Morality involves a change of attitude and behavior, and in Paragraph 1694 the Catechism borrows heavily from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans to explain this. Paul was the first true theologian of the Church. He is the first of the Christian assembly to recognize the necessity of the mission to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, and in his missions across the northern Mediterranean he founded several local churches. The letters of Paul in the New Testament are his responses to issues or problems arising in his new churches, truly theology crafted at the grass roots. Romans is his most profound writing, and it is here that he puts forward his “Christian anthropology,” the nature of man and the impact of God’s grace through Baptism, which rests at the heart of all moral theology.
For Paul, morality begins with incorporation into Christ by Baptism. The term “incorporation” has been interpreted many times over the centuries, but the essential meaning is full union in a life-altering way. Writing several decades after Paul, the Evangelist Matthew describes the closeness to Christ effected by Baptism: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Since the Apostolic age Christians have understood that the profound change brought about in Baptism is imitation of Christ and subsequent experience of the Father.
In discussing Baptism, we do labor under the difficulty of having received this sacrament as infants, unless we converted as adults. The New Testament writers assumed adult baptism, and thus they can speak at length about the profound nature of the change that comes about in the baptismal experience. The term “dead to sin” in para. 1694 refers to the “pre-baptism state;” the climax of the “death moment” occurred when a catechumen was totally submersed in the baptismal pool, the closest sacramental experience of death and burial the early church could conceive. Life in Christ began at the point of reemergence, a symbolic coming from the tomb like an infant from the womb, “alive in Christ” and no longer dead to sin.
Paul’s teaching on baptism, written as early as it was in 57 A.D., was the first but hardly the last word on the subject. In his commentary on St. Paul, Peter F. Ellis, in his classic Seven Letters of Paul (1978) lists the great religious thinkers who have attempted to explain Paul—Augustine, Pelagius, Calvin, Jansenists, Puritans, and scholars in our present time. Among the issues debated over time are matters of free will and the inclination to sin after baptism (which Augustine termed concupiscence, “desire”.)
The reason that Roman Catholicism baptizes infants dates to Augustine’s writing (c. 400 A.D.) that as biological descendants of Adam and Eve (the second creation account in Genesis) we are conceived and born in grave sin, called “original sin,” and that baptism—that primordial sacrament of forgiveness—should be administered to a newborn as soon as possible. The practice of infant baptism has created numerous Gordian knots for the Church, particularly sacramental theology and catechetics. Paul’s question, “How can we who died in sin still live in it?” is even more acute for the adult baptized in infancy who in his grown-up life wishes to die to his current sins, vices, attitudes, indifference, etc. The whole construct of Christian morality is built upon death to old ways and the attitudinal embrace of the words and deeds of Jesus.
One pastoral explanation involves the single fact that there are seven sacraments, not one. Each of our sacraments is truthfully a “rebirthing” experience evolving from the day we were presented at the baptismal font. I think of the sacrament of marriage, for example. Although many priests—myself included during my years as a pastor—bend over backwards to help brides and grooms who might not be “active” in the church, we are not fools, either. We know that we are dispatching them into a life that will probably face more stresses, even sinful wounds, because, for one reason or another, they have never made a connection to the conversion act that is the marital promise and its life.
If sacraments are occasions of encountering God, this truth needs to be introduced into faith formation about marriage, long before the age of actual marriage. There are two questions each person needs to address internally before walking down the aisle. First, will this partner enrich my faith, and will I experience something of divine goodness in our living together? Second, am I ready to sacrifice the things I have taken for granted to live an enriching common life with my spouse? I remember sitting on my couch at home alone the afternoon before our candlelight wedding. I was very happy to get married, but I knew that my life would never be quite the same again. No more ESPN at all hours; no more of those innocent domestic bachelor habits. Will I be able to care for my wife, assist her in her journey to God, love and invest myself in her family, take care of her in our declining years should that become necessary? How will we pray together?
Very few Catholics—probably very few couples in general—have received this kind of formation to marriage. The pre-Cana program is far too brief to penetrate the philosophical/religious mind of wedding candidates, and too often it fritters away time on such matters as natural family planning and artificial birth control, matters extraneous to the bigger picture. The relationship of Christian marriage to Baptism and the moral life is an integral part of the psycho-religious development of moral thought. The decision to marry is probably one of the most moral-laden choices in human experience, and a core commitment to its importance directs the conduct and actions over the long haul of the marriage.
I could probably sketch out a similar moral dimension to all the other sacraments. I realize that I have not addressed the issue here of infant baptism, the primordial commitment, but for the moment it is sufficient to explore the adult conversional choices to moral living presented by the full array of sacraments.