Paragraph 1696 draws heavily (footnote 21) from an ancient Christian work, the Didache, an early Christian manual of living the Baptismal life of Christ. (The term Didache means “teaching.”) As we can see in the text, the Didache is famous for its metaphor of the fork in the road: one chooses either the way of Christ, which leads to life, or one chooses the way of destruction, which leads to death. Some scholars date this work to the first century, other later. What is clear is that the existence of the text was not immediately known to the universal Church, and I believe this is one reason the Didache was not included in the formation of the New Testament canon around 200 A.D.
This document was not exhaustively covered in my schooling, so reading it this morning was an eye-opening surprise. I hope you have a chance to at least browse the four-page link or to save it, for it occurred to me that the Didache is the earliest moral commentary that resembles what we might call today a moral code or catechism. It is a terse catechism of the baptized life: it cuts to the chase with a detailed account (sections 1-6) of the thoughts and actions that lead to spiritual death, as well as the actions of one in communion with Christ. In short, it is a highly moralistic document, though it includes instructions on the liturgy—with two primitive Eucharistic Prayers—and directives for the emerging roles of teachers, apostles, and prophets, offices recognized in the early Church.
I am presently listening to a biography of the NFL coach Bill Parcells, aka “The Big Tuna.” Parcells was and is a blunt man. On assessing sports performance, he was accustomed to saying “You are what your record says you are.” In its treatment of morality, the Didache is specific on “the record” by which the Christian will be judged. With six of its nine paragraphs devoted specifically to conduct, there is little doubt that the earliest Christian thinking on morality focused upon its visibility. A baptized person looked and acted in a “countercultural way.” “See how they love one another” is a phrase attributed to pagan outsiders who observed the fellowship and deportment of baptized Christians.
Very recent research has found that young adults, specifically those returning to church or committing to one for the first time—express enthusiasm over discovering God, but as a rule see no connection between faith in God and ethics. That should not come as too much of a shock; every generation of religious practitioners falls into this trap. In the morbid but fascinating HBO series “The Sopranos,” young AJ tells his father—a Mafia don—that he doesn’t believe in Confirmation. His father replies that he needs to discuss this faith problem with his sponsor—a hitman and heroin dealer. Come to think of it, the entire Soprano crime family was “Catholic”—even Pauly Walnuts and Uncle Junior—but with little or no manifestation of the faith in "the family business.".
The Didache is remarkable because it is not particularly spiritual or “other worldly.” It is impossible to read this text and maintain the illusion that what I do or experience in church has no bearing or connectedness to every other facet of my life. It is no secret that our country is in the spasm of division right now, as is our Catholic Church in some quarters (Here and here.). As a Catholic myself, I am always asking myself what I can do to make things better—or what not to do to make things worse, usually in response to Facebook posts. The “culture divide” has even split families—including, unfortunately, my own—and has probably raised my systolic and diastolic pounding.
What wisdom would the early church’s first and second century sense of the moral bring to our time, particularly as laid out in the Didache? From the text itself, we find “Be not prone to anger, for anger leads to murder. Be neither jealous, nor quarrelsome, nor of hot temper, for out of all these murders are engendered.” And in another place, “Do not long for division, but rather bring those who contend to peace.” Our earliest moral tradition addresses the affection and interaction of those who worship the same God; it is less preoccupied with the staked-out positions of the protagonists. It is an interesting work of editing that these texts appear before the instructions of baptizing and the breaking of the Eucharistic bread.
I might add here a personal aside. Living away from family, and with no children of my own, I am constantly mindful that, statistically speaking, as I progress into my eighth decade I may potentially be a very lonely man. Bill Parcells may be right: “Usually older players, late in the season, start to get cold.” As I navigate stresses in relationships, I remind myself over and over that down the road I will need the camaraderie of enduring friendship more than I need the satisfaction of always being right (which is an illusion, anyway.) Christianity, certainly an endangered species at its inception, must have felt much the same way among its faithful family. It may be wrong to think of the Didache’s “way of death,” as just another idiom for misery beyond the grave.