1716 The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus' preaching. They take up the promises made to the chosen people since Abraham. The Beatitudes fulfill the promises by ordering them no longer merely to the possession of a territory, but to the Kingdom of heaven:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward is great in heaven.
1717 The Beatitudes depict the countenance of Jesus Christ and portray his charity. They express the vocation of the faithful associated with the glory of his Passion and Resurrection; they shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life; they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations; they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ's disciples; they have begun in the lives of the Virgin Mary and all the saints.
The Beatitudes as detailed in the Gospel present the biggest obstacle to those who would prefer their moral directives in cold, precise logic. As Paragraph 1716 puts it, “The Beatitudes are the heart of Jesus’ teaching.” When paired with the judgment statements of Jesus in such places as Matthew 25, especially verses 31-46, we get the best picture of the moral dimension of the Kingdom of God. One would think that the Beatitudes would find place at the center of catechizing and preaching, instead of some of the agenda-driven oddities that you do see in “approved texts.” I receive dozens of mailings from religious education publishers, including one on the USCCB approved list whose text states, in so many words, that youthful candidates for Confirmation must have entered the United States legally. [This is bad sacramental theology for starters; and its agenda seems to be DACA. The publisher may not know that one DACA boy is now an ordained priest working in the Atlanta Archdiocese!]
While much lip service is paid to the Beatitudes, even in the Catechism, institutional Catholicism has never embraced Christ’s words as a moral Magna Carta. In the first instance, the text itself is not fully understood. It takes time to unpack the precise Biblical meaning of terms such as “poor in spirit,” “mourn,” “meek,” “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “merciful,” “pure in heart,” “peacemakers,” and “persecuted” have long history in biblical usage, but in contemporary culture words like mercy, meek, mourning, etc. are seen as code words for “snowflake” or an absence of power.
To better appreciate the power of Jesus’ words, we need to see them in their Old and New Testament context. I am bringing out several “big guns” to help us, notably Father John P. Meier, whose epic A Marginal Jew remains the best study of the historical roots of the historical Jesus. In Volume II (p. 317ff) Meier observes that “if isolated from any larger context, the beatitudes are open to a number of different interpretations.” (Use the search page on Amazon Books: there are over one-thousand entries of books unpacking the meaning the beatitudes.) Meier and other Catholic scholars continue to labor to this day to provide the most precise understandings of the terms of the beatitudes, given their definitive impact upon moral theology.
The full treatment of the Beatitudes in the Catechism, in the realm of morality, is frankly poor. Given that the Beatitudes open the three-chapter section on the new Law of Christ as put forward in St. Matthew’s Gospel, it is remarkable that there are barely a dozen references throughout the nearly three thousand points that make up the Catechism. The Catechism quickly lapses back into the legalism of the pre-Council manuals of sins where it seems to be most comfortable and devotes what little text it does to man’s comprehension. It reverts to the question of man’s ability to make free choices in opting for God’s will.
What the Catechism leaves untreated is the event of Judgment upon which beatific living is based, and the specific moral demands of the eight revealed statements of life in the Kingdom of God. My thinking here is that the Church feels a necessity to lay out a concrete and detailed moral system, which the Catechism will do, to honor two agendas: (1) preservation of the “manual norms” which in very times have been granted “eternal status; in matters of sexual ethics, and (2) preservation of the Church’s authority. It is hard for any institution to manage open-ended norms. The Beatitudes do not carry a “measurable outcomes” component as the old manual morality did. Who can say, for example, that he or she has exercised enough mercy in a lifetime? Jesus, in his instruction to Peter that forgiveness should be offered 7 x 70 times [i.e., to infinity], an indication that one successful deed does not a virtue make.
The noted Franciscan writer and preacher Richard Rohr probably explains the Church’s fear of plowing into beatific soil to grow a morality for tomorrow: “When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was talking about an utterly different way of relating to human society as we know it. He was talking about a new world order, a term recently on the lips of politicians. What a false sense of the term they have used…. I doubt that any major political leader would align a new world order in terms of cooperation, trust, service, and redemptive suffering. For all the talk of a new world order, it's simply the old-world order. The 'New World Order,' or the 'Reign of God,' is the heart of the New Testament."
It is amazing that para. 1718 would state that the beatitudes “express the vocation of the faithful associated with the glory of his Passion and Resurrection; they shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life.” The Catechism never addresses what those “actions and attitudes” of the Gospel might be, settling instead for the tired manual of cold deeds and ahistorical physical acts. At lunch today, a gentleman told me it was his impression that Catholic churches do more for the poor in his community than other Christian communities. All I could think was thank God, their moral personhood is drawn from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, the Law of the New Testament, and blessed will they be on judgment day.