What Does God Want Us To Do?
How do we know what God wants? How do we learn it? How do we communicate it? How do we teach it? This Monday stream of the Cafe on Morality has been woefully neglected; this is the first 2019 entry, and I returned to the Catechism’s treatment of morality today, specifically paragraph 2000 and thereabouts on the specifics of justification and on to specific moral directives of right and wrong. Catholic moral theology, as I posted on the Saturday, July 27 stream, has officially maintained a stately code of good and evil. It would be immature to deny the importance of moral direction, with the proviso that the crisp confident judicial language of the Catechism should never gloss over the existential battle to do good and avoid evil. Jesus’ agony in the garden was not play acting for our benefit, but a template of crisis thinking that accompanies doing the Father’s will, and not one’s own.
If we do consciously hold to the Christian creed, we believe there is an ultimate judgment with consequences beyond the grave. I don’t pay attention to discussions about the precise time of the “Second Coming of Christ” in part because Jesus himself said that such speculation is a waste of time (“that Hour is known only to the Father”) but also because my own eternal judgment is a reasonably imminent and predictable event, time wise; the actuarial tables provided by my retirement/financial planner indicate that a death date of age 87 would be financially advantageous for me. So, if the Catechist Cafe should suddenly go silent in 2037, there is good chance I will be able to speak more authoritatively on judgment at that time.
It is true that for many seniors, there is a young person trapped in an old body yelling “what the hell happened?” Unless illness or early dementia shortcuts reflective moral thinking, those of my age cohort find us looking backward toward a panorama we never had in earlier years, a fuller picture of our lives from our earliest memories to our present state of moral consciousness. My personal experience on this score is something that does consume my quiet, meditative prayer time. With the maturity of age, I look back at decades of opportunities and omissions and I wonder how God will judge me.
George Bernard Shaw famously observed that “youth is wasted on the young.” Sometimes I feel that age is wasted on seniors. Recall the touching scene from “The Shawshank Redemption” where Red (Morgan Freeman) sits before the prison review board in his later years and tells the board how he wishes he could go back and talk to his younger self who murdered another man probably four decades earlier. The wisdom of seniority can be painful for seniors but would have been enormously helpful to us in our youth and adulthood, not to mention our children and others entrusted to our care.
I wish there were some way for us to share the trench warfare of moral struggle with the generations behind us. This is, after all, how the Church formed itself over two millennia, struggling with evil, error, and ignorance before bequeathing later generations with principles whose bloodless formulations belie the work of their composition. Every human’s life comes face to face with this crucible of assessment. Ashley G. Miller, in her excellent essay of July 23 in Crisis Magazine, addresses the inevitability of our moment of truth: “Sooner or later, people take stock of life and wonder what it is for—and we ought to prepare them to answer. No matter how successful we become, none of us gets to escape this question, any more than we can escape the questions of how to live, or how to understand the world, or of how to organize our society. The person with the successful job and the nice home will still, one day, be called to make an account of himself.”
Although I have written to this point from the vantage of 70+ years, my intent is to inspire thinking about “moral conversation” across generations. It was inspired when I returned to the morality quadrant of the Catechism and the drift in modern catechetics toward a one-dimensional dependence upon moral teachings so economically taut that human experience and the life of conscience formation is practically extraneous. As early as 600 A.D. the Irish monks, the first true systematic moral theologians, recognized the complexity of human experience and sought to instill penitents with a wisdom of why their actions were wrong and how they might improve their consciences, often by the selection of a unique penance. [The “three Hail Mary” penances are an impoverished vestige from the day when an Irish sinner might be told to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.]
There are cases in the Irish penitential books where a man who kills another man will be instructed by his confessor to assume financial support for the dead man’s widow and children. One might quickly respond that this is simple justice, but the moral intent here was to convey the value of another man’s life and the irreparable grief and damage wrought upon to a family [probably an extended family.] To this degree a man in his relative youth acquires some sense of the evil he is capable of doing and the high stakes of the decisions he makes. I have to think that in our own time when Pope John Paul II reemphasized the priority of individual confession over communal rites, he hoped that wise confessors would also take this tack of teaching and conveying wisdom, but an overly enduring judicial approach to this sacrament [‘legal absolution”] has considerably reduced its ability to convey spiritual insight and moral wisdom. “Hearing confession” is an art; without the art it has the moving power of paying a parking ticket.
The same can be said for catechetics. In the Ashley Miller essay I cited above, the author makes another compelling point: “My own understanding of humanity and the human need for salvation is based more on all of my experience gained from reading about people and their emotions, downfalls, reactions, courage, and tenaciousness throughout history than by the facts laid out in a catechism class. Reading of humanity leads one first to the truth that salvation is needed, and also to the questions and answers of how to achieve salvation.”
“Reading of humanity” can be expanded into the present moment and into the existence of each of us as we assess our lifelong struggle to meet God and know the divine way through the wars we have waged with our sins. If we bear the least bit of insight and thoughtfulness, we would have to admit that we have learned a great deal from God and have amassed a wisdom of considerable value. How do we share that? Perhaps one step is being honest about how hard it has been to attain and live a measure of faith. Two years ago, the Catholic research center CARA released a landmark study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” The study noted that a statistically significant number of Catholics have made their minds up to disaffiliate by the age of 10!
This got me to wondering how I would address this phenomenon were I still pastoring today. Something I might experiment with—perhaps in place of post-initiation elementary school aged CCD—would be a circle of five fathers and five ten-year-old sons. Research shows that this youthful population thinks more intently and deeply about the Church than is generally believed. Let them talk. Let them lay out their questions and criticisms. We may not like what we hear, but we would already have accomplished a major goal in proving to them that they are affiliated, something that is usually taken for granted.
A second achievement would be the demonstration that matters of truth and morals can be talked about in language other than “church-ese.” [I dread reading ecclesiastical documents which typically come down in Rococo style.] A third would be the introduction of an adult population to the cultural jargon of the young. As a therapist in private practice I had a thriving “Goth” population; several of them, wearing “sneakers” created from black electricians’ tape, explained to me that the Goth community at the local high school was established to protect themselves from bullying and harassment from other students who were angry at classmates who liked study, the arts, and superior academic performance. I was into my 50’s then but quite naïve about the intensity of bullying.
What do adults bring to the table? For starters, some candid admissions that when we were ten, we couldn’t bear the Stations of the Cross, either. We, too, could barely see the altar, and we were scared, too, of bullies and gangs. We can introduce them, gradually, to grown up life, to how much we worried about how we were going feed them and hold on to jobs that we didn’t particularly like. We can talk about the peace and quiet we found in church when we lit a candle and asked God for help. In other words, share the meat and potatoes of a faith life and the way it got you through. With consideration for age appropriateness, it is fair game to talk about failure and how much it has cost in adult life.
The important point here is that the curiosity of youth has opportunity to intermingle with those who have labored some years in the heat of the day. What we used to call “community” can be better expressed as “talking.” For the foreseeable future I will use the Monday Morality stream to highlight key paragraphs of the Catechism [without the church-ese] in a fashion that allows us to face our ultimate meeting with God, with realism and hope as well as the pain of imperfect humanity we all bear in common.