No matter how much you try to talk around it, the moral life is hard. Last Sunday's Gospel from St. Matthew on the cost of discipleship (see August 29 post) is a very recent reminder. Perhaps there was some limited advantage to the Church’s catechetics of past generations that taught morality as the avoidance of sin—or as some would say, particularly sins of the sixth and ninth commandment variety. At least there was clarity and modest, measurable outcomes. Profound virtue—although this was never said directly—was the provenance of clergy and religious. Laity, to use a baseball analogy, were charged with advancing the base runner. Only “religious” swung for the fences where holiness was concerned.
Thanks to the biblical scholarship of the past several centuries, the command of Christ to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” and the open-ended commands of the beatitudes have moved discussion of morality from legality to personality. The nature of morality in the 21st century is identity with Christ, who “always did what was pleasing to the Father.” A catechetics of morality based upon para. 1693 is much more of a challenge, because in the final analysis there is a call to give up one’s very life in favor of the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth.
We know from the Sunday creed—and from the brilliant teaching of Pope Leo I in 451 A.D.—that Jesus is the mixing of two natures, the divine and the human, in one operational psyche. Leo stated that this is as far as we can go in describing the identity and life of Christ. In my youth, and probably in many learning settings even today, the emphasis is placed upon Jesus’ divinity over his humanity. There are historical reasons for this; imaginative theologians of the nineteenth century described Jesus as an itinerant apocalyptic preacher, announcing the end of the world. Others depicted Jesus as the ultimate do-gooder, the unintentional inspiration of the “Social Gospel.” Papal pronouncements of the nineteenth and early 20th centuries naturally countered such trends with emphasis upon Jesus’ divinity.
But the Creed states that Jesus is fully human, and we ignore that at our peril. Every philosopher has a definition of what it means to be a human being, but few could argue that common characteristics of humanity include the limitations of space and time. The human Jesus could not know the future, though he could certainly study the past. If Jesus did know the future in its entirety while here on earth, his offering of his death upon the cross would not have saved us, because his trust in his Father’s deliverance could not be absolute if he knew the end game. Calvary was a total risk for Jesus, and thus the ultimate statement of love of God and humanity.
Jesus had to navigate his human experience with a moral determination, just as other human beings do. In college, one of my daffy friends wrote on a religion test that because he was a man Jesus was subjected to wicked thoughts and lustful desires. Our professor read the answer to the class, and then proclaimed “heresy!” We had a good laugh at the time, but there is an underlying reality that Jesus indeed had to make moral decisions. The Gospels describe several of these, most notably in John 2: 13-17 where Jesus vents his anger against mercantile Temple practices. The peculiar think about this episode is verse 15, “he made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple.” In other words, he sat and crafted a weapon; in a court of law the term is “premeditated.”
So why is Jesus’ deliberate violent act of overturning the tables of money changers not a sin, particularly when we are told frequently to control our passions, including anger? The answer is given in the response of the disciples, who recalled Psalm 69: 8-9: “I have become an outcast to my kindred, a stranger to my mother’s children. Because zeal for your house has consumed me, I am scorned by those who scorn you.” The human Jesus, who had heard this Psalm many times, applied it to a nest of corruption and scandal that desecrated not just the sacred site but made access to worship unduly burdensome to those from foreign lands who attempted to make offerings with their native script.
Given that God raised his son to full glory at his right hand, the decisions of Jesus were totally ratified by the Father. The fact that these decisions were made with human freedom and limitation is the heart of the doctrine of the Incarnation: Jesus has shown the eternal will through the human medium; he has illuminated the full potential of the created human. He created a bridge from the imperfect created world to the infinite glory of the Father by showing us the moral path to walk.
To become “moral,” one adopts a virtuous style of living. Aristotle held that one is more likely to achieve a good life through habit and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction. Your neighborhood AA group puts it less elegantly: “fake it till you make it.” There is considerable truth to this; in catechetics we spend considerable time teaching young people what they should do over and over. In the Christian framework, the Scriptures are rich in example of the kinds of behaviors we need to repeat to please the Father, which is why Catholic morality must be rooted in Scripture.
Catholic tradition has always held that the consolation and the help of God is at the ready for those who call upon him; therefore, the final section of the Catechism will focus upon prayer and communion with God. Para. 1693 introduces the discussion of morality upon the twin pillars of the example of Christ in the Scripture and communion with God in prayer and purpose. To know God is to act like Him.