Summer 2005

Love, Action, and Vows as “Inner Form” of the Moral Life

David S. Crawford

"The counsels are not only one state of life, they are in some sense the inner meaning of the whole Christian life made explicit. . . . Each state of life, and indeed the entire moral life, must ultimately look to them to see its 'inner form,' even while each retains its integrity as such."


In his The Christian State of Life, Hans Urs von Balthasar makes a crucial claim about the nature of love. After reminding us of the strict necessity of an account of love in arriving at any understanding of the meaning of human existence and activity, that is to say, of the fact that caritatis perfectionem is not only counseled but is strictly commanded, Balthasar goes on to state the following:

As soon as love is truly awakened, the moment of time is transformed for it into a form of eternity. Even erotic egoism cannot forebear swearing “eternal fidelity” and, for a fleeting moment, finding pleasure in actually believing in this eternity. How much more, then, does true love want [will] to outlast time and, for this purpose, to rid itself of its most dangerous enemy, its own freedom of choice. Hence every true love has the inner form of a vow [die innere Form des Gelöbnisses]: It binds itself to the beloved and does so out of motives and in the spirit of love.1

This passage might at first strike us as odd. Of course, we are accustomed to thinking of love in terms of eternity, both in popular and in theological literature.2 Love, it would seem, even love that is in reality all too ephemeral (“erotic egoism”)—precisely in its pretense of eternity and of giving itself entirely—would seem to disclose at least something of the infinite and timeless. We are also accustomed to the idea that love brings about union with another; love bespeaks a desire on the part of lovers to “bind” themselves to one another.3

However, the development of these ideas in the two further claims—viz. (1) that “love has the inner form of a vow,” and (2) that love wants to eliminate “its worst enemy,” freedom of choice—may strike us as more problematic.

1. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian State of Life, trans. Sr. Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 38–39 (emphasis original; the English translation of this passage omits a sentence: “Liebe auf Zeit, Liebe auf Abbruch ist nie wirkliche Liebe”).

2. See Angelo Scola’s discussion of nuptiality as “event,” in “The Nuptial Mystery at the Heart of the Church,” Communio 25 (Winter 1998): 630–662.

3. Aristotle, for example, speaks of friends wanting to spend time together or live together (Nicomachean Ethics, 1157b 19–24), and Thomas, of love tending to both affective and real “union” (ST I-II, q. 25, a. 2, ad 2; q. 28, a. 1).