One of my religious education teachers this past year uses this as an examination of conscience, and frequently reminded us that English is rather limited in vocabulary when translating this passage. A better word for love might be 'charity,' derived from the Latin 'caritas,' the translation of the Greek word "agapē.: 'Caritas' is the form found in the Vulgate, and thus the Douai-Rheims uses charity. There is a clearer, God-centric objective definition for charity than there is for love (Think about it. It's more than a feeling when we talk about charity. Not so with love. Pop radio proves this.) So, what is it?13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.4 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; 5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.8 Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 10 but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. 13 So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
St. Paul beautifully explains to the Corinthians the way in which God exists. Remember, the first letter of St. John states that God is love. So for us, this is how we should carry out our daily lives. St. Augustine adds this:
“Charity is a virtue which, when our affections are perfectly ordered, unites us to God, for by it we love him.”I had to Google this, and I found this definition, which takes us one step past Augustine towards St. Thomas Aquinas on the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Christian charity. It says that charity is ,"in Christian thought [NB the highest and fullest type of thought through the Church], the highest form of love, signifying the reciprocal love between God and man that is made manifest in unselfish love of one’s fellow men." Indeed, charity is the greatest virtue, for as the Angelic Doctor posits, it is the foundation of all other virtues.
Question 23 of the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas deals with charity, and says that it is friendship, for Our Lord tells the Apostles in John 15:15 that "no longer do I call you servants...but I call you friends," which was done only by reason of charity. Aquinas is tricky when he only gives one reason, but I think it's a pretty intuitive response, no?
He gives another definition of charity, in which he points out the need for communication. It is absurd to think that charity is the same love as our love for wine. Wine can't talk back, and we wish its good for ourselves. However, love which is also friendship is, according to Aristotle, love where we wish its good for the other (Sounds familiar?) Long-story short, God communicates with us, and desires happiness for us as He communicates His own happiness. This love is charity, and as Aquinas defines it, "charity is the friendship of man for God."
Later, in question 25, the Angelic Doctor proceeds to describe the object of charity.
Charity does not stop at love, for we see, again from the first letter of St John,"And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also." St. Thomas uses his Aristotelian-based theological vocabulary to describe this, but we are to love under God, and that we ought to desire that our neighbor be in God. That is what we should love in our neighbor.
Also, we must love our neighbors as we love God, i..e. with charity because love accounts for good in general, which is God.
If this wasn't truly love-a more complete, more fulfilling definition than found in popular culture- it wouldn't be such a common choice for weddings, even sappy and trite ones. We yearn for love, for God.
NB: The Summa Theologica can be found on New Advent, which is found the text I used as a source. It's also free for e-books.