God tells us to “love your neighbour as yourself”, yet the Universal Prayer attributed to Pope Clement XI says “Give me good God, love for you, hatred for myself…” It seems to be a contradiction. Can you shed some light on this?
As you say, Our Lord commands us to love our neighbour as ourself: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22:37-40).
The command to love our neighbour as ourself implies that we should first love ourself. And indeed we should.
Everything God made is good, including ourselves. We should love the goodness in all God’s creatures, including ourselves.
What is more, God loves each one of us and we are special to him. We read in the prophecy of Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold I have graven you on the palms of my hands” (Is 49:15-16).
Indeed, God loves us so much that he became man and died on the Cross for us.
He has a place for us in heaven and he constantly showers graces upon us so that we will live in such a way as to be with him there forever.
If God loves us so much, how can we not love ourselves?
As if to emphasise this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honour and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (CCC 2280).
If we are stewards of our life, surely we should love it and look after it.
Indeed, love for ourself even takes precedence over love for our neighbour in certain circumstances.
For example, we may go so far as to kill another who is attacking us if this is necessary to save our own life.
The Catechism teaches: “Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow” (CCC 2264).
For the same reason, love for ourself demands that we not end our life through suicide.
As the Catechism says, suicide “is gravely contrary to the just love of self” (CCC 2281). So there is a justified love of self based on everything we have considered.
How then can a popular prayer written by a Pope ask for the grace to hate oneself?
The word “hate” here should be understood in the same sense as Jesus used it when he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother … he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26).
Obviously we should not hate our parents. Jesus clearly means “to love less”, as in the parallel passage when Jesus says, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37).
The prayer to “hate” ourselves must be understood in light of the common tendency to love ourselves too much.
As an effect of original sin, we all have a certain disorder in our nature which inclines us to pride, exaggerated self-love, laziness, disordered love of pleasure, etc.
For this reason the prayer asks for the grace to “hate” ourself, to avoid the excessive and exaggerated self-love which puts our own interests before those of others and even before God.
At the same time, we should bear in mind that there are some people for whom self-love is not a problem.
On the contrary, they tend to look down on themselves and even hate themselves, sometimes being moved to self-harm.
They lack the healthy love for self we should all have.
They may have been put down by others when they were growing up, even by family members, and they should strive to forgive those who have hurt them and to remember how much God loves them.
Sometimes they need to seek professional help, and those close to them should encourage them to do this.
God loves every one of us and he doesn’t want anyone not to love himself or herself.
We were made in his image and likeness and he wants us to reflect his love and goodness in the world.
In short, we are all good and we should love ourselves in a healthy balanced way.