1705 By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an "outstanding manifestation of the divine image."
As a catechist I have always felt a little queasy about introducing the word “freedom” into any learning setting, because the theological term “freedom” is not quite the same as the American or Western meaning of the term. The religious sense goes back to St. Paul, who speaks of “freedom from the Law.” The American sense speaks of freedom to do, as in freedom of speech, bearing arms, voting, and drinking (but don’t do them all at once). Consequently, when religion classes or sermons announce that as creatures of God we are free, what we hear is that we are free to do a lot of things, and a teacher or a preacher must quickly back track with the old “but you are only free to do good things.” If we are endowed with freedom, it sometimes feels like Ralphie’s Christmas gift from an elderly relative—the homemade rabbit pajamas with the feet.
St. Paul’s discussion of freedom has as its context the emergence of Christianity from Jewish practice, a major theme in Paul’s letters. In Paul’s view of things, the gifts bestowed by God included a freedom of the conscience brought about by the power of Christ’s cross to conquer sin. Paul understood the revolutionary nature of God’s intervention as a renewal of humanity, and the power of God’s grace as without equal. His argument with Jewish Law and practice was its underlying claim to save by observance, and its clean division of observant from outsider.
The prophetic insight that salvation was universal in nature was apparently not a staple of Jewish thought and practice at the time of Jesus, who himself was severely criticized for his excess of mercy beyond religious, ethnic, and cultural boundaries. Nor did the Apostles first grasp the implications of this universalism, either. It was Paul, the Church’s true first theologian, who came to understand that the saving grace of God through Jesus was a cosmic event that required no ritual preconditioning, specifically in his context, Jewish initiation. The pastoral circumstance was the requirement of male circumcision as understood by the Apostles. Paul challenged the need for circumcision as a precondition for Christian baptism, and he successfully made his case at the “Council of Jerusalem” in 49 A.D.
For Paul, freedom was the essential opting for Christ. He referred to Jewish law as a burden, a pedestrian distraction at best and an unnecessary burdening of the conscience at worst, since the grace of God was a “remaking” or “rebirth” of the Christian convert. Matters of religious law such as issues of cleanliness and trifling Sabbath regulations had no standing in the court of the Son of Man, whose death and resurrection had delivered humanity once and for all.
It should be obvious to anyone who has ever tackled an Epistle of Paul’s that his use of the word “freedom” is neither a get-out-of-jail-free-card nor carte blanche to “do as you will.” The Apostle to the Gentiles railed frequently against behaviors unbecoming of those who have been remade through baptism into the image and likeness of Christ. Sinful acts, in his theology, are ultimately betrayal of the most significant choice, freely given, to be born again in Christ.
We might turn here to a leading moral figure of our own time, one who has appeared here in our posts before, Father Bernard Haring, author of the Law of Christ (1956). Haring, whose World War II experiences inspired him to a rethinking of Christian morality, turned to a more Pauline base of morality, a “fundamental option” or psycho/spiritual reordering of life to the centrality of the redemption brought by Christ. Haring and the Vatican II school of moralists who followed came to understand that morality is the outcome of spiritual conversion, a change that every person is free to accept or decline.
Thus, the better understanding of freedom in the Christian-Biblical sense would be the assertion that true freedom is exercised once—at baptism—and reasserted in the multiple choices that life and circumstances bring. Haring and future generations would assert that the manualist school of morality in which they were trained placed too much emphasis upon defined individual acts—many of which, of and by themselves—had the power to damn the soul independently. This is a forest for the trees arrangement that Pope Francis has addressed in our time—that individual acts and their definition must be addressed and assessed in the broader parameters of a Christ-centered conscience, in the Sacrament of Penance.
The moral pastoral practice of my upbringing placed an almost neurotic preoccupation upon the deed, isolated from any broader considerations of theology and at times, common sense. When I received my First Communion in 1956, the “locker room instructions” included warnings about the teeth touching the host (despite the Biblical command, “Take and Eat”), breaking the communion fast by swallowing toothpaste or sneaking a taste of one’s first communion cake frosting before Mass. This degradation of liturgical law is the result of a peculiar heresy in the Church known as Jansenism, originating in the sixteenth century, which has never actually disappeared in toto. This labored mentality pervaded human growth—if seven-year-olds were burdened under such specificity of law, imagine puberty, married life, and aging.
St. Paul understood that preoccupation with law for its own sake was an unnecessary burden in the economy of salvation; he instructed the Church through his letters and preaching that the cross of Christ had freed the believer from the burden of excessive and extraneous legal burdens, thus identifying the term “freedom” as release from legalism and scrupulosity. The Gospels, written after the Pauline letters, would depict Jesus breaking Jewish law in the performance of acts of healing, charity, forgiveness, and outreach. The Gospels would round out the term “freedom” as a release from restraint to do the good works associated with the coming Reign of God.
There is no hint in Scripture of a freedom to sin. As noted earlier, the ultimate freedom is the opportunity to behold the risen Jesus, fall to one’s knees, and repeat the words of the Apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”
1704 The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection "in seeking and loving what is true and good."7
As with last week’s Monday post, Paragraph 1704 of the Catechism continues to draw from the Council’s Gaudium et Spes to develop a “moral anthropology,” so to speak, or a description of the human species that explains the human capacity to do good and avoid evil. Footnote 7 cites GS para. 15 in its assertion that man, by the very nature of his creation, can participate in the light and power of the divine spirit with two capacities: natural reasoning enables a person to understand the correct ordering of things as established by God; the natural will, the power to judge and decide, can prompt a human toward his or her true good.
GS heaps generous praise upon the achievements of the human species. Gaudium et Spes is addressed to all mankind; it is not an in-church instruction, so it can afford to be generous. It cites modern achievements in empirical sciences, technology, and liberal arts. It is safe to assume that GS is including scientists and thinkers outside the Catholic fold, because the heart of the argument is the universality of the human capacity to know and will greatness. GS goes on to say that mankind “has always looked for, and found, truths of a higher order.” This is consistent with the Aristotle-St. Thomas Aquinas grand medieval synthesis of all knowledge ending with the beatific vision.
GS refers to the summit of learning and investigation as “wisdom,” where “the intellectual nature of man at last finds its perfection as it should….” The Vatican II document declares that “filled with wisdom, man is led through visible realities to those which cannot be seen.” Again, the medieval synthesis is in play, whereby visible observation of the natural order proceeds seamlessly to the invisible metaphysical classifications of species and the ultimate reality of a real yet undescribed First Cause, as Aristotle would have put it, or an all-powerful and loving God, as Aquinas asserts.
My goal here this morning is not to bury you in erudition, but to follow up on the dual teachings of the Council and the Catechism on the magnificence of the human species in its capacity to grasp essential truth and its ability to love. Morality cannot be discussed without some idea of what the human species is capable of, nor can it be taught without reaching the dual faculties of seeking (intellect) and loving (will). I would suggest that a flaw in catechetics is the compartmentalizing of “moral information” or principles from the broader human experience of seeking truth and acting in tandem with that truth.
Since GS respects the competence of the empirical sciences, how does para. 1704 of the Catechism and Gaudium et Spes itself stand up to empirical critique? Is it even possible to scientifically correlate intellectual growth and virtue? In my own graduate moral studies (1971-74) one of the most influential figures of the time was not a churchman but an American psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987). Kohlberg was a prisoner of war in Cypress during World War II but eventually returned to the United States to pick up his advanced degrees in psychology. When it came time for him to select a thesis topic at the University of Chicago, he submitted the topic of “moral judgment.” This was an extremely unusual concentration for any major university, religious or secular. In fact, the last significant work on moral development dated back to Jean Piaget a quarter-century earlier.
Kohlberg’s work was not immediately accepted. The psychology field was dominated by Freud’s theory that human behavior is determined by outside forces (the “Super Ego”) or by B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist system of punishment and rewards. For Freud and Skinner, moral determinations were reactions to outside forces. Kohlberg, by contrast, believed that moral formation generated inside the human’s experiences and correlated to intellectual maturity. His target audience was the U.S. public school audience, though one cannot help being struck by parallels to Gaudium et Spes, which appeared at roughly the same time as Kohlberg’s first books appeared.
Those who know little of Kohlberg may remember his “six stages of moral development” and the novel method of testing applied. Kohlberg created moral dilemma stories for his subjects (72 all male lower and middle-class boys); the most famous: “would be permissible for a poor man to steal medicine for his dying wife?” The children’s responses became the basis of his six-stage theory of moral development, but Kohlberg was more interested in why they had given their answer than in an objectively correct right-or-wrong answer. (The “dying wife” scenario does allow for multiple considerations.)
Kohlberg observed that some of his subjects chose not to steal the medicine to avoid punishment, and others did so to gain something in the process. These are his steps one and two. Others posited their answers to gain the approval of others (stage 3) or to maintain a respect for law and order (stage 4). In my school days, stage four was called “The Archie Bunker” stage, after the TV blue collar character who decried the disorder of the Viet Nam War and Civil Rights protests. The most advanced subjects provided rationales of respect for laws and moral rules (stage five) and abstract principles of justice and equality (stage 6). Kohlberg believed that achievement of stage 6 was unusual.
Kohlberg devoted much of his working life to integrating the ideas of morality and social/intellectual development. He believed in using biographies of famous and virtuous men such as Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He understood that the young needed provisional instruction in making basic choices upon which to develop the cognitive tools for appropriate moral decision making. In 1981 the Methodist theologian James Fowler attempted to elaborate the process of internal moral decision making based upon the theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erik Ericson, but in my Amazon review of Fowler I found his approach and case study much harder to discern than Kohlberg’s.
It is important to note for Catholic readers that Kohlberg’s theory came under fire by another theorist, Carol Gilligan, who achieved fame in 1982 with her In a Different Voice (1982). She observed that Kohlberg had only tested boys, and that feminine conceptual development takes different forms from the male. For much of my lifetime Catholic moral theorizing has been conducted by clergy, particularly in seminary settings. Today much of Catholic moral theology is undertaken by women, religious and lay, in the relatively diverse settings of Catholic, Protestant, and secular universities. The feminine impact upon Catholic academia, including moral theology, should be interesting to behold as we progress through the next decades.
1703 Endowed with "a spiritual and immortal" soul,5 the human person is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake."6 From his conception, he is destined for eternal beatitude.
Paragraph 1703 of the Catechism is derived entirely from the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (1965). GS is one of the most intriguing of the Council documents. It was the last to be promulgated, and no previous council had issued a declaration quite like this one. Previous Church Councils had addressed errors to be corrected or matters for enrichment or clarification. Even the previous documents of Vatican II had addressed specific issues of potential good, such as a reform of the liturgy, the future of religious life, and the leadership roles of bishops.
Gaudium et Spes, or Joy and Hope in English, steps aside from the traditional teaching mode and “offers the world a gift.” GS is an address to the whole world, not simply professed Catholics’ a universal invitation to a richer way of life. In the process, GS amplifies the nature and identity of all mankind, or as para. 1703 puts it, “the human person is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake.” A being with such an exalted beginning is certainly destined to a potential glorious end, and the Church is inviting all created mankind to full communion of faith. It is not hard to understand why the editors of the Catechism open the morality section with this reminder of mankind’s true nature and destiny, since, in the Catholic idiom, identity is achieved by the very nature of creation and then one’s destiny in the beatific life of the world to come. Morality at its heart is recognition of identity and behaviors consistent with that recognition.
The best definition of original sin is failure to know ourselves. We are made from privilege known to nothing else save God. I saw in the news this weekend that scientists reignited the booster rocket on Pioneer I, the U.S. exploratory spacecraft, for the first time in 37 years. At its present speed Pioneer will pass within one light-year of our closest neighboring star in the year 41,000 A.D. [Don’t wait up.] Grasping a sense of the size of the universe is as good a metaphor as any for the immensity of the world in every sense. When Aristotle wrote of a Prime Mover or First Cause, he probably had little sense of the true dimensions of the cause and its effects.
Our collective sin is a mistaken self-consciousness of ourselves as bit players in a small stakes game. “Low self-esteem” as a term has been relegated to the therapist’s office, but in truth it is easier to ignore our true identity on the basis that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” The most significant gift of Judeo-Christian culture is the worth of a human being. The dividing line between a believer and an atheist comes down to religious anthropology: what is a man, why is his essence so sacred, and what is his final destiny? Catholic teaching holds to the Jewish-Christian Revelation of the Sacred Scripture regarding the nature of man and the One who made him.
The sacredness of human life has been reemphasized as the root principle of morality by Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes a good case in point. It is also the colliding point between faith and secular life, though the battle is fought along an extensive line. The Bible could not be clearer that all are sacred to God because he has created them, notably those having a rough time of it on earth. Matthew 25’s judgment account makes care for the sacredness of the vulnerable and the weak the ultimate determination of eternal reward. For any number of reasons, the universal value of people gets lost in a shuffle of mangled religion, greed, abuse of power, selfishness.
To take one example, the principles of para. 1703 and other sites speak of this divine infusion into human life beginning with conception. “From his conception, he [sic] is destined for eternal beatitude.” Modern reproductive medicine has enabled the Church to understand the timing and process of conception, but from earliest times Tradition has protected the unborn and severely censured abortive acts. The virtue of creating new life destined to share in God’s blessings in this life and in the life to come is acknowledged sacramentally in Church teaching on marriage. While disease may present occasions where the lesser of two evils is adopted with regret by parents and health care providers, (see USCCB instructions on saving a mother’s life here) the deliberate termination of embryonic life is condemned, because no human being has the right to deny another human being communion with God and the blessings that follow.
It is disturbing to see how often the gift of life is overlooked, or in some cases even scorned. In the United States there is a constant and heated conversation over the degrees to which national policy—such as in tax reform—values the worth of some lives over others. Immigration in cases where immigrants came to the United States to escape life-threatening situations or to join family of origin is another. Management of the opioid epidemic is yet another, as is the care of the sick, the aged, and the mentally ill.
When Jesus reminded Peter that forgiveness must be tendered 7 x 70 times [an idiom for infinity], implied in his message is the fact that consciousness of sin and true repentance is a lifelong project. Even the worst of criminals need time to discover their identity as beings created by God for a higher purpose. When we short-circuit the course of life and its quality in any way, the probably cause is identity crisis: we have forgotten who we are, God’s extraordinary hope for us, and our ultimate destiny, of which St. Paul says that “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love him.”