The embodiment of the Catholic moral teaching tradition is found in Section Three of the Catechism, “Life in Christ.” Section Three has points in common with universal historical wisdom, and the Church has made good use of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in the development of its own tradition—St. Augustine incorporated the thinking of all three of these pagan predecessors in his famous City of God in the fifth century. When pondering over or teaching Catholic morality, there is an important point to be made. The Catholic moral tradition is the response to a specific call from God embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. In this sense morality is the behavioral extension of faith in Christ and the Apostolic Tradition that extends into our own time.
At the same time, Catholic moralists of every age have understood that Christianity well-lived is the key to human fulfillment and right ordering of society. The teachings of the Catechism enumerate principles of universal application not limited to Catholic “in house” teachings. I was struck, for example, by paras. 2491 and 2492, which deal with secrecy, privacy, personal boundaries, and—surprise—the rights of political persons to privacy in their personal lives and freedom of invasion by “the media.” This reality puts incredible demands upon the Catholic community—not just the ordained leadership, but its scholars and laity as a whole—to remain at the forefront of history’s inexorable march forward.
It is in this light that the quotation which constitutes the entire introductory Paragraph 1691 comes from one of Christianity’s true giants, St. Leo the Great (r. 440-461). The importance of Leo in the development of Christology and Church governance can hardly be exaggerated. As a historical figure, Leo is remembered as the man to prevented Attila the Hun from overrunning Rome. In my childhood book of saints, I had a picture of Leo holding a monstrance with the Eucharist at the gate of Rome and blinding the ferocious men about to attack. The story as historians have pieced it together now is that Leo was the most outstanding of a three-man delegation who convinced Attila to turn back, possibly because Attila’s men had contacted the plague and some cash inducements were involved.
Given that the Vandals sacked Rome four years later, it is not his success with Attila for which Pope Leo came to be known as “the Great.” Rather, he took considerable strides in strengthening the position of the Bishop of Rome, which in the 400’s was often eclipsed by the patriarch Constantinople (Istanbul) and even Alexandria in Egypt. Leo accomplished this by reigning in regional churchmen who exercised full authority over their regions, notably in Gaul (France).
But for all his other duties, Leo was a masterful, inventive theologian who contributed significant doctrinal advancement in our theological and liturgical understanding of Jesus Christ. He constructed a treatise on the union of the divine and the human in Jesus, a document which states that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, with prejudice toward neither, and that these two natures merged perfectly in Jesus to form one fully operational person, or one psyche, as we might put it today. Or, as a professor of mine put it irreverently, Jesus was not schizophrenic, the divine constantly at war with the human.
This document, known as “The Tome of Leo,” was read by Leo’s representatives to the predominantly Greek, Eastern fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, who according to historians, jumped out of their seats and cried “this is what we believe!” Leo not only put the capstone on the Church’s doctrinal understanding of Jesus, but he went a long way toward establishing the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the leadership of the universal Church.
We are very lucky that several Leo’s sermons have survived to this day, and para. 1691 in its entirety is taken from a Christmas sermon. (Sermon 21) As sermons go, Leo’s Christmas preaching is relatively brief, three paragraphs. Within the first two, Leo summarizes the Christological doctrines of the Incarnation and Redemption—the full drama of God creating and saving mankind--in a remarkable window into what Christians believed in the fifth century. His commentary on the role of Mary is even more remarkable in that the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God had been promulgated in the Council of Ephesus only two decades earlier. He draws together the seriousness of forgiveness of sins in language befitting St. Augustine with joy at the intervention of God described so well by St. Paul.
The third paragraph is the challenge to his congregation to walk in the ways of the Savior. “Christian, acknowledge thy dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which thou art a member.” The systematic study of moral theology would develop in the next several centuries, in Rome with St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century and in the Irish monasteries of the seventh. But this Bishop of Rome has defined Christian morality as well as anyone before or after; to be moral, to be virtuous, is to become a partner in the Divine nature shared by Christ, to strive to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” as Matthew’s Gospel instructs. Reject backsliding into the old pre-baptism baseness of “degenerate conduct.” If the study of morality begins at a desk, the living of virtue begins on one’s knees.