Some years ago, the expression “What Would Jesus Do?” or WWJD became a popular meme. Given that we have four Gospels and a trove of other books in the New Testament, it seemed logical to assume that the answers to most moral dilemmas can be found rather easily in the New Testament, and the need for structured moral instruction in the Catholic Church or any other Christian community was superfluous except as a resource to read and reflect upon the life of Jesus. But this is not as easy as it sounds. In Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium [2020, see the Café’s Liturgy Stream], in a treatment of the Sacrament of Baptism and our identity in the priesthood of Christ, the authors raised two hypothetical questions. If you asked an average Catholic on the street what happens when a person is baptized, not one in one hundred would answer that in Baptism we become personally shaped into the witness and being of Jesus, which is the precise biblical answer provided by St. Paul. Which brings us around to the second question, i.e., do we know enough about this Jesus of Nazareth from our own reading and reflection to discern his intentions in all the moral decisions we must make during a lifetime?
Knowledge of the sacred scriptures has never been a strong suit of popular Catholic identity, which is the more remarkable when one considers that every document of Vatican II called for an intensified renewal of the Church through a renewal of biblical study. Because the habitual parochial life of Catholics is not used to Bible reading as a staple of daily life, we tend to turn to other staples to solve our problems. In moral theology, for example, we depend heavily upon tradition, natural law philosophy, and ethics probably more than we should.
There is plenty of blame to go around for our chronic deficiencies regarding the sacred scripture. Some of this problem dates to the complicated times of the Reformation when Protestant emphasis upon the Scripture alone [sola scriptura] threatened the importance of sacraments as understood within Catholicism and the authority of bishops to interpret the Bible into rules of moral life. It was only during the reign of Pope Pius XII [r. 1939-1958] that Catholic biblical scholarship was encouraged, and the average Catholic was commended to read the bible, but this counsel never percolated down to the parochial level. In my youth we were still cautioned against reading the Bible because “we might misunderstand it.” In truth, there is a great deal of Scripture that still lends itself to misunderstanding without the appropriate guidance and commentary. The treatment of the “Jews” in the Gospels of Matthew and John called for special clarification by the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission in the 1960’s, to use one example.
The Swiss Theologian Hans Kung [1928-2021] wrote that of all the world’s religions, Christianity is the only one whose moral mandate is to become like God. All other religions rest upon a code or contract within the confines of human reason and experience. But it is Jesus alone who commands us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:48] Jesus alone commands us to sell everything and come follow him. [Matthew 19:21] Jesus commands Peter to forgive his brother “seventy times seven,” an idiom for an infinite extension of forgiveness. St. Paul’s teaching on Baptism, then, makes much more sense: we are configured by the sacramental pouring of water into a union with God brought to fulfillment in imitation of Jesus Christ. As Kaminouchi writes [p.27]: “…the focus of attention of moral theology has to be centered on the person who responds to this revelation with his or her entire life.”
In the second chapter of An Introduction to Christian Ethics Kaminouchi raises the complicated question of our knowledge of Jesus from the Scripture, a complicated balance of seeking the “Jesus of history” as well as the “Christ of faith.” [This balance was one of the four questions I was asked to explain in my final board examination for ordination in 1974.] The author takes us back to the late 1700’s and the work of Hermann Reimarus, an Enlightenment thinker who postulated that the four Gospels were not pure history but reflected the philosophies of the writers. Reimarus began what is called “the quest for the historical Jesus” that continues to the present day. This quest has produced several personality sketches of Jesus—the “social Gospel” school that continued till World War I was followed by a “radical faith” school which held that encounter with Jesus was a matter purely of faith, i.e., that nothing of Jesus’ human existence could be known with certainty.
Today we live in a more balanced atmosphere regarding our interaction with the Gospels. To no one’s surprise, the Gospels are accepted today as faith documents, expressive of the mystery God wishes to share with us. However, this revelation occurs in real history, as God became a man who lived in time, space, and culture. To penetrate the mystery, one must know the person and the time from which he speaks. Jesus stands in real history to reveal a truth beyond history.
Consequently, the study of moral theology cannot progress without the study of the Scripture. Here we address the need for a Church in matters of morality, for none of us is truly equipped to take the Bible into our hands and state definitively, “this is exactly what Jesus would have done in this specific circumstance.” There is a collective wisdom in the Church community guided by the Holy Spirit such that none of us need start from scratch in our reflection upon the Gospels. What all responsible commentaries on the New Testament agree upon is that the preaching of Jesus flowed from his understanding of himself as ushering in the reign of God or the final age of God’s love and revelation. How the kingdom of God gives birth to our moral identities is the focus of the next post on this stream, the third on An Introduction to Christian Ethics.