During my 20-odd years of service in a diocesan Tribunal, assisting people with marital difficulties, the many heart-wrenching stories of emotional and family devastation taught me much about the paradox we call love.

Love is a funny word. Like the kiss that is often assumed to be its most natural expression, it can take on many different meanings -- not all of them true -- depending on the intention and the actions that accompany it. A quick and occasional press of the lips to the cheek is hardly unusual or alarming among persons who already share familial or friendly affections. Prolonged or more frequent contacts on or nearer the other person's lips, however, might be read differently.

A kiss, even a gentle one, can be the start of a deliberate seduction -- again, depending on the intention. In another context, a kiss can even be used to betray, as in the case of Judas -- or in the following story I recall from my Tribunal days.

The petitioner, the person seeking a decree of the nullity of her marriage, was a nurse in a prestigious New York hospital. She had been married to a prominent physician. I will withhold specific details in the interests of confidentiality and general propriety, but the basic plot is an all-too-familiar one, seen in any soap opera.

Suffice to say that nursing colleagues had warned the petitioner during her engagement that her husband-to-be had an extracurricular reputation -- and not a good one. Never before, however, had this nurse experienced such "love" as she was led to believe her fiancé had been expressing for her in his tenderness and generosity. He wined and dined her. He took her places. He was the most sensitive of lovers.

Well, not many months after the wedding, she discovered the "little black book" (it was the '80s; no iPhones) with telephone numbers next to women's names, some of which she recognized. Other evidence included restaurant bills and various detours from stateside medical conventions -- detours to Caribbean islands. You get the picture.

It was nothing so unusual for a conventional case of marital infidelity, prior to the discovery of the betrayal, but this one had a twist. When the petitioner confronted her straying spouse, he reacted not with denial, but with shock: How could she mistrust him so much? Didn't she love him as much as he loved her?

Stung by this startling response, but also curious, she wanted to know how such blatant and flagrant infidelity could be reconciled with conjugal love. The doctor told her that there was no cause for alarm. He loved her more than ever. He had never lost his feelings for her. All of his time away from her was really nothing but an expression of "displaced" love. In loving the others, he was really just loving her!

Yes, "love" can be a funny word, as its essential core is manipulated and edited by human propensities to deceive and be deceived. But one thing seems obvious from the story above: Love without personal fidelity is not love at all.

What does it mean to be faithful? The doctor thought he was faithful just because he intended to be, by his own rationale, but was he, if his actions spoke otherwise? Even outside of a conjugal (marital) relationship, faithfulness has a certain essential core, no matter how it is parsed or twisted.

It means, at the very least, an integrity that the actions in which the love is being expressed honestly convey what love is.

Was the doctor really trying to express his love for his wife by sleeping with one her colleagues? Even if he himself believed he was and intended to, was he? Was he fooling himself or just fooling her, hoping she would believe this? Whose good was he seeking: his, hers, that of the other women?

The same question might be raised when people choose to enter an intimate union while using contraceptives to avoid family, which looks toward a long-term commitment that demands fidelity from both parents for the sake of each other and the others they conceive together.

What good then is being served? Is this really even friendship? How is it loving -- seeking the good of the other -- to avoid the very commitment to faithfulness that intimate love leads to by its very nature, if it is to be authentic?

Friends do not lead friends into sin. One of the surest signs of a true friendship is the faithfulness of friends to one another, in good times and in bad. How is it even friendship to live together, intimately, in a way married couples do or are supposed to, but excluding faithfulness to one another and faithfulness to a commitment to accept any children born to that union?

Contraceptive "intimacy" is a form of infidelity. Something essential is missing. Something is displaced from what conjugal love is.

Is this really even intimacy, or is it not -- to be honest -- more like mutual, pleasuring self-gratification? As long as the "feeling" lasts....But if love is no more than feelings, how is it different from the marriage between the doctor and the nurse? He says he never lost his feelings for her, never stopped loving her. Really?

It should come as no surprise that this marriage was not found to have been a valid one.

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