I will never forget my first parent-teacher conference shortly after beginning my job as a high school theology teacher. I had a student who, from day one, wasn’t about to hide the fact that she disagreed with practically everything the Catholic Church stands for. To this day I’m not entirely sure what interested her or her family in our school, but perhaps grace works in even more mysterious ways than we think!
The meeting was called as a result of a poor grade she received on one of my projects in a course entitled “Christian Morality.” The project had a wide variety of topics from which the students could choose, but the primary goal was to accurately and effectively communicate the Church’s teaching on that particular moral topic. To make a long story short, her project caricaturized the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage to an astonishing degree. I made it very clear on the grading rubric that her grade was due to a misrepresentation of the Church’s teaching, but the end result was a remarkably awkward and uncomfortable meeting with my student and her parents. After a few minutes, it was all too apparent that her animus toward the Church did not begin with her.
After many years of youth ministry and the past four years teaching high school, I’ve regularly encountered this attitude toward the Church’s moral teachings, both outside the Church as well as inside. Through it all, I have come to realize something that is by no means an original observation on my part. Nor is this realization something that pertains only to adolescents in their struggle with the Church’s moral life. It affects us all in one way or another.
The problem is this: we tend to fundamentally misunderstand what the very nature of the Church’s moral life is and is about. I spent most of my life just trying to follow the Church’s “rules”, even out of sincere faith most of the time. But I failed until very recently to recognize the implications of a true, full, vibrantly alive Catholic life. Our moral life is so much more than a mere ethical enterprise. While ethics can help to shape and guide our usage of reason in the development of character and virtues, it does not adequately account for the radical transformation effected in human nature by the saving work of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. As moral theologian Servais Pinckaers asserts, “We are not dealing here merely with a collection of beautiful ideas, but with a Word that grounds existence and gives life to those who docilely and actively receive it” (Morality: The Catholic View, 17). In short, we need Divine Revelation and faith in that revelation if we are to live fully the moral life of the Church.
Divine Revelation ultimately comes to us through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (see CCC 74-82). Both of these “modes” of transmitting the gospel “flow from the same well-spring” and together constitute the sum of God’s revelation of himself to the human race. It is through Sacred Tradition that the Holy Spirit guides the Church to pass down through every age “all that she herself is, all that she believes.” Scripture is not merely a collection of religious narratives and sacred sayings, but rather the very Word of God in human language. Divine Revelation takes up our faculty of reason and enriches it with the authority, infallibility, and loving light of the God who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
Catholic morality is utterly rooted in the reality of our relationship with God the Father in the person of the Word, his Son, nourished by the constant love and grace of the Holy Spirit. This reality finds it roots in ancient Israel. When we look at the Israelites’ relationship with God, we indeed find many “rules” and “regulations” associated with the moral life. The mere presence of such rules is oftentimes touted as fundamentally negative and burdensome. But this is an unfortunate misunderstanding. In his book An Introduction to Moral Theology William May explains:
It is essential to keep in mind that although the covenant
contains stipulations requiring a certain way of life,
their fulfillment is not a condition for entering the covenant
with God but rather a demand arising from the relationship
with God freely accepted by the people (p. 33).
Joseph Ratzinger, in a document entitled “The Church’s Teaching Authority—Faith—Morals”, puts this way: “…for Israel, the Ten Commandments are part of the concept of God. They are not supplementary to faith, to the Covenant; they show who this God is, with whom Israel stands in a covenant relationship” (p. 56). God’s commandments are not arbitrary or random, nor are they overbearing. They are intrinsically bound up with the very nature of things, objective reality, and God himself. They are the foundation of the moral life because they help us begin to comprehend that the Architect of all creation want us to live according to his “blueprint.”
In the Christian life, through baptism we become true members of the risen and glorified Body of Christ and it is Christ himself who “fully reveals man to himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). I think Saint Paul says it best: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Catholic morality is, as the third section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church so aptly puts it, “Life in Christ.” This is not a metaphor or a quaint notion. It is literally true. The God of the universe has become a human being, redeemed our fallen state, and then drawn humanity itself into the most intimate depths of the divine life. Now the choice is offered to each one of us. Will we live in accordance with true, fulfilled, fully realized humanity? Or will we instead accept mediocrity, some kind of counterfeit that can never possibly satisfy our deepest yearnings for fulfillment, joy, and eternal life with the God who made us?
Ratzinger is clear about the real, tangible nature of the Christian life as intended by the Lord. “Christians do not merely adopt a theory about Jesus, but enter into his way of living and dying and make it their own” (p. 60). Later he adds, “returning to God in Jesus Christ is identical with a return to the manner of life of Jesus Christ” (p. 65). William May furthermore summarizes how Divine Revelation and faith contribute to an understanding of the moral life in perhaps the clearest terms:
We are called to be other Christs, i.e., faithful children of
the Father, whose only will is, like Jesus’, to do what is
pleasing to the Father, and in this way share in the glory of
the Risen Christ in a life of unending beauty in the communion
of persons who are the Holy Trinity. And what must we do to
be pleasing to the Father and to become fully what God wants
us to be, i.e., other Christs? The short answer is that we must
love as Christ has loved us and shape our choices and actions
in accordance with his loving commands.
So why should we bother about this whole “morality” thing? Because that’s what everything is about! This is not about following arbitrary rules that were set down by a bunch of old men in Rome who are out of touch with the times. I’ve lost count at this point of how many times that attitude seems to prevail in people’s understanding of the Church’s moral teachings. My student and her parents were, I’m sure for a host of reasons, quite misinformed and mistaken about the very nature of the Church’s moral vision. They, like so many people, perceived the Catholic moral system as an outdated and judgmental set of subjective customs that can, and should, be changed. My hope and prayer is that the Lord was able to use me in some way to communicate a more accurate, beautiful, and joyful understanding of Catholic morality to them through our conversation.
In the final estimation, the Divine Revelation of the Word of God who is Truth itself is the surest, most authoritative and infallible guide for us as we seek to live out the Catholic Christian moral life, for it is indeed his own life that we seek to live. I’ll conclude with the clear words of Pope Saint John Paul II: “The decisive answer to every one of man’s questions… is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself” (Veritatis Splendor, 2).