Book Review: Love and Responsibility

I recently finished reading Pope John Paul II’s earlier work, Love and Responsibility.  I knew it was a very important book, but in the time that I have been interested in the New Sexual Revolution, I had always been more excited to read the Theology of The Body.  After finishing Love and Responsibility, I must say that I can’t imagine very many other books as vital in a secular world that has little regard for the value of the family and human sexuality.

Learning about Christian sexual morality has been very important to me over the last few years.  This is because of a very difficult “relationship” with a girl who, among other serious issues, had been sexually abused by her first boyfriend.  She treated me like dirt and I let her.  She’d asked me at one point why I wanted her.  I’d even asked myself the same question.  Dance around it as I might have tried, it all came to one thing: I was out of college and had been single since high school.  I said in my non-religious defense of saving sex for marriage that I may have had valid reasons for waiting, but either I didn’t understand them or most other people weren’t convinced.  This relationship led me to seek those deeper reasons.  I started wondering about the value of sexuality, what it really means to love someone, and the importance of emotions in love, all of which are discussed in great detail in this book.

The main reason why this book is so paramount is because of the universality of the message; it is vital for both religious and non-religious readers.  Love and Responsibility is a largely philosophical work, though it gets more theological towards the conclusion.  Much of the first chapter is dedicated to defining terms and concepts, predominantly dichotomies like subject/object, love/use, and urge/instinct.  John Paul II also defines the person and free will.  The over-arching theme of the book itself is what it means to love someone as opposed to using them.  In fact throughout, he uses the same exact phrasings; “…the value of the person”, “…an object of use…”, etc.

These certainly are things that the secular world must know, but there is a great deal of wisdom here for Christians as well – ALL Christians, not just Catholics.  The truths in this book are equally important for Christians, in some ways even more important.  Many denominations seem to react to societal pressures in one of three ways: liberalize their teachings, simply say “it is what it is” and accept contraception, or mistake the sexual urge as lust and suppress it entirely, as seems to be the case in the 1997 error-ridden facepalm-fest that is Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

John Paul II does state that while the sexual urge and romantic attraction may in fact be spontaneous and insufficient to sustain a relationship, they are still necessary.  He argues this because they provide the framework for a deeper and more mature love between a man and a woman.

This book uncovers a key truth about cultural values, which is that people have put themselves into a prison that they don’t even know that they’re in.  They have set themselves up for heartbreak, emotional and legal battles, and bitterness.  This is where the great wisdom for more secular readers shows itself.  With the high divorce rate that we have, people feel a need to explore as much of each other as they can before marriage, hence the conventional wisdom of “sexual compatibility”.  This wisdom is absolutely loaded with fallacies because of contraception, past sexual partners, and a general overemphasis on sex.  We see a society that devalues parenthood and family.  John Paul II argues that openness to these is absolutely critical because when a man and woman remain open to procreation (he notes the difference between procreation and mere reproduction), all semblance of selfishness is removed.  They aren’t merely using each other for sexual pleasure, but they love each other to the point of embarking on the journey of parenthood together.

The only real downsides I saw were more with structure than content.  1) He does not use commas very often, 2) the book is also somewhat wordy at times, and 3) indentation of new paragraphs is very small.  All this combined can make the text itself difficult to understand at times.

However, even with the structural issues, I can’t justify anything less than a five-star rating.  The material is way too vital to rate otherwise.  There are reasons why Pope Paul VI asked the future Pope John Paul II’s for his insights when writing Humanae Vitae.  If this is your first major philosophical work, as was the case with me, I highly recommend reading two or three sections at a time as well as reading the basic background to Love and Responsibility, Dr. Edward Sri’s Men, Women, and The Mystery of Love, the “cheater version” as one friend described it (There are discussion questions at the end of each chapter; answer them.  Take good notes on each book).  There is no question on how much society needs a bold defense of human love and sexuality like this.

Like us! is a growing community of Catholic bloggers from various walks of life. To get updates, click here to like our facebook page.