The Resurrection narratives, and the account of the post-Ascension life of the Church in the Holy Spirit found in the Acts of the Apostles, deserve careful analysis, because when read uncritically, these portions of the Scriptures can mislead us into thinking that the Church acquired instant insight and precise organization skills. In truth, the Church acquired its self-understanding slowly and with considerable trial and error. While the early Church certainly had a good sense of “evil” and behavior unbecoming of the baptized, it would be a while before we see anything like codification.
St. Paul’s earliest epistles begin a classification of sinful behavior, but there would hardly be much debate about the sins he singles out. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul outlines moral outrages he has heard about in Corinth: incest, covetousness, idolatry, abuse, cheating, drinking, thieving, prostitution, fornication. In Chapter 10ff he goes on to address overconfidence, what meats to purchase at market, and proper attire of women. He saves his biggest volley for 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34, where he addresses the conduct of Christians gathering for the Lord’s meal, which included drunkenness and insensitivity to the poor members. Paul’s letters were circulated throughout the early Church and we have to think that 1 Corinthians would have enjoyed a preeminence where questions of moral behavior were concern.
The early Paul would later be enriched by the later Gospels as I mentioned last Monday: along with sinful acts to be avoided, the New Testament most famously would proclaim a morality of supreme virtue, as exemplified on Matthew’s Beatitudes and Luke’s parables of mercy. It is encouraging in our present day that the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes a great deal of text to the building of virtue.
If we look at the very last books of the New Testament, such as the Epistles of John, the authors laboriously emphasize the importance of love and unity. “Little children, love one another.” By this phase of the Church’s development, perhaps around 100 A.D., the social nature of the Church was evolving, too. The controversial Catholic scholar Hans Kung would write his The Church in 1967 after the Council, where he would contrast the somewhat charismatic structure and life of the earliest Church with the more structured governance of teaching and rites coming from established strong bishops of the second century, such as Ignatius of Antioch. Kung laments certain aspects of this evolution, but after 100 the Church was a more complicated body facing a multitude of more complex problems.
In fact, morality as a separate entity was not among the Church’s greatest concerns in the second century. In this period the two major factors of Church life appear to be significant assaults on basic beliefs about Jesus, and persecution and the cult of martyrs. The second century Church found itself besieged on multiple fronts. After the second fall of Jerusalem in 135 A.D., relations between Christians and Jews became more acrimonious. Basic Christian beliefs such as the humanity and divinity of Christ were under consistent philosophical attack by those who maintained that Jesus was not truly a man but a divine vision or illusion (Docetism) or the reverse, that Jesus was a man but not divine, a position that would eventually be known as the Arian heresy.
The second century gave the Church its first true post-Apostolic defenders of the faith, the philosopher-apologists Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen, as well as the canon or collection of Books we know today as the New Testament. There was a strong ethos of common loyalty in belief; creation of discord or a less than intense commitment to the primitive body of Christian beliefs was seen as a major moral betrayal of the Body of Christ, particularly as many Christians were actually shedding their blood.
For this was indeed the beginning of the age of the martyrs. The Roman Empire condemned Christianity for, rather surprisingly, atheism, or what the Empire saw as a disregard of the state religion, a form of emperor worship that Christians could never subscribe to. Persecution in the second century was not as severe as it would become later, but it was bad enough in a number of sites, notably Lyons in modern France. Roman governors themselves were somewhat cynical about religion. In 117 A.D. Pliny the Younger satisfied himself that Christians in his region were not cannibals and he did not conduct persecutions. However, local disasters or military setbacks were blamed on Christian indifferentism, and in these cases the treatment of Christians could be extraordinarily cruel.
Roman law followed procedure, and those slated for martyrdom were often imprisoned for some time before meeting their fate. The position of the martyr-candidate was unique in the Church, individuals who had attained the martyr’s crown of glory. Perhaps the two most famous martyrs of this era were Perpetua and Felicity, who left behind a remarkable and apparently reliable journal of their travails in a Roman prison in 203 A.D. Perpetua was a nursing mother and Felicity was her pregnant slave. Part of Perpetua’s dilemma was arrangement for the care of her infant before she faced wild beasts in the circus.
The courage of such martyrs set a very high standard of fidelity for the Christian assembly. One of the most serious moral failures of a Christian was abandonment of the faith during persecution, or “apostasy.” This sin, along with murder and adultery, were considered the three sins serious enough to place one outside the saving Christian assembly. In the third century, the Church developed a rite for forgiveness and reunion with the Eucharistic banquet, the first form of what we know today as canonical Penance or the Sacrament of Penance. As part of the process, the sinner was required to visit the Roman prison and receive the blessing and recommendation from one who was about to die. Next Monday we will look at the third century practice of the forgiveness of sin and why it eventually passed out of existence until the Irish revisited the issue of sin and repentance several centuries later.
Today we attempt to discern the "moral mind" of Jesus. If Jesus was a modern day confessor, how would he define sin in terms of its sources, nature, and satisfaction? The question assumes, of course, that there is direct data from 27 A.D. literally transcribed and easily available to us. Regrettably, the original narratives of the words and deeds of Jesus did not find their way to paper till the decade of 50 A.D. and later, and then in a variety of forms and idioms depending upon the disposition of the sacred author. I should add here, though, that good Christian scholars continue to work in the present day on the recovery of the ipsissima verba or the "very words" of Jesus in the Gospels, and I recommend Father John Meier's work for those with such interests.
At the risk of oversimplification, I propose moral reflection on what we might call "the early Jesus" and the "later Jesus." Here I am referring to the Christian followers and their interpretation of Jesus' words. The early letters of St. Paul, and to some degree the Gospel of Mark, have captured the urgency of moral change and the need to live an intensely upright moral existence in preparation for an imminent global Second Coming of catastrophe, judgment, and condemnation. This is very similar to the moral thought of John the Baptist as well. Not only is the baptized Christian--having been washed free from sin--expected to keep his nose clean, but he is expected to adopt a futuristic moral stance for the coming glory. Thus we get advice from early Paul: "Men who have wives should live as they do not (i.e., live celibately)" in order to stay focused on future events. Or, in Jesus's case, "If you hand is an occasion of sin, cut it off...."
There is no evidence that the Church integrated these early apocalyptic moral teachings into later formularies or directives. Even in the earliest centuries, and despite the fact that such quotes appear in the inspired texts, Church fathers as a rule interpreted such sayings metaphorically, such as "watch and pray, for you know not either the time or the hour (of your own death and rendering.)" This is moral counsel that carries a perpetual timeliness, and it continues as the backbone to our own personal understanding of destiny and judgment.
Returning to the moral teachings of Jesus, however, as the Second Coming did not occur imminently and the young Church grew in numbers and wisdom, it passed into what might be called the "second generation" understanding of Jesus' moral vision. Here the Church becomes much more dependent upon the later Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, whose authors worked to penetrate the moral vision of Jesus for a long-term Church, perhaps a Church of generations, centuries, millennia, and multiple empires. The need, then, was to discern the moral teaching intention of the Savior for individuals who might very well live a long and fruitful 90-year life, or a Church for that matter that might extend many thousands of years.
It would not do for the Church to "hunker down" behind moats. One of the first of the second generation writers, St. Matthew, makes this very clear when he conveys Christ's teaching to avoid hiding lamps under bushel baskets. Perhaps as Matthew wrote his Gospel, pagans were already beginning to say of Christians, "See how they love another." The second generation understanding of Jesus' intentions featured a delineation of how one who becomes another Christ by baptism walks through the world drawing all peoples to saving grace over long periods of time.
There is near unanimity that St. Matthew wished to cast the narrative of Jesus into a "New Moses" motif, to indicate to Christian coverts from Judaism that they had indeed come home to a new and restored Jerusalem where the Mosaic tradition of Law was still revered. Of course, Jesus had said that he would bring the "law and the prophets to their completion" so it would not do simply to repeat the Ten Commandments and accompanying commentary. Instead, Jesus took to another mountaintop, a new Sinai, and delivers the "perfected" old law, the Eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-12), followed by several chapters of new commentary in St. Matthew.
The beatitudes, as the building blocks of the morality of the new covenant, present more than a few challenges. They are not "acts" per se, but rather, the underlying motivations of the moral follower of Jesus, who on multiple occasions expressed much more concern for the content of a man's heart than the outcome of his deeds. It would be left to later evangelists and then the Church itself under Spirit-filled guidance to maintain the moral spirit and intent of Jesus in the face of individual questions of right-and-wrong.
Luke takes upon himself a different literary style to convey the moral thinking of Jesus, but in the final analysis his work is of a weave with Matthew's. Luke makes use of majestic parables of attitude to model what kinds of moral thinking and instincts Jesus intends for the Kingdom of God. The parable of the Loving Father was proclaimed earlier this Lent, but consider such others as the Good Samaritan. In this parable we get a profound sense of what Christ thinks about universal responsibility toward others (the hero is from Samaria, not Israel), the laws of uncleanness are brushed aside (touching blood), there are no boundaries on need (an open line of credit is established for the unfortunate victim) and most curiously, the two religious men who by profession should have helped--the priest and the Levite--leave the wounded and possibly dying traveler to fend for himself against thirst and birds of prey.
In continuing our survey, we will see that one of the Church's great challenges down the road--certainly akin to Israel's--is maintaining a primacy of purity of conscience over the ever-present temptation of moralists to “spell it out” with accountant’s precision.
From the Brew Master,
Needless to say, I have been away from my desk for a few days. No crises here on the home front to report; it was more a case of bad calendar management. Since I posted last Wednesday I have been off on two teaching jaunts, a hike interrupted by a big old gator, my annual physical (see aforementioned alligator below), and a St. Patrick's Day party. I do not drink, but too many green cookies and bedtime past ten are enough to create a hangover. So it is good to be back at routine, whatever that is. Tomorrow we have the Florida primary, so I may be posting from the end of long line.
As I have two new topic tracks started at the same time (morality on Mondays and Sacraments on Saturday) I am struck in my reading by the complex development tracks of both traditions. Formal Church statements on matters of morality are worded in such a way as to make them sound as if St. Peter himself was surrounded by stenographers in his study in Rome in 60 A.D. Issuing dictates on birth control, Lenten fasting, and admission to communion of the divorced and remarried.
In truth, we do not know exactly how first generation Christians thought about morals. The first written indication of what Christians believed about anything comes from St. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians written around 50 A.D. This is the first book of the New Testament, chronologically speaking. By contrast, the Gospel of St. John may have been written as late as 100 A.D. Paul's letter, written as the Christian mission had already spread beyond Israel west toward Gentile Rome, gives us a picture of a church--actually a network of small faith communities--bound together by an intense belief that the Lord Jesus had come once in very recent history to conquer evil, and would come again very soon to take them up into the new and eternal Jerusalem.
1 Thessalonians might never have been written had early Christians not started worrying about the fates of people who died before the Second Coming. Paul's answer--that at the sound of the trumpet their graves would open and the dead would be taken up first, then the living would follow--tells a great deal about the mindset of that first generation. It was intensely futuristic, and its members fully expected to see Jesus, the Son of Man, return in their lifetimes. It is interesting that Paul's advice on the dead mentions none of our common beliefs today on the destiny of the soul or a purgatorial option, or for that matter, that man was even divided as a body and soul.
There is also a tone in Paul's early letters that the living Christians expected to be taken up in glory, and morally speaking, one might wonder on what foundation they would hold such belief. They must have shared an experience that to them indicated a readiness to be taken up into the Clouds of Glory. In all likelihood this would have been a baptismal washing that accomplished two things: (1) like John the Baptist's ritual, the washing was a renunciation of all evil in anticipation of a coming cataclysmic overturn of the world order, and (2) moving beyond John's ritual meaning, enabled the believer to endorse for himself and others that he or she was "with Jesus."
This phrase, “with Jesus,” would go on to have great significance in St. Mark’s Gospel fifteen years later. In that Gospel the term, used literally and in multiple other ways, implies many things—a conversion, obviously, witnessing the signs and wonders, hearing and learning his teachings, and perhaps most of all, going with him to die in Jerusalem (Mark 8: 34-38) Equally important was the sense that those “with Jesus” would live a certain way reflective of the Master and his own example. Just a cursory reading of 1 Thessalonians gives us an idea of what “the way” would look like—and the conduct and morals of the those with Jesus will be elaborated upon by Paul himself in later letters as well as the other pastoral letters of the New Testament, and finally the Gospels themselves.
There is another point in the Thessalonians’ text that bears reflection: specifically, who was responsible for the local teaching and maintenance of Church doctrine and morals? One would think—correctly, I might add—that this is the proper role of the bishop, and such would be case today. We think of the apostles as first bishops, and this is true—they were the first witnesses of the Resurrection and protectors of that tradition. Historically, however, there is no evidence that all twelve (Matthias having replaced Judas Iscariot) went beyond the Jewish-Christian region of Palestine. Paul’s later title “Apostle to the Gentiles” reinforces the probability that the Twelve saw their first responsibility of mission to the faith from which they had come, Judaism. The model of a powerful local bishop came into full play in the early second century.
So in this first generation the “leader,” in matters of living the way would have been the church founder, and throughout the very early Gentile mission that would have been Paul. His pattern of mission seems to have been the establishment of a series of new faith communities in major cities across Greece and eventually to Rome. (When you consider where he visited and established communities, he was evidently a man of significant vision—Thessalonica or Salonica is today the second largest city in Greece.)
Unfortunately, his method of sustaining these churches is uncertain—spiritually and financially-- and, from some evidence in his own letters, not always successful. There is no record he established residential leaders, i.e. bishops. Neither the function nor individual names are mentioned in Paul. Paul had faith in the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit) and the good will of his flocks. Theologians sometimes refer to this as the Charismatic Age when the churches were energized by the gifts of the Spirit, as we hear of “speaking in tongues” and “prophesying” taking place. In the next century these ecstatic practices are replaced by strong teaching bishops.
Paul did what he could through his famous letters or Epistles. In many cases these letters were “problem driven” over questions of theological matters, as in the future of the dead or the meaning of justification, or over matters of behavior. Paul addresses moral behavioral matters in an ad hoc fashion, as they are brought to him. Across the board he addresses questions as diverse as drunkenness at the Eucharistic banquet to incest. His common principle seems be maintaining an exemplary communal lifestyle appropriate to those baptized into the way, as well as anticipation of the final judgmental coming of Jesus in glory.
Paul’s list of “firsts” is impressive in Christian history, but today we have recognized his place as the first Christian teacher to put to paper an idea of how the baptized Christian is to live in the sense that we would call moral. The Church would reflect upon his letters—making them, in fact, the first sacred texts of the New Testament that we know of by circulating them through all communities of the way. These letters, of course, would be well known to the four evangelists (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) and next week we will examine how Paul’s letters, along with greater experience and inspired reflection, impacted the Gospel writers in their treatments of Jesus’ moral outlook.
For those interested in St. Paul, my own library is a little thin here. I still use my 1978 text, Seven Pauline Letters by Peter Ellis, for reference. Of course, there is four decades of more recent research available, but Ellis is as good a place as any to begin your search, if so inclined.
For the next several (weeks? months?) Monday mornings will focus upon that part of theology known as “morality.” As long as I have been alive morality in Catholic practice has been in a state of flux. I used to attribute that to Vatican II, but as I grew older and had the opportunity to study the question, I came to see that what we call morality or “moral rules” has evolved not just from the New Testament times, but within the New Testament itself. Moreover, our moral tradition does not begin with Jesus. He himself was Jewish and announced that he had come to bring the Jewish Law to its fulfillment.
This takes us back to the earliest biblical accounts, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church even today organizes sinful moral acts using the outline of the Ten Commandments. There are places where the Ten Commandments have been engraved in stone in public courthouses and the like, at least until ACLU lawyers arrived upon the scene. I wonder, though, if those who use the Ten Commandments as the last word on morality have actually read the full elaboration of the Law as spelled out in the very Biblical texts.
Take the Fifth Commandment, for example. “Thou shalt not kill” seems like a fairly straightforward command—until we read its full context. This commandment better reads “thou shalt not kill another freeborn Israelite male” because the full commentary of Deuteronomy provides a number of exceptions justifying the taking of life for a variety of punitive reasons that even Jesus did not condone. For example, if upon marriage a man discovers that his bride is not a virgin, and this “fact” is “proven” by the condition of the wedding night bed linen, the woman (probably all of 14 years-old) is to be stoned by the townspeople. (Deut. 22:13-21) An unruly (“incorrigible”) son may be stoned to death at parents’ request as well. (Deut. 21: 18-21)
Again, the Sixth Commandment seems straightforward enough until we read Deuteronomy 21: 10-17 and its variety of contradictions, including the directive that a woman taken captive after the death of her husband in battle must be given thirty-days to mourn before she is taken to bed by her captor. My point here is not to belittle the text or the belief behind it; Deuteronomy itself observes that the execution of an unruly son or a promiscuous woman is the manner of “purging evil from your midst.” Rather, any fair-minded individual of this century will make allowances for (1) the limitations of understanding at the time of composition; and (2) the evolution of moral thinking and religious observance.
Jesus himself revered the Law, and quoted the Scripture with emphasis, as with regard to marriage and divorce from Genesis 1, for example. He also commented on the Law’s interpretation and development, as when he observed that Moses permitted divorce “because of the hardness of your hearts.” He, like at least some of his confreres in faith, did not apparently embrace a literal application of Deuteronomy, as in the case of the woman caught in adultery during Jesus’ ministry. It is hard to imagine that the Judaea of Jesus’ lifetime was unaffected by Roman law or Greek philosophy. In fact, the Judaism of Jesus’ time was considerably divided on the struggle of past versus present versus future.
The passage of time and the evolution of knowledge and circumstances is precisely the reason we call morality a “science” today. It is not that religions create morality from age to age, like drawing up plays in schoolyard football. Rather, religion attempts to translate the core of its beliefs into the language and understanding of its time. Moreover, there are circumstances and developments in human history that a religious tradition is encountering for the first time, and thus the moral challenge is application: how would God want us to deal with this set of circumstances?
Often these “circumstances” are of a social nature. The Catholic Church, for example, continues to struggle with democracy, where public conduct and policy is shaped by the electorate in what is admittedly a messy process at times. In 1864 Pope Pius IX basically condemned democracy in favor of a theocracy or a religious (Catholic) state. On the other hand, democracy has enlightened the Church’s moral process, too. There were a number of sitting Catholic bishops in the southern United States when slavery was legal. Para. 2414 of the Catechism forbids slavery—and its sole footnote is Paul’s Letter to Philemon; the Catholic history of moral teachings on the subject is simply not very deep.
It would be a wonderful thing if there was a golden box of moral answers to every possible moral situation, but God has not ordained it so. Rather, He sent his Son whose “golden box” is his life, his beatitudes, and his death upon the cross. It is the Catholic moral project in every age to sort this out for its time. It is, as we will see, an intriguing process. While I will focus on our own recent century, I will also lay some groundwork of New Testament morality, the third century’s definition of sin, the emergence of confession and the books for confessors originated by the Irish monks of the later first millennium, and the “manuals” of sin that emerged after the Council of Trent and remained the primary sources of Catholic morality until the Vatican II. As older Catholics we are products of the Manualist era of moral theology; those born after the Council came into an era when moral theology was reconnected to the full discipline of theology and based upon the foundation of Baptismal conversion. That we as a Church currently function with a foot in each epoch accounts for much of the moral controversy we see today.