- a catechesis of the Holy Spirit, the interior Master of life according to Christ, a gentle guest and friend who inspires, guides, corrects, and strengthens this life;
- a catechesis of grace, for it is by grace that we are saved and again it is by grace that our works can bear fruit for eternal life;
- a catechesis of the beatitudes, for the way of Christ is summed up in the beatitudes, the only path that leads to the eternal beatitude for which the human heart longs;
- a catechesis of sin and forgiveness, for unless man acknowledges that he is a sinner he cannot know the truth about himself, which is a condition for acting justly; and without the offer of forgiveness he would not be able to bear this truth;
- a catechesis of the human virtues which causes one to grasp the beauty and attraction of right dispositions towards goodness;
- a catechesis of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, generously inspired by the example of the saints;
- a catechesis of the twofold commandment of charity set forth in the Decalogue;
- an ecclesial catechesis, for it is through the manifold exchanges of "spiritual goods" in the "communion of saints" that Christian life can grow, develop, and be communicated.
Paragraph 1697 is one of the lengthier entries in the Catechism, but coming as it does at the opening of the treatment of morality, it lays out the philosophy of the Church’s mission in this realm. It is a major improvement over the catechetical efforts of previous centuries, which rested primarily upon the cataloguing of sins in moral manuals and simplified into the catechisms of my school days.
In its introduction, para. 1697 defines the moral life of the Church as “the joy and the demands of the way of Christ.” Like all aspects of life and theology, Christ rests at the center. There are other systems of wholesome behavior in the world—Aristotle’s ethics is a good example, laid out in fine detail at the Stanford University website, or Cicero’s Stoicism of the Roman era. From a Christian vantage point, these philosophies, while admirable, suffer from one insurmountable flaw. While they can describe and direct “the good life,” they are not in themselves able to make full connection with God’s Revelation in Jesus Christ, and thus they are not capable in themselves of delivering the “joy” described in para. 1697, i.e., life after death. This does not render philosophy useless; on the contrary, the thinking of Aristotle on virtue and habit is deeply imbedded in Catholic life, thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas and his successors.
Let us look at the moral life, or “newness of life,” as the Catechism puts it, on a point-to-point discussion. The introduction of the “catechesis of the Holy Spirit” is brilliant. Although we talk about the Holy Spirit, and even profess faith in that same Spirit at Mass, there is an instructional vagueness about the role of the Spirit in the life of the Church, institutionally and individually. The later Gospels and Acts of the Apostles speak of the Spirit as Christ’s enduring presence—again, within us as individuals and as an institution. The Church as a whole has tended to emphasize the Spirit’s role in corporate leadership over individual inspiration, probably from a fear of doctrinal or devotional chaos. But in fact, the Spirit lives and breathes in both, and for the individually baptized the quest for a moral life is communion with the Spirit’s intent.
The Catechism speaks of “grace.” I am constantly amazed that this term, a staple of every Catechism for centuries, is unknown to even catechists today. Grace, from the Greek charis for gift, is the direct outpouring of God’s love that makes it possible for us to entertain the possibility of an eternal life. The idea of grace is one of the disputed issues of the Reformation. Luther held that God’s justification was a gift exclusive of the labors of men (as in buying indulgences, for example.) Catholics hold that indeed justification or grace is God’s gift, but that we must cooperate with the gift by faith and deeds to be saved.
In responding to God’s gift of justification/grace, the Catechism cites the Eight Beatitudes, those open-ended commands of charity and virtue. It is interesting that the Beatitudes precede the catechesis of “sin and forgiveness,” as well as the Decalogue, which had been the primary business of Catholic morality for many centuries. The issue of sin and forgiveness is worded in such a way as to emphasize the human need to admit guilt and failure by the lights of Scripture and the Church’s experience of two millennia. The road gets bumpy here as, from time to time, there are conflicting interpretations of moral choices of personal conduct and the way they are taught, but as laid out here, such differences are secondary to the strength of commitment to live in the Spirit, and difficult moral decisions are made in the light of a sincere faith.
Para. 1697 goes on to speak of a catechesis of human virtues. One might call this a formation to think as Christ does on matters of justice, temperance, peace-making, prudence, etc. such that our dispositions tend naturally toward the Christic way. There will be a focus on the primary virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The “two-fold” commandment of charity is the Old Testament’s call to love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Finally, the Catechism speaks of “an ecclesial catechesis,” or an examination of the function of the Church itself in the role of moral formation. The text indicates that by living “with the Church” many have indeed gone on to sainthood, and that organic unity of believers is indispensable for the Church to thrive. Para. 1697 does not spell out the breadth of its meaning of Christianity—that is, how does the Roman Catholic communion relate to other Christian bodies. Given the insistence of unity by Christ in John’s Gospel, among other places, and the teachings of Vatican II on the role of the Spirit in separated Christian churches, it is hard to imagine the Catholic Church going it alone in the quest to generate a moral society. If anything, the ecumenical possibilities in shared moral concerns are probably one area where a real unity can take root.