1692 The Symbol of the faith confesses the greatness of God's gifts to man in his work of creation, and even more in redemption and sanctification. What faith confesses, the sacraments communicate: by the sacraments of rebirth, Christians have become "children of God," "partakers of the divine nature." Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life "worthy of the gospel of Christ." They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer.”
The term “symbol of the Faith,” is defined much earlier in the Catechism as “first and foremost the baptismal creed.” (para. 189) The flow of the paragraph defines the Nicene Creed as a narrative of the greatness of God in his saving gifts to mankind—creation, redemption, and sanctification. There is emphasis upon the sacraments of rebirth—Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist—as incorporating the new believer into the family of God and “partakers of the divine nature.” In this new state, the believer has had a change of identity, and thus flows the logical expectation that the reborn would then live a life “worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” The assistance to live this new life comes in the form of the “grace [gifts] of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit through sacraments and prayers.”
Para. 1692 is an excellent theological synopsis of the divine plan and the basis for living a moral life. From a catechetical perspective, the Catechism lifts the theological science of morality from an overly legalistic emphasis upon individual deeds and puts the emphasis where it is most appropriate—the saving and loving will of God, divine revelation through the Scripture, the role of the sacraments, and the free and undeserved interventions of Christ, in and through the Holy Spirit. Discussions of morality thus flow from the center of the Church’s life and interact with Christian faith most intimately.
I will not elaborate further upon the precise text here, because I think the logic of the statement—as theology based in faith—is clear enough for the reader. Rather, given that August 28 is the feast of St. Augustine, I want to look at para. 1692 for the question is does not and cannot answer: how is it that the all-powerful God, whose gifts and graces flow with divine plenty, oversees a planet of his creatures whose behaviors—the true dispositions of the heart—would appear to the human eye to be untouched by God’s grace.
This is one of the continuing debates in Christian life: God’s love and human intransigence. Many scholars see this question at the heart of the Reformation. Luther held that man is saved by faith, not works, though it is not clear from my limited reading of Luther if the Augustinian monk developed a “theory of refusal” of divine inspiration. John Calvin, in the next generation of Protestant reformers, addresses the question with a clarity unfamiliar to Catholic ears: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.” This, of course, is the famous doctrine of “predestination.”
But going back to Augustine (354-430 A.D.), we strike closer to what has been the Catholic understanding of the reconciliation of the two: “God orders all things while preserving human freedom.” However, how trustworthy is the mind and the emotion of the free human? Augustine would also write: “Out of the forward will lust had sprung; and lust pampered had become custom; and custom indulged had become necessity. These were the links of the chain; this is the bondage in which I was bound.” It seems likely that Augustine, baptized by the Church Father St. Ambrose of Milan, was disappointed that after his baptism-- dramatically described in Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism [2012) –he still felt tendencies to sin.
Augustine thought long and hard on the subject; moreover, the Pelagian controversy was in full flower, which held that humans could in effect save themselves by good works in imitation of Christ’s ministerial sojourn, thus making the crucifixion superfluous. Augustine thus developed a theology of sacraments and human moral experience that is arguably in full force to this day. He maintained that Adam’s sin in the Garden had been passed to every human being through sexual regeneration. Twentieth century scholars as a rule do not hold to the literal Adam bloodline of sin; the Catechism in para. 390 notes that the Adam account is “figurative language” but also that the entire human race from the beginning is marked by what it calls “original fault freely committed by our first parents.”
Baptism washes away the “original sin,” but it does not remove what Augustine called concupiscence (from the Latin, “to desire”) or the drive to sin. This is a statement of Augustine’s Christian anthropology: left to his or her own devices the human will sin egregiously and ultimately toward full damnation. Thus, the redemptive crucifixion of Christ and the sacraments that extend continuing forgiveness and redemption are absolutely necessary in Augustinian theology.
What neither Augustine nor any other Christian thinker could fully articulate was the disparity between the baptized: some immersed themselves in God’s mercy through faith, prayer, the sacraments, and good works. Others, then and today, clearly do not. Some of the postulated explanations over time have been less than satisfying. Does God give more help to some than others? Does the devil or the power of evil hold equal sway over the baptized (or all persons for that matter) so that morality is reduced to a tug-of-war between good and evil? Or was the Protestant reformer John Calvin correct in his sixteenth century assertion that God chose ahead of time those who would be saved, a theory popularly known as “predestination?” Calvin wrote: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”
Why do people sin, or behave immorally, at the cost of eternal damnation? I can only add my own partial analysis: the longer I live and the longer people share the complexity of their life stories with me as their therapist, the more I have grown to appreciate the uniqueness of each human being, particularly the mental dispositions and handicaps they endure. In recent years, I have studied personality disorders; some types, such as narcissism or antisocial personality disorder, portray themselves in actions, attitudes, and behaviors we would generally term immoral. That said, science is looking at the possibility that, unlike the mood disorders, personality disorders may be related to forms of “faulty brain wiring.” While I do not believe in predestination, I cannot totally dismiss Calvin’s observation that “all are not created on equal terms,” in multiple senses of meaning.
It is hard to understand God’s work among us when we do not fully understand ourselves.
1691 "Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God's own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God."
The embodiment of the Catholic moral teaching tradition is found in Section Three of the Catechism, “Life in Christ.” Section Three has points in common with universal historical wisdom, and the Church has made good use of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in the development of its own tradition—St. Augustine incorporated the thinking of all three of these pagan predecessors in his famous City of God in the fifth century. When pondering over or teaching Catholic morality, there is an important point to be made. The Catholic moral tradition is the response to a specific call from God embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. In this sense morality is the behavioral extension of faith in Christ and the Apostolic Tradition that extends into our own time.
At the same time, Catholic moralists of every age have understood that Christianity well-lived is the key to human fulfillment and right ordering of society. The teachings of the Catechism enumerate principles of universal application not limited to Catholic “in house” teachings. I was struck, for example, by paras. 2491 and 2492, which deal with secrecy, privacy, personal boundaries, and—surprise—the rights of political persons to privacy in their personal lives and freedom of invasion by “the media.” This reality puts incredible demands upon the Catholic community—not just the ordained leadership, but its scholars and laity as a whole—to remain at the forefront of history’s inexorable march forward.
It is in this light that the quotation which constitutes the entire introductory Paragraph 1691 comes from one of Christianity’s true giants, St. Leo the Great (r. 440-461). The importance of Leo in the development of Christology and Church governance can hardly be exaggerated. As a historical figure, Leo is remembered as the man to prevented Attila the Hun from overrunning Rome. In my childhood book of saints, I had a picture of Leo holding a monstrance with the Eucharist at the gate of Rome and blinding the ferocious men about to attack. The story as historians have pieced it together now is that Leo was the most outstanding of a three-man delegation who convinced Attila to turn back, possibly because Attila’s men had contacted the plague and some cash inducements were involved.
Given that the Vandals sacked Rome four years later, it is not his success with Attila for which Pope Leo came to be known as “the Great.” Rather, he took considerable strides in strengthening the position of the Bishop of Rome, which in the 400’s was often eclipsed by the patriarch Constantinople (Istanbul) and even Alexandria in Egypt. Leo accomplished this by reigning in regional churchmen who exercised full authority over their regions, notably in Gaul (France).
But for all his other duties, Leo was a masterful, inventive theologian who contributed significant doctrinal advancement in our theological and liturgical understanding of Jesus Christ. He constructed a treatise on the union of the divine and the human in Jesus, a document which states that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, with prejudice toward neither, and that these two natures merged perfectly in Jesus to form one fully operational person, or one psyche, as we might put it today. Or, as a professor of mine put it irreverently, Jesus was not schizophrenic, the divine constantly at war with the human.
This document, known as “The Tome of Leo,” was read by Leo’s representatives to the predominantly Greek, Eastern fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, who according to historians, jumped out of their seats and cried “this is what we believe!” Leo not only put the capstone on the Church’s doctrinal understanding of Jesus, but he went a long way toward establishing the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the leadership of the universal Church.
We are very lucky that several Leo’s sermons have survived to this day, and para. 1691 in its entirety is taken from a Christmas sermon. (Sermon 21) As sermons go, Leo’s Christmas preaching is relatively brief, three paragraphs. Within the first two, Leo summarizes the Christological doctrines of the Incarnation and Redemption—the full drama of God creating and saving mankind--in a remarkable window into what Christians believed in the fifth century. His commentary on the role of Mary is even more remarkable in that the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God had been promulgated in the Council of Ephesus only two decades earlier. He draws together the seriousness of forgiveness of sins in language befitting St. Augustine with joy at the intervention of God described so well by St. Paul.
The third paragraph is the challenge to his congregation to walk in the ways of the Savior. “Christian, acknowledge thy dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which thou art a member.” The systematic study of moral theology would develop in the next several centuries, in Rome with St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century and in the Irish monasteries of the seventh. But this Bishop of Rome has defined Christian morality as well as anyone before or after; to be moral, to be virtuous, is to become a partner in the Divine nature shared by Christ, to strive to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” as Matthew’s Gospel instructs. Reject backsliding into the old pre-baptism baseness of “degenerate conduct.” If the study of morality begins at a desk, the living of virtue begins on one’s knees.
During my three-week hiatus from the blog for vacation, I did a lot of thinking about picking up fresh as we enter the final days of summer, and specifically how to keep Morality Monday an invigorating entry. During the first week of vacation my wife and I rented a houseboat on a canal on the outskirts of Amsterdam, a cozy town called Sloten whose visual center is a working wooden windmill. Although we would take the tram every day into Amsterdam’s jumping Central City, our evenings were quiet for reading and nibbling on local Dutch cheeses. In those pleasant circumstances—where the sun did not set till after 10 PM—I had opportunity to think without a daily deadline. Regarding the Monday stream, for more than a year now I have used Monday’s post to describe the twentieth century’s development in Catholic moral teaching and methodology, centered around the post-World War II challenges to the Catholic way of life and the debates on contemporary morality theology surrounding Vatican II.
Since the Council, the academic discipline of Catholic moral theology has developed organically in multiple directions. The “classical” school or model—the system in place since the Council of Trent in the late 1500’s--continues to hold that the backbone of moral theology is a clearly defined body of propositions derived from the Sacred Scriptures and the authority of the Magisterium or teaching Church. Classical moral theology is conceived of as timeless, unchanging, and immune from history, though in truth it is formulated in the thirteenth century scholastic language of St. Thomas Aquinas, a format he himself inherited from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived four centuries before Christ. Official Catholic literature and texts follow this model, and it is the format of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
However, the classical model is not the only fashion in which Catholic moralists work, and the majority incorporate other working systems in discussing the human conduct of the faithful. The Catechism itself acknowledges what might be called an evangelical morality, a lifestyle in which the personal message and actions of Jesus become the North Star of constancy, as unpredictable as that might be in the doing. (‘Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”) In the latest issue of Commonweal (buried under a month of general household mail delivered Saturday) Massimo Faggioli describes the conversion to an adult moral/virtue life in terms of collective outbursts of enthusiasm and energy that respond to the temper of the times. Hence the resurgence of a simple but intense penitential and devotional life that burst into the thirteenth century with Francis of Assisi and Dominic Guzman. For want of a better word, I will refer to this as “evangelical morality,” shaped by spiritual intensity as much as propositional standards.
There is no denying that in the study of moral theology one is never immune from the historical moment, as an individual and as part of a culture. The classical Catholic moral structure has never been comfortable about acknowledging outside changeable elements. But, like it or not, personal and institutional moral thinking is a constant grappling with the elements. This morning, for example, who of us will not give the sad weekend events of Charlottesville personal reflection and judgment? And how will each of us behaviorally respond as baptized members of the Body of Christ?
Sound morality is always mindful of Plato’s sense of “politics,” i.e., how we live together and arrange ourselves in the public forum. The challenge to Christian preaching and moral persuasion—again, personally and institutionally--is engagement in the market square with all people of hungry hearts and good intentions. Gaillardetz and Hahnenberg in A Church with Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium (2015) cite the importance of the Church’s listening to worthy insight from individuals and cultures who by the Catechism’s own definition, have been created with an innate sense of the supernatural and the natural good. Open Doors suggests that previous concentrated efforts at evangelization have approached the task from a position of superiority, entering the public forum with answers to contemporary dilemmas that in some cases can at best be charitably called educated guesses. In terms of morality, some of our classical assertions are based upon Church authority as much as history, science, and human experience.
In other words, there are Catholic moralists at work right now who are listening to and assessing the personal data of a variety of populations to determine the best public proclamation of virtue from the Gospel and the Church. In my own school days (the early 1970’s) moral professors were introducing a model of morality that acquired an unfortunate handle, “liberation theology,” a tag that led many Catholics to associate this methodology with socialism and communism. Liberation Theology and its attendant moral system emerged from Central and South American regions with wide disparities between rich and poor, or “third world” circumstances. Liberation theologians interpreted the Bible and sacramental life as a drama of “deliverance” from oppression and injustice. The Catholic Church officially raised many concerns about such a style of theologizing, but lo and behold, many of the insights of Liberation theologians continue to influence the Church at large, notably the moral dictate of “preferential option for the poor.” Pope Francis incorporated these concerns into his Laudato Si of 2015.
Liberation theology is but one example of the continuing quest to understand God’s Revelation and to act upon it concretely (orthodoxy and orthopraxis, in moral shop talk). For our purposes here, I am concluding that the best format for weekly discussion of Catholic morality might be to use the text of the Catechism itself as a springboard for exploration of both the bedrock principles taught in Catholic textbooks and the new challenges and understandings that the Catechism, for many reasons, cannot fully address. This would not be a repeat of “Catechism Thursday;” rather, here we would jump ahead to Section Three of the Catechism, specifically paragraph 1691 and the many that follow.
The Catechism uses the format of the Ten Commandments in its organizational style, and it includes subjects such as the virtues and the formation of conscience in its moral treatment. I have given up trying to find a solitary moral textbook to recommend. In this new Monday format, I will have opportunity to do more targeted research to provide you with readings and links for your own interests and professional development.
The only fly in the ointment is that next Monday is the eclipse, and I plan to witness the event in totality from the campus of Clemson University. I will attempt to get next Monday’s post on the board before leaving. Having just found a pair of safe viewing glasses on-line in Germany, of all places, I am going to South Carolina next week. And speaking of morality, Amazon just emailed me to tell me it has refunded the full cost of our previously purchased eclipse glasses, having determined that the product was not safe for the eyes.