.


      Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was BARRED by the then communist authorities in Poland from leaving his country to go to Rome for that purpose.

      The communists authorities did that for two reasons:

      (1) As a payback to the Church for the very negative portrayal of atheism and communism in Gaudium et Spes;

      (2) Because they knew Wojtyla’s position on the issue very well, and they absolutely feared the influence he would have had among the committee members. Because, of course, communists fervently prayed on their knees to the God they didn’t believe in that the Church allows the use of contraception. Looks like nothing has changed for communists, er… I mean liberals, today.

      • hombre111

        If he was not able to go to Rome, I am sure the communists told him (1) and (2). Whatever. But my point remains. Based on his vast experience as a short-term campus minister, and on his reading of St. John of the Cross, Wojtyla knew all there was to know about love and marriage and was prepared to lecture the world on the subject. Honest shared inquiry is the best way to come to truth, and the pope passed.

  • M.J. – for those who like to have a taste , by means of the lighter format , thankfully there is the above which has the good introduction on how the experiences that St.John Paul 11 had , in his pastoral work with young people has also been a good part of his work ;
    well, if one has the Holy Spirit as Counselor, then all else would be secondary too ;
    the ring of truth , the truth of the Covenantal Theology , as seen in those Five Rings of the Five Wounds – easy to become numb or hard of heart about same , which, in turn , can make it like robbing one of the breath of life itself , whereas , when confronted with the great or small pains of life , that come from the ‘ Me ‘ wounds , in self or the other , looking at the
    ‘Rings ‘ , to say , for oneself and the other, – ‘ thank You, for healing our wounds, by Your holy wounds ‘ .. for the peace that the world cannot give , thus celebrating the mystery of our faith , that seems as such a Cross /paradox, for the outsiders , in systems based on personal performance !
    Love as responsibility ..and we , in the Christian faith, having recognized the supreme form of that love , in Christ Crucified , that invites one boldly, in truth , in heart wrenching repentance , if needed , to take responsibility , for the infinite debts , in the only way to be truly set free from same , because , there is One , whose Sacrifice is larger than those debts !
    The faithful, in turn, show up, to show their love, in the response that has been asked of them, by the same Author of Love – to perpetuate that Supreme Act , at every Holy Mass !
    St.John Paul 11 under the millstone of the communist system, got first hand taste of what it is to be in user system ; in ways of Providence, he was also set apart , to show love , as responsibility , in his relentless efforts and success, in toppling that system , with the ample supernatural help .
    How blessed we are, that through his great works , we get to be in touch with the truths we need to hear and see with better clarity , at a time that seems geared to promote so much darkness !

  • accelerator

    “Love & Responsibility” is provocative? LOL. How so? In fact, if anyone other than Wojtyla had penned it, who would be suggesting it as something so profound? I rue that would be no one. Like his “Theology of the Body,” it is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.” Christian sexual ethics have remained the same for centuries. I still wait for someone to explain to me in convincing terms wy JPII’s TOB is anything other than an empty shirt. The new translation may be more graceful, but the message is still contrived. Sex issued. It has always been seen as such *in marriage, for God-ordained purposes*. That’s not De Lubac or Vatican II, but history. The nouvelle theology plugging at CRISIS lessens it credibility.