1696 The way of Christ "leads to life"; a contrary way "leads to destruction." The Gospel parable of the two ways remains ever present in the catechesis of the Church; it shows the importance of moral decisions for our salvation: "There are two ways, the one of life, the other of death; but between the two, there is a great difference."21
Paragraph 1696 draws heavily (footnote 21) from an ancient Christian work, the Didache, an early Christian manual of living the Baptismal life of Christ. (The term Didache means “teaching.”) As we can see in the text, the Didache is famous for its metaphor of the fork in the road: one chooses either the way of Christ, which leads to life, or one chooses the way of destruction, which leads to death. Some scholars date this work to the first century, other later. What is clear is that the existence of the text was not immediately known to the universal Church, and I believe this is one reason the Didache was not included in the formation of the New Testament canon around 200 A.D.
This document was not exhaustively covered in my schooling, so reading it this morning was an eye-opening surprise. I hope you have a chance to at least browse the four-page link or to save it, for it occurred to me that the Didache is the earliest moral commentary that resembles what we might call today a moral code or catechism. It is a terse catechism of the baptized life: it cuts to the chase with a detailed account (sections 1-6) of the thoughts and actions that lead to spiritual death, as well as the actions of one in communion with Christ. In short, it is a highly moralistic document, though it includes instructions on the liturgy—with two primitive Eucharistic Prayers—and directives for the emerging roles of teachers, apostles, and prophets, offices recognized in the early Church.
I am presently listening to a biography of the NFL coach Bill Parcells, aka “The Big Tuna.” Parcells was and is a blunt man. On assessing sports performance, he was accustomed to saying “You are what your record says you are.” In its treatment of morality, the Didache is specific on “the record” by which the Christian will be judged. With six of its nine paragraphs devoted specifically to conduct, there is little doubt that the earliest Christian thinking on morality focused upon its visibility. A baptized person looked and acted in a “countercultural way.” “See how they love one another” is a phrase attributed to pagan outsiders who observed the fellowship and deportment of baptized Christians.
Very recent research has found that young adults, specifically those returning to church or committing to one for the first time—express enthusiasm over discovering God, but as a rule see no connection between faith in God and ethics. That should not come as too much of a shock; every generation of religious practitioners falls into this trap. In the morbid but fascinating HBO series “The Sopranos,” young AJ tells his father—a Mafia don—that he doesn’t believe in Confirmation. His father replies that he needs to discuss this faith problem with his sponsor—a hitman and heroin dealer. Come to think of it, the entire Soprano crime family was “Catholic”—even Pauly Walnuts and Uncle Junior—but with little or no manifestation of the faith in "the family business.".
The Didache is remarkable because it is not particularly spiritual or “other worldly.” It is impossible to read this text and maintain the illusion that what I do or experience in church has no bearing or connectedness to every other facet of my life. It is no secret that our country is in the spasm of division right now, as is our Catholic Church in some quarters (Here and here.). As a Catholic myself, I am always asking myself what I can do to make things better—or what not to do to make things worse, usually in response to Facebook posts. The “culture divide” has even split families—including, unfortunately, my own—and has probably raised my systolic and diastolic pounding.
What wisdom would the early church’s first and second century sense of the moral bring to our time, particularly as laid out in the Didache? From the text itself, we find “Be not prone to anger, for anger leads to murder. Be neither jealous, nor quarrelsome, nor of hot temper, for out of all these murders are engendered.” And in another place, “Do not long for division, but rather bring those who contend to peace.” Our earliest moral tradition addresses the affection and interaction of those who worship the same God; it is less preoccupied with the staked-out positions of the protagonists. It is an interesting work of editing that these texts appear before the instructions of baptizing and the breaking of the Eucharistic bread.
I might add here a personal aside. Living away from family, and with no children of my own, I am constantly mindful that, statistically speaking, as I progress into my eighth decade I may potentially be a very lonely man. Bill Parcells may be right: “Usually older players, late in the season, start to get cold.” As I navigate stresses in relationships, I remind myself over and over that down the road I will need the camaraderie of enduring friendship more than I need the satisfaction of always being right (which is an illusion, anyway.) Christianity, certainly an endangered species at its inception, must have felt much the same way among its faithful family. It may be wrong to think of the Didache’s “way of death,” as just another idiom for misery beyond the grave.
1695 "Justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God," "sanctified . . . [and] called to be saints,” Christians have become the temple of the Holy Spirit. This "Spirit of the Son" teaches them to pray to the Father and, having become their life, prompts them to act so as to bear "the fruit of the Spirit" by charity in action. Healing the wounds of sin, the Holy Spirit renews us interiorly through a spiritual transformation. He enlightens and strengthens us to live as "children of light" through "all that is good and right and true."
The opening paragraphs on Catholic morality in the Catechism continue to reinforce the entire spectrum of the human life. Para. 1695 incorporates the Scripture, the sacraments (notably here, Confirmation), an internal and constant dedication to prayer, and good works. The portrait of the virtuous Christian depicted here is inspiring and attractive, and its wisdom on the nature of moral discussion is sorely needed today.
Jesus himself, in teachings passed along to us through the Scriptures and Apostles, stressed the apex of the virtuous life as a holistic consumption into the life of God. As a devout Jew, he revered the Law of Israel; as the prophet of the new and coming kingdom of God, he understood his mission as the fulfillment of the Law, or better, proclaiming a faith identity in which observance was a precondition, not the product. Nowhere is this brought home more clearly than in Mark 10: 17-31, where an idealistic man asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus reminds him of the Commandments, but the man replies that he has observed these laws from his youth.
Mark continues that at this juncture Jesus looked upon the man with love, ready to invite him into a full communion with the heavenly Father and a life of all-consuming virtue. He tells the man to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor, and then to come and follow Jesus. The man went away disheartened, for “he had great possessions.” The tension between the call of perfection and the limitations of our courage has been a subject of much reflection over the entire life of the Church. As I wrote in last Monday’s post, Catholicism and its sacramental life addresses the life-long battle that wages within an honest soul, between how I actually live and the ideal life I am called to live.
My old seminary friend—now a deacon in Honduras—posted a quote yesterday on Facebook from St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1641). Bellarmine, a Vatican cardinal, is better known to historians for his dealings with Galileo, but he found time to write devotionals which were translated into many languages. One of his best is The Art of Dying Well, a common genre of the time. Bellarmine, approaching his own death at the time of composition, describes in straightforward terms the kinds and means of virtue that a man of the world must cultivate as he prepares for judgment. Yesterday’s Facebook quote deals with the rich: "If anyone would contend that these superfluous goods are not to be given to the poor out of the rigor of the law, one cannot truly deny that they are to be given to them out of charity, for it matters little, God knows, whether one goes to hell for lack of justice or for lack of charity.” Curiously, Bellarmine’s counsel was attacked by another curial official of the day for the suggestion that having too much superfluous money was immoral.
Bellarmine’s quote resonates well with the above-cited passage from Mark 10. A moral life cannot be “compartmentalized.” Any attempt at living Gospel morality is an invitation to God to shape the thoughts and deeds of every aspect of life. Para. 1695 expresses this truth through the theology of the Holy Spirit: “This "Spirit of the Son" teaches them [Christians] to pray to the Father and, having become their life, prompts them to act so as to bear ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ by charity in action.”
There are many “moral issues” that consume an inordinate amount of attention, and no less intense anger and division within the Church. Some of these we will encounter as we work through the Catechism and other forums in future posts. I have long been a believer that such trench fighting is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. Rectitude is the fruit of devotion, of a life in the Spirit freely given. It is no accident that Confirmation, the sacramental possession by the Spirit of the fledgling Christian, is celebrated as an initiation sacrament. As the paragraph indicates, it is the life of the Spirit within us who “enlightens and strengthens us to live as ‘children of light’ through all that is good and right and true."
1694 Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, Christians are "dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" and so participate in the life of the Risen Lord. Following Christ and united with him, Christians can strive to be "imitators of God as beloved children, and walk in love" by conforming their thoughts, words and actions to the "mind . . . which is yours in Christ Jesus," and by following his example.
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.
1693 Christ Jesus always did what was pleasing to the Father, and always lived in perfect communion with him. Likewise, Christ's disciples are invited to live in the sight of the Father "who sees in secret," in order to become "perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."
No matter how much you try to talk around it, the moral life is hard. Last Sunday's Gospel from St. Matthew on the cost of discipleship (see August 29 post) is a very recent reminder. Perhaps there was some limited advantage to the Church’s catechetics of past generations that taught morality as the avoidance of sin—or as some would say, particularly sins of the sixth and ninth commandment variety. At least there was clarity and modest, measurable outcomes. Profound virtue—although this was never said directly—was the provenance of clergy and religious. Laity, to use a baseball analogy, were charged with advancing the base runner. Only “religious” swung for the fences where holiness was concerned.
Thanks to the biblical scholarship of the past several centuries, the command of Christ to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” and the open-ended commands of the beatitudes have moved discussion of morality from legality to personality. The nature of morality in the 21st century is identity with Christ, who “always did what was pleasing to the Father.” A catechetics of morality based upon para. 1693 is much more of a challenge, because in the final analysis there is a call to give up one’s very life in favor of the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth.
We know from the Sunday creed—and from the brilliant teaching of Pope Leo I in 451 A.D.—that Jesus is the mixing of two natures, the divine and the human, in one operational psyche. Leo stated that this is as far as we can go in describing the identity and life of Christ. In my youth, and probably in many learning settings even today, the emphasis is placed upon Jesus’ divinity over his humanity. There are historical reasons for this; imaginative theologians of the nineteenth century described Jesus as an itinerant apocalyptic preacher, announcing the end of the world. Others depicted Jesus as the ultimate do-gooder, the unintentional inspiration of the “Social Gospel.” Papal pronouncements of the nineteenth and early 20th centuries naturally countered such trends with emphasis upon Jesus’ divinity.
But the Creed states that Jesus is fully human, and we ignore that at our peril. Every philosopher has a definition of what it means to be a human being, but few could argue that common characteristics of humanity include the limitations of space and time. The human Jesus could not know the future, though he could certainly study the past. If Jesus did know the future in its entirety while here on earth, his offering of his death upon the cross would not have saved us, because his trust in his Father’s deliverance could not be absolute if he knew the end game. Calvary was a total risk for Jesus, and thus the ultimate statement of love of God and humanity.
Jesus had to navigate his human experience with a moral determination, just as other human beings do. In college, one of my daffy friends wrote on a religion test that because he was a man Jesus was subjected to wicked thoughts and lustful desires. Our professor read the answer to the class, and then proclaimed “heresy!” We had a good laugh at the time, but there is an underlying reality that Jesus indeed had to make moral decisions. The Gospels describe several of these, most notably in John 2: 13-17 where Jesus vents his anger against mercantile Temple practices. The peculiar think about this episode is verse 15, “he made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple.” In other words, he sat and crafted a weapon; in a court of law the term is “premeditated.”
So why is Jesus’ deliberate violent act of overturning the tables of money changers not a sin, particularly when we are told frequently to control our passions, including anger? The answer is given in the response of the disciples, who recalled Psalm 69: 8-9: “I have become an outcast to my kindred, a stranger to my mother’s children. Because zeal for your house has consumed me, I am scorned by those who scorn you.” The human Jesus, who had heard this Psalm many times, applied it to a nest of corruption and scandal that desecrated not just the sacred site but made access to worship unduly burdensome to those from foreign lands who attempted to make offerings with their native script.
Given that God raised his son to full glory at his right hand, the decisions of Jesus were totally ratified by the Father. The fact that these decisions were made with human freedom and limitation is the heart of the doctrine of the Incarnation: Jesus has shown the eternal will through the human medium; he has illuminated the full potential of the created human. He created a bridge from the imperfect created world to the infinite glory of the Father by showing us the moral path to walk.
To become “moral,” one adopts a virtuous style of living. Aristotle held that one is more likely to achieve a good life through habit and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction. Your neighborhood AA group puts it less elegantly: “fake it till you make it.” There is considerable truth to this; in catechetics we spend considerable time teaching young people what they should do over and over. In the Christian framework, the Scriptures are rich in example of the kinds of behaviors we need to repeat to please the Father, which is why Catholic morality must be rooted in Scripture.
Catholic tradition has always held that the consolation and the help of God is at the ready for those who call upon him; therefore, the final section of the Catechism will focus upon prayer and communion with God. Para. 1693 introduces the discussion of morality upon the twin pillars of the example of Christ in the Scripture and communion with God in prayer and purpose. To know God is to act like Him.