The opening paragraphs on Catholic morality in the Catechism continue to reinforce the entire spectrum of the human life. Para. 1695 incorporates the Scripture, the sacraments (notably here, Confirmation), an internal and constant dedication to prayer, and good works. The portrait of the virtuous Christian depicted here is inspiring and attractive, and its wisdom on the nature of moral discussion is sorely needed today.
Jesus himself, in teachings passed along to us through the Scriptures and Apostles, stressed the apex of the virtuous life as a holistic consumption into the life of God. As a devout Jew, he revered the Law of Israel; as the prophet of the new and coming kingdom of God, he understood his mission as the fulfillment of the Law, or better, proclaiming a faith identity in which observance was a precondition, not the product. Nowhere is this brought home more clearly than in Mark 10: 17-31, where an idealistic man asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus reminds him of the Commandments, but the man replies that he has observed these laws from his youth.
Mark continues that at this juncture Jesus looked upon the man with love, ready to invite him into a full communion with the heavenly Father and a life of all-consuming virtue. He tells the man to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor, and then to come and follow Jesus. The man went away disheartened, for “he had great possessions.” The tension between the call of perfection and the limitations of our courage has been a subject of much reflection over the entire life of the Church. As I wrote in last Monday’s post, Catholicism and its sacramental life addresses the life-long battle that wages within an honest soul, between how I actually live and the ideal life I am called to live.
My old seminary friend—now a deacon in Honduras—posted a quote yesterday on Facebook from St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1641). Bellarmine, a Vatican cardinal, is better known to historians for his dealings with Galileo, but he found time to write devotionals which were translated into many languages. One of his best is The Art of Dying Well, a common genre of the time. Bellarmine, approaching his own death at the time of composition, describes in straightforward terms the kinds and means of virtue that a man of the world must cultivate as he prepares for judgment. Yesterday’s Facebook quote deals with the rich: "If anyone would contend that these superfluous goods are not to be given to the poor out of the rigor of the law, one cannot truly deny that they are to be given to them out of charity, for it matters little, God knows, whether one goes to hell for lack of justice or for lack of charity.” Curiously, Bellarmine’s counsel was attacked by another curial official of the day for the suggestion that having too much superfluous money was immoral.
Bellarmine’s quote resonates well with the above-cited passage from Mark 10. A moral life cannot be “compartmentalized.” Any attempt at living Gospel morality is an invitation to God to shape the thoughts and deeds of every aspect of life. Para. 1695 expresses this truth through the theology of the Holy Spirit: “This "Spirit of the Son" teaches them [Christians] to pray to the Father and, having become their life, prompts them to act so as to bear ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ by charity in action.”
There are many “moral issues” that consume an inordinate amount of attention, and no less intense anger and division within the Church. Some of these we will encounter as we work through the Catechism and other forums in future posts. I have long been a believer that such trench fighting is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. Rectitude is the fruit of devotion, of a life in the Spirit freely given. It is no accident that Confirmation, the sacramental possession by the Spirit of the fledgling Christian, is celebrated as an initiation sacrament. As the paragraph indicates, it is the life of the Spirit within us who “enlightens and strengthens us to live as ‘children of light’ through all that is good and right and true."