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.