1700 The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God (article 1); it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude (article 2). It is essential to a human being freely to direct himself to this fulfillment (article 3). By his deliberate actions (article 4), the human person does, or does not, conform to the good promised by God and attested by moral conscience (article 5). Human beings make their own contribution to their interior growth; they make their whole sentient and spiritual lives into means of this growth (article 6). With the help of grace they grow in virtue (article 7), avoid sin, and if they sin they entrust themselves as did the prodigal son1 to the mercy of our Father in heaven (article 8). In this way they attain to the perfection of charity.
Paragraph 1700 is a summary statement of the human moral life, providing the organization of principles the Catechism will employ in laying out the Church’s teaching. Since each of these articles will be treated in detail in future parts of the Catechism, I will not go into specific commentary of each point just yet.
Rather, I would like to step back and look at the moral project as a whole. Catholic moral teaching is a culture unto itself. It presupposes the existence of God and the reality of a metaphysical world beyond the obvious. Catholic morality was not designed for utilitarian or practical living, but as the embodiment of a relationship to the divine and a world beyond this one.
If you are an adult Catholic taking stock of your “moral standing,” the quest begins with your conception of God. Today’s theologians criticize—in a reverential way—the efforts of the medievalists St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas to prove propositionally the existence of God. In high school I thought I had grasped at least one of Thomas’s “proofs”, that being the chain of causality to a first creator, but later I discovered that Thomas had developed this method from Aristotle,” who is famous for his projection of a “First Mover.” In either case, these “proofs” thrived primarily in the universe of mathematicians and logicians—and later in a Church structure seeking impregnable certainty against its enemies. The propositional method of finding God had little use for experiential searching, notably mysticism. That Martin Luther was a critic of scholastic/propositional theology and very much a mystic will feature in our later discussion of the Reformation.
If someone is not moved to belief in God by logical proof or dialectic persuasion, what other channels are there? I can think of two: mysticism and human interaction. I can state unequivocally that I am not a mystic in the sense of Thomas Merton or those mysterious communities of late medieval times, the Rhineland Mystics, who influenced Luther. “Mystics” are those fortunate individuals who experience life on a different plane of experience, much like a poet. The sources of their knowledge are internal, as they intentionally remove themselves from the world’s many distractions. Mysticism has always been a challenge to the Church, as its most profound adherents have claimed their ground of spiritual life from internal communion with God as much as from structured Church worship and devotion.
I have known very few true mystics in my life, but I have known many individuals who have joined Catholic religious orders, communities, or faith groups built around a regimen of intense prayer and contemplation/meditation. I have little doubt that dedication to a life of prayer produces a sense of the holy that few of us will ever know, an “experience beyond experience.” The fact that such individuals live and worship within the parameters of the Catholic family is an assurance to them that their religious experiences are not “off the reservation” of Revelation and sanity. In and out of my office I have encountered “mystics” whose actual experiences may have generated from psychosis, based on other clinical cues; therefore, the Church is very slow to accept claims of visions and “messages from God.”
The best description of contemporary mystical life probably comes from Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1949). Curiously, Merton himself was a poet and English professor at St. Bonaventure University (we both drew paychecks from the same school, though SBU got much more for the money with Merton.) Merton’s autobiography describes a man searching for meaning, a quest which led him to the monastery of Gethsemane in Kentucky. Merton undercut the old belief that prayer and mysticism guaranteed tranquility; his monastic life opened his eyes to his own sins, to be sure, but also to the “sin of the world;” American racism and militarism galvanized his final years. He died in 1968, as the United States involvement in Viet Nam.
Merton was a voracious letter-writer, a remarkable achievement for a cloistered monk whose highly structured community responsibilities included property reforestation, and he maintained many close friendships for a man who had left the world. One of his early works No Man Is an Island (1962, 2010) gives a hint of a third experience of God, encounter with people who inspire us to go beyond where we are.
I would formerly use the word “community” to express this divine possibility, but the word has been stretched like taffy to cover so many dimensions of life that its coinage has been significantly diminished. The better word for our purposes here might be “intimacy,” in the sense of knowing and observing another person’s goodness well enough that we cannot help but be prompted to look for something better. In discussions at AA meetings on the choice of a sponsor, newbies are told to look around the group and find someone “who has what they want.”
This is not exactly a new idea on my part. Para. 1700 says next to nothing on the interaction of peoples in the quest for grace; in the text given here, everyone is a sole islander in a quest for the ways of a God who is profoundly mysterious. Yet, since the fourth century the Church has sanctioned communities of believers who have left the world in a common search for an invisible God. Perhaps more to the point for most of us, we have entered our own religious communities with a life-long partner, and in our search for God we do tend to overlook the most influential help-mate and fellow traveler.
Marriage was not called a sacrament till after the first millennium, when early medieval theologians began to plumb the full nature of the relationship of a man and a woman, and when European culture developed chivalry, romantic poetry, and Marian devotion. The teaching of Jesus that the “two become one flesh” was better understood, and Vatican II formalized the dual relationship in marriage as both procreative and unitive in the document Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope).
The mutual selection of a spouse is life’s most important decision; modern day sacramental theology explains that marriage is the only sacrament conferred by partners upon each other, with each making a pledge to redeem and cherish the best of the other. I am a better man because of my wife; she is an energized Christian with a boundless capacity good works—organized and spontaneous, disciplined, and devoted to professional excellence. Her concern for me is a hint of what a higher power must feel for me, or at least how I hope my God feels about me. In my existential quest for God, I would be foolish to overlook the clues of a loving God in my own household.
Deep committed friendships, of the sort we are lucky to find a few times in a lifetime, are similar in their power to signal something greater in this universe. It is true, of course, that marriages and friendships must navigate periods of difficulty, but mystics sometimes admit to the same thing; both St. Teresa of Avila and Mother Teresa have left us with accounts of feeling totally isolated from God. St. John of the Cross talks of the Dark Night of the Soul. And even the medieval masters of logic and proposition doubted themselves. Aquinas reported waved his hand over his entire literary output and declared it to be “all straw.”
Philosophers, Mystics, Lovers: Merton was right that in the search for the absolute of being, no one is ever an island of absolute certainty. Our doubts, and perhaps more to the point, our worry about our inability to find God, is the proof that God exists and that the moral life is worth the anguish.
1699 Life in the Holy Spirit fulfills the vocation of man (chapter one). This life is made up of divine charity and human solidarity (chapter two). It is graciously offered as salvation (chapter three).
For 27 years of my life I was associated with the Franciscan Order, ten as a student in formation, and seventeen as a solemnly professed friar. Back when I was thirteen in the eighth grade, I received acceptance letters to the seminaries of both the Franciscans (Holy Name Province, based in New York City) and the Diocese of Buffalo. I chose the friars—as much as a 13-year-old can make an intelligent decision about anything—because the Order was presented to me as a way of life that offered endless job opportunities. That was true: there are parts of Bolivia that owe its highways to the energies of a Franciscan philosophy teacher and engineer named “Tex.” I was not cut out to blaze trails on the Altiplano, but the Franciscans offered a very wide range of ministerial opportunities and locations.
Shortly after I entered the seminary in 1962, in fact about a month later, the Council Vatican II opened in Rome, and like most Catholics I did not see how its deliberations would impact me and my Order. One of the Council’s lesser known documents is Perfectae Caritatis (“on perfect love”) promulgated in 1965, on the renewal of religious orders. The Council directed religious orders to revisit the original founding charism and intent of the founders, such that the Franciscans would return to the original life of Francis—who was not a cleric, who believed in a brotherhood of penance for sin, and who chose to live as poor, with only the meager necessity of life.
When I entered the seminary, and for a generation after, the Order consisted primarily of priests living middle class lives (and occasionally above.) It is ironic, looking back, how the missionaries like Tex were respected within the community, because they lived poor lives and made many sacrifices. Gradually, through its three-year general meetings or chapters, my province of the order labored for many years to square the circle of Francis’ simple vision vis-à-vis the complex environment of first-world America and the numerous fraternal and ministerial commitments entrusted to it by many bishops. In many respects, departures and deaths simplified the process some, but gradually every friar had to make a conscious decision about his personal renewal and return to the basic vision of Francis.
I got my wake-up call in the mid-1980’s when, while pastoring in central Florida, I received a call from the governing board of the order informing me that I was its choice as superior of the province’s flagship church and governing center in mid-town Manhattan. To be honest, it was a well-intentioned but poorly informed choice. I remember telling the board via phone conference that I had only been to the motherhouse twice in my life for a grand total of two overnight visits. “Why, I don’t even know where the bathrooms are!” I wailed. To which someone on the board replied, “Well, we can show you the bathrooms.” Eventually the board let me off the hook, but not without cost: I did agree to serve on the personnel board, which meant a monthly flight to NYC for the meetings. [And true to form, for my first meeting I got lost looking for the church coming in from LaGuardia. I stopped at a fire house to ask for help—and the crew had a good laugh because the church was across the street. Later, the friar chaplain of that firehouse would be none other than Father Mychel Judge, the first responder killed at the Towers on 9/11.]
The experience with my order rattled me. I was 37, and I knew that other requests for leadership roles would soon be coming. I liked Florida and my comfortable life here. I was building a church and serving my diocese here as president of the priests’ council. It would be harder and harder to put off the bosses up north. But that raised another question: I was a solemnly professed friar—I had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience back when I was 24. My order had the right to ask me to move and take new responsibilities; in the spirit of Francis, I had promised my unwavering obedience, among other things, in the manner described in Perfectae Caritatis. To play a prolonged cat-and-mouse game with my order was a significant departure from the intent of the founder.
I can’t say that this full insight came all at once. In fact, it would be another half-dozen years before a very insightful therapist, an Episcopal woman referred by my MD, brought home to me the mental health dangers of living a contradiction. I am grateful to this therapist who provided the Vatican with significant information about my life, with which Rome concurred in its processes of exclaustration (release from vows) and laicization from the priesthood which both took place with dispatch. The fact that I am an introvert with a tendency to think outside the box (determined by psychological testing, where I scored high on the schizophrenic measure) did not get me “off the hook” in terms of the need to craft a new moral/spiritual blue print by which to live and arrange my life. I joke with those who ask that I am more at peace as a “mediocre layman” than as a “lousy friar-priest” but as in all humor there is much truth. Now, twenty years removed from active ministry, my life is arranged around my marriage, my teaching ministries in catechetics, and my second career as a psychotherapist.
Awakening a foundational spirituality has been more of a challenge, though I can honestly say that my understanding of Franciscan spirituality was marginal back in the day of first choices. Oddly, I have gone back to Franciscan sources in later life, but excellent works like Augustine Thompson, O.P., Francis of Assisi: A New Bibliography (2012) have made me realize that my call (or “spiritual gestalt”) is elsewhere. In the light of today’s post, my 2014 review of Thompson’s biography is more self-revelatory than usual.
Paragraph 1699 is an introduction into the treatment of virtuous life and behavior. It speaks from the very basic principle that the life’s vocation of man—his sense of spiritual identity—is intimately bound with the Holy Spirit. This life in the Spirit is bound “by divine charity and human solidarity.” Or, put another way, love of God and love of neighbor. In one sense we of the Christian household are alike in this universal truth. On the other hand, the New Testament writers speak of “charisms” or unique gifts conferred by Baptism and Confirmation; one might call charisms God’s recognition of the complexity of each human being.
Consequently, when we talk of spirituality/morality (as the Catechism does) it is true that there are sins and evils that, objectively speaking, poison the entire pool of human experience. On the other hand, given the open-ended invitation of Christ to live virtuously, as in the Eight Beatitudes, it is also true than everyone seeking God consciously chooses a unique lifestyle of living the Gospel, which is shaped by the natural gifts and wisdom bestowed uniquely upon each person. Each of us, then, hold our basic commitment in our hands (what the theologians call “fundamental option”), struggling to understand it and working to live consistently what we understand ourselves to be. The first step in Catholic morality, then, is understanding the charisms God has bestowed upon us. As in my case, and probably in yours, our vision and our execution stand under the old Reformation phrase semper reformanda, always in need of reform.
1698 The first and last point of reference of this [moral] catechesis will always be Jesus Christ himself, who is "the way, and the truth, and the life."24 It is by looking to him in faith that Christ's faithful can hope that he himself fulfills his promises in them, and that, by loving him with the same love with which he has loved them, they may perform works in keeping with their dignity:
I ask you to consider that our Lord Jesus Christ is your true head, and that you are one of his members. He belongs to you as the head belongs to its members; all that is his is yours: his spirit, his heart, his body and soul, and all his faculties. You must make use of all these as of your own, to serve, praise, love, and glorify God. You belong to him, as members belong to their head. And so he longs for you to use all that is in you, as if it were his own, for the service and glory of the Father.
For to me, to live is Christ.
I did look down the road at the next several Catechism texts, and our immediate focus will be two-fold: treatment of human anthropology—man as an acting being—and the ultimate morality of Christ, the Eight Beatitudes. The Catechism presupposes a commitment to and a belief in Jesus Christ. One may ask if, given this parameter, how do we draw specifics from Jesus’ own life and teachings, and how do we apply them to our own moral dilemmas?
When the Catechism speaks of Jesus Christ as “the first and last point of reference” in matters of morality, it is referring to the Christ of the Scriptures and the Tradition of Church teaching flowing from centuries of collective worship and thought. The Catechism’s treatment of morality is a formal statement of the Christian rationale of how men and women ought to live. Para. 1698 deals with motivation (an interior disposition) and behavior (the “works” in keeping with the dignity of a Christ believer.)
I came across an interesting PBS 2014 piece on “millennial religion’” which is consistent with other journal essays across the board. It is worth viewing or reading the transcript if you are a parent or minister. Millennials do seek religious experience, and some embrace evangelical Christianity, but observers note this generation’s tendency to separate communion with the divine from ethics. The pastor in this PBS clip put it this way: “Yeah, you see I don’t ever come out and say I am pro-same-sex marriage or I am against same-sex marriage. What we want to do is love everyone. Our job is not to change people; our job is to connect people to Jesus, and it’s Jesus’ job to change people.”
This pastor has narrowed down Christian ethics to “love everyone” and let Jesus do the heavy lifting. He is not precise on the kinds of change Jesus is supposed to effect upon people, attitudinally or behaviorally. This is not a new idea, as the pastor seems to think it is. In the mid-1950’s Dr. Joseph Fletcher, then an Episcopal priest and moralist, broke into academic discourse with a school of moral theology under the title of his most famous work, Situation Ethics (1966). SE is a well-developed system, but at its root the overriding principle is “do the loving thing.” Fletcher was antinomian; he did not hold to free-standing principles of behavior derived from religion or philosophy.
As a theology student majoring in morality at the time, I gained some familiarity with Fletcher’s thinking. In nearly every critical book review then and now of Situation Ethics, the same concerns are raised. Fletcher bases his theory on the Gospel of John 13: 34-35; “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This may be comforting to the minister I quoted above. Any biblical scholar would note, however, that Jesus was specific on a number of matters involving human conduct. Moreover, Jesus was not antinomian in Fletcher’s sense. Matthew 5:17 quotes Jesus as coming not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to bring them to fulfillment. Jesus was critical of some legal tenets—laws involving uncleanness, for example--and the casuistry employed in circumventing other precepts—and many Catholic moralists would later address similar concerns—but he understood religious law as part and parcel of creation.
Catholic moral theology has inherited Jesus’ understanding of creation as the expression of God’s wisdom. The opening of the Bible itself, the Book of Genesis, describes God bringing order to material chaos; in today’s lingo we would speak of a well-ordered universe in a holistic sense. Biblical Jews did not split the world into “religious doctrine” and scientific or experiential reality. Biblical theology views God’s creation reaching into every segment of life. Jeremiah 15:16 puts this reality into prayer: “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart's delight, for I bear your name, Lord God Almighty.”
The Judeo-Christian unity of creation and morality did not smoothly pass into our times, as the early Church was influenced by various forms of a heresy called Manichaeism, which held that spiritual and immaterial reality was good, and created matter—included the human body—was evil, or at least inferior. There are traces of Manichee thought in St. Augustine, particularly in his treatment of sexuality and reproduction. However, the unity of faith and observable reality was reestablished by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Aquinas’ thought and systems were declared the bedrock of Catholic thought in the nineteenth century, and no Catholic theologian today in any disciple enters the workplace without a grasp of Aquinas’ unity of all things, divine and human.
The Catechism is no exception, and in para. 1698 we see the marriage of an invisible Christic faith with an external life of Christian works. This is not to say that the Catechism will always be eternally correct in its moral assertions; grace and time do their work, and I would expect to see a revisiting of catechetical language and assertions on homosexuality, for example. But Catholicism does have the advantage of addressing the full gamut of life—in the spirit and in the flesh. Religious experience without ethics is still a life without ultimate direction.
1697 Catechesis has to reveal in all clarity the joy and the demands of the way of Christ. Catechesis for the "newness of life" in him should be:
- a catechesis of the Holy Spirit, the interior Master of life according to Christ, a gentle guest and friend who inspires, guides, corrects, and strengthens this life;
- a catechesis of grace, for it is by grace that we are saved and again it is by grace that our works can bear fruit for eternal life;
- a catechesis of the beatitudes, for the way of Christ is summed up in the beatitudes, the only path that leads to the eternal beatitude for which the human heart longs;
- a catechesis of sin and forgiveness, for unless man acknowledges that he is a sinner he cannot know the truth about himself, which is a condition for acting justly; and without the offer of forgiveness he would not be able to bear this truth;
- a catechesis of the human virtues which causes one to grasp the beauty and attraction of right dispositions towards goodness;
- a catechesis of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, generously inspired by the example of the saints;
- a catechesis of the twofold commandment of charity set forth in the Decalogue;
- an ecclesial catechesis, for it is through the manifold exchanges of "spiritual goods" in the "communion of saints" that Christian life can grow, develop, and be communicated.
Paragraph 1697 is one of the lengthier entries in the Catechism, but coming as it does at the opening of the treatment of morality, it lays out the philosophy of the Church’s mission in this realm. It is a major improvement over the catechetical efforts of previous centuries, which rested primarily upon the cataloguing of sins in moral manuals and simplified into the catechisms of my school days.
In its introduction, para. 1697 defines the moral life of the Church as “the joy and the demands of the way of Christ.” Like all aspects of life and theology, Christ rests at the center. There are other systems of wholesome behavior in the world—Aristotle’s ethics is a good example, laid out in fine detail at the Stanford University website, or Cicero’s Stoicism of the Roman era. From a Christian vantage point, these philosophies, while admirable, suffer from one insurmountable flaw. While they can describe and direct “the good life,” they are not in themselves able to make full connection with God’s Revelation in Jesus Christ, and thus they are not capable in themselves of delivering the “joy” described in para. 1697, i.e., life after death. This does not render philosophy useless; on the contrary, the thinking of Aristotle on virtue and habit is deeply imbedded in Catholic life, thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas and his successors.
Let us look at the moral life, or “newness of life,” as the Catechism puts it, on a point-to-point discussion. The introduction of the “catechesis of the Holy Spirit” is brilliant. Although we talk about the Holy Spirit, and even profess faith in that same Spirit at Mass, there is an instructional vagueness about the role of the Spirit in the life of the Church, institutionally and individually. The later Gospels and Acts of the Apostles speak of the Spirit as Christ’s enduring presence—again, within us as individuals and as an institution. The Church as a whole has tended to emphasize the Spirit’s role in corporate leadership over individual inspiration, probably from a fear of doctrinal or devotional chaos. But in fact, the Spirit lives and breathes in both, and for the individually baptized the quest for a moral life is communion with the Spirit’s intent.
The Catechism speaks of “grace.” I am constantly amazed that this term, a staple of every Catechism for centuries, is unknown to even catechists today. Grace, from the Greek charis for gift, is the direct outpouring of God’s love that makes it possible for us to entertain the possibility of an eternal life. The idea of grace is one of the disputed issues of the Reformation. Luther held that God’s justification was a gift exclusive of the labors of men (as in buying indulgences, for example.) Catholics hold that indeed justification or grace is God’s gift, but that we must cooperate with the gift by faith and deeds to be saved.
In responding to God’s gift of justification/grace, the Catechism cites the Eight Beatitudes, those open-ended commands of charity and virtue. It is interesting that the Beatitudes precede the catechesis of “sin and forgiveness,” as well as the Decalogue, which had been the primary business of Catholic morality for many centuries. The issue of sin and forgiveness is worded in such a way as to emphasize the human need to admit guilt and failure by the lights of Scripture and the Church’s experience of two millennia. The road gets bumpy here as, from time to time, there are conflicting interpretations of moral choices of personal conduct and the way they are taught, but as laid out here, such differences are secondary to the strength of commitment to live in the Spirit, and difficult moral decisions are made in the light of a sincere faith.
Para. 1697 goes on to speak of a catechesis of human virtues. One might call this a formation to think as Christ does on matters of justice, temperance, peace-making, prudence, etc. such that our dispositions tend naturally toward the Christic way. There will be a focus on the primary virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The “two-fold” commandment of charity is the Old Testament’s call to love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Finally, the Catechism speaks of “an ecclesial catechesis,” or an examination of the function of the Church itself in the role of moral formation. The text indicates that by living “with the Church” many have indeed gone on to sainthood, and that organic unity of believers is indispensable for the Church to thrive. Para. 1697 does not spell out the breadth of its meaning of Christianity—that is, how does the Roman Catholic communion relate to other Christian bodies. Given the insistence of unity by Christ in John’s Gospel, among other places, and the teachings of Vatican II on the role of the Spirit in separated Christian churches, it is hard to imagine the Catholic Church going it alone in the quest to generate a moral society. If anything, the ecumenical possibilities in shared moral concerns are probably one area where a real unity can take root.