These Two Commandments…

"Charity of St. Elizabeth of Hungary" (detail) by Edmund Blair Leighton

“Charity of St. Elizabeth of Hungary” (detail)
by Edmund Blair Leighton

When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was most important he replied that we should love God and love our neighbor, and he added that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. He might have added that on these two things hang everything that matters to everyone everywhere.

Most importantly, it is the love of God and the love of our neighbor that matters if we take our Christian faith seriously. All the rules and regulations and rubrics, all the debates and doctrines and dogmas are meaningless if we do not have the love of God and the love of our neighbor.

It is a quirk of human nature, however, that most of us fall into one of two categories. We are either God lovers or people lovers. If you like, all of us have a natural preference or a built in instinct to focus on one or the other.

Those who are ‘God lovers’ are more interested in the vertical than the horizontal. They focus on the other world rather than this world. They concentrate on liturgy, spirituality, prayer, adoration, consecrated life, vocation, religion and worship. They see the church as the fellowship of saints and angels gathered around the throne of God. ‘God lovers’ tend to be more cerebral, traditional, conservative and concerned with right worship, right behavior and right belief.

Those who are ‘people lovers’ are more interested in the horizontal. They focus on this world more than the next world. They concentrate on peace and justice, and ministering to others. They see the church as the people of God here on earth, making their pilgrimage to heaven. The ‘people lovers’ tend to be more relational, intuitive, progressive and innovative. The sit lightly regarding rules and dogmas, and are more concerned with expressing God’s love through compassionate relationships with their brothers and sisters.

The God lovers see the Mass as a solemn sacrifice that lifts mankind to the very threshold of heaven. They want fine liturgy; esoteric, magnificent and otherworldly worship. For the God lovers worship transports us from this vale of tears to the worship of the cosmic spheres. For them the Mass is the great sacrifice that applies the eternal act of redemption to souls in need of salvation.

The people lovers see the Mass as the fellowship meal of the people of God. The worship is warm and comforting. It is designed to make everyone experience the love of God here and now. The church is a place of welcome for all. Worship is a healing, inspiring action designed to make everyone feel forgiven and feel good about themselves and each other. The church is in this world and is of this world and needs to adapt to this world so that more and more people can be helped.

As you read this you are probably already, instinctively choosing which of these two models you like best. You will believe that yours is the best and that, at best, the other one is faulty, and at worst it is heretical and damaging to the church and should be stopped.

But we need both don’t we? We’re called to love God and love our neighbor. There is certainly a divide within Catholicism, and if it can be analyzed in this way, why does such a divide exist?

The divide between the ‘God lovers’ and the ‘people lovers’ exists not because one is right and the other wrong. The divide exists because we have not prioritized properly.

The lovers of people may not like to hear this, but the love of God is the first priority. Love of neighbor comes after the love of God and is dependent on the love of God. We cannot love our neighbor if we do not love God first. Why? Because we have no motive, no power and no grace to love our neighbor if we have not loved God first.

Therefore the love of God is the Catholic priority. Loving our neighbor is mandatory and cannot be overlooked, but it comes after the love of God. If this is true, then we must ask ourselves where we properly love God and where we properly love our neighbor. The answer is that we love God primarily within the life of prayer and worship: within and through the liturgy.

If we love God in church, then we love our neighbor outside of church. Most of the problems with modernist liturgy and worship is that progressive Catholics have brought into the church what rightly belongs outside the church. In other words, the fellowship, the peace and justice, the social activism, the missionary enterprise, the education and health care and family concern–all of this is the proper activity of the people of God outside of the liturgy, and we have brought it into the liturgy.

As a result, the liturgy has become all about loving people instead of loving God. Why is this? Because too many Catholics have actually replaced the love of God with the love of people. Clever theologians thought that the supernatural, otherworldly aspect of worship seemed too much of a stretch for ordinary, modern, scientific people, and they made the liturgy folksy and people centered in order to adapt the faith for modern man.

The result has been a disaster. Catholics therefore love people, but have lost the language for loving God; and the greatest sadness is that once you no longer love God, it is not very long before you are no longer able to love people either, for what do you find to love in people if you have not loved God first? For the only thing I truly love in my neighbor is the image of God in him, and the only way I can discern this is by first learning to love God.

The final result of all this is that we have been left with the only remaining remnant: the love of ourselves. Thus, in too much of Catholic worship, what was once the glorious worship of Almighty God has become a jumble of comfort hymns and self help therapy.

The only remedy is to return to Christ’s priorities: to learn once more how to put the love of God first in our lives so that we may eventually learn again how to love our neighbor.


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About the Author

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He conducts parish missions, retreats and speaks at conferences across the USA.

His latest book is The Romance of Religion - Fighting for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. For help in your practice of the Catholic faith sign up for FaithWorks! -- Fr Longenecker's free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith.

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Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Dwight was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson.

Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. He spent the next ten years working as a freelance Catholic writer, contributing to over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.

Fr. Dwight is the editor of a best-selling book of English conversion stories called The Path to Rome - Modern Journeys to the Catholic Faith. He has written Listen My Son - a daily Benedictine devotional book which applies the Rule of St Benedict to the task of modern parenting. St Benedict and St Thérèse is a study of the lives and thought of two of the most popular saints.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, Fr. Dwight wrote Challenging Catholics with John Martin, the former editor of the Church of England Newspaper. More Christianity is a straightforward and popular explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Friendly and non-confrontational, it invites the reader to move from 'Mere Christianity' to 'More Christianity'. Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate is a debate with an old Bob Jones friend David Gustafson who is now an Evangelical Episcopalian.

Fr. Dwight’s Adventures in Orthodoxy is described as ‘a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.’ He wrote Christianity Pure&Simple which was published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Sophia Institute Press in the USA. He has also published How to Be an Ordinary Hero and his book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing was published by Our Sunday Visitor in May 2008. His latest books are The Gargoyle Code - a book in the tradition of Screwtape Letters and a book of poems called A Sudden Certainty, Adventures in Orthodoxy and The Romance of Religion.

Fr. Dwight has contributed a chapter to the third volume of the best selling Surprised by Truth series and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine, St Austin Review, This Rock, Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register. Fr. Dwight has also written a couple of children’s books, had three of his screenplays produced, and is finishing his first novel. He’s working on a book on angels and his autobiography: There and Back Again.

In 2006 Fr. Dwight accepted a post as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. This brought him and his family back, not only to his hometown, but also to the American Bible belt, and hometown of Bob Jones University. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey.

Fr. Dwight enjoys movies, blogging, books, and visiting Benedictine monasteries. He’s married to Alison. They have four children, named Benedict, Madeleine, Theodore and Elias. They live in Greenville, South Carolina with a black Labrador named Anna, a chocolate lab called Felicity, cat named James and various other pets.

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5 Comments

  1. Most of us do not fall into one of your two categories, Fr. Longenecker. Most of us who strive to understand the gospel message of Jesus are trying to integrate these two equally important laws into the way we live our lives. The priority is not to choose one over the other. The priority is integration and your article only serves to divide us further. The truth is, the two laws must absolutely go together. You cannot say you love God if you do not love your neighbor. It would be a false love. Also, a Christian cannot love his/her neighbor if she/he does not love God. It’s not a question of first or second. It’s a question of doing it all at once, in an integrated way, that’s the priority. Your “models” are a caricature. I know no Catholic who would feel comfortable saying “yes, I’m in this group or that group.” It just polarizes. The truth is never “either/or”, but always “both/and”. I think you have done us a disservice with this article. I seriously question this statement: “…we love God primarily within the life of prayer and worship: within and through the liturgy.” Yes, we surely do, but I wouldn’t say that it is primary. We love God in spirit and in truth, and it is a priority to love God in our neighbor as much as in our liturgies. Again, another unhelpful dichotomy that will only serve to polarize us even more.

    There are several flaws in this statement: “If we love God in church, then we love our neighbor outside of church. Most of the problems with modernist liturgy and worship is that progressive Catholics have brought into the church what rightly belongs outside the church. In other words, the fellowship, the peace and justice, the social activism, the missionary enterprise, the education and health care and family concern–all of this is the proper activity of the people of God outside of the liturgy, and we have brought it into the liturgy.”

    First, there are many people who go to church and supposedly love God in church, and then do not love their neighbor when they leave church. We love God inside and outside of church, just as we love our neighbor in church as well as outside church. You can’t make this separation. I don’t know what you mean by “modernist liturgy”? Do you mean the liturgy approved by the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI? We have brought into the church what right belongs outside the church: fellowship, justice and peace, urgent social questions, the missionary dimension of the Church, education, health care, family life, etc. Is there to be no connection between faith and life? If these vitally important issues have no place in the church, then let us hear no more about abortion or contraception in church. These issues would necessarily be excluded from our worship, from any discussion in our churches.

    I find this article deeply disturbing and totally unhelpful. I hope others will read it with an open, but critical mind. This is not the path we need to walk.

    1. We have, unfortunately, lost a sense of the sacred. At Mass, our whole being should be directed towards God and heaven; sacred music, art and architecture used to guide us in that direction. Certainly we love our neighbors and need to be continually involved in what we used to call the “temporal works of mercy”. But for the one hour a week (hopefully more, but let’s face it, most people get to church once a week) we are at church, can’t we elevate every part of ourselves to our God and put our focus on Him instead of on all the other things of this world which take up our time out of church? We need the strength and nourishment we receive at that time to carry out the very love of neighbor that He asks of us.

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