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.