“What is love?…(baby don’t hurt me)”

Standing in line at the checkout at the grocery store usually makes me a little uncomfortable. This discomfort does not come from a lack of patience or the forgetful customer in front of me, who asks me to save their spot in line upon forgetting a bag of lemons. The source of my discomfort comes from the magazines that flood the racks with bold printed captions that read: “10 things guys crave in bed,” “Sex…Your Way to Satisfy Your Body,” “The crazy lie I told to get a boyfriend,” and “Sex & Love: the little tricks that keep couples together.” I think of the individuals, especially teenagers and youth, who use sources like these magazines to form their understanding of a seemingly healthy relationship and understanding of sex. I write “seemingly healthy” because presumably their practices coincide with what culture and society emphasize. If there is no disconnect between these teachings on love and sex and their practices, then there would be no interior conflict, but rather, a justification of a healthy “sex life.” What these magazines reveal about love, sex, and relationships is that good sex leads to happier relationships, sex is only about seeking your own pleasure, and manipulation and trickery are justifiable in relationships. These captions deteriorate the dignity of men and women by reducing them to purley physical beings. Placing an emphasis on pleasure objectifies the human person by viewing the person as an object that is to be “used” instead of “loved.” This understanding of love and relationships presents a stark contrast with that Pope Benedict XVI reveals to us in his papal encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

In his encyclical, Benedict warns individuals of deceptive contemporary ways of understanding the body. Benedict writes that the body is exalted by humanity in a way that the body and sexuality belong purely to the material part of the person. This leads to viewing the person as an object and subject to exploitation by the desire to make both the body and sexuality “enjoyable and harmless.” These contemporary understandings of the body do not acknowledge the inherent unity and integration of body and soul, and so the body and sex are reduced to biological functions permissible to be used in any circumstance. Benedict challenges this notion when he decalres that love is “where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness.”

Benedict uses the Song of Songs to present love as an experience of discovery, movement beyond oneself, and always seeking the good of the other. We see from the magazine captions an emphasis on oneself and one’s own pleasure, whereas Benedict’s presentation of love is completely focused on the other. Since the focus of love is on the other, the proper activity of love consists of renunciation and self-sacrifice. Daniel Westberg, a moral theologian clarifies that self-sacrifice can only be nurturing love when it is mutual and reciprocal because love is “sharing in the mutual desire for the good of the other.”  Imagine what it would look like to be able to love someone with all your heart, and to have it be reciprocated. This certainly challenges the cultural presentation of love, sex, and relationships.

There are overwhelming messages in advertisements, television, novels, and checkout lines that thwart the person and a healthy understanding about love, sex, and relationships. These deceptive understandings influence the norms of culture and it is necessary to provide a restorative understanding of love and all that it encompasses.