Foundations of the Faith Part 7: Christ as our moral compass

This is the seventh of a 12-part series that will cover core teachings of the Catholic faith. Once a month from January through December, this space will focus on exploring a specific aspect of the Church’s teaching. To read and share this and the previous parts of the series, visit OSV.com/foundations.

Next month’s topic: Obedience and Catholic conscience


At this halfway point in the Foundations of the Faith series, the topics so far have ranged from God’s existence to divine revelation and the Holy Trinity to what membership in the Church entails and how individual members participate in the life of the Church through their vocations.

This article considers Christian morality in the light of what the Catholic faith teaches about God and human beings, which has been presented already in previous articles. To summarize: God, who is a communion of love (for example, the Holy Trinity), created human beings to share in his love. Human beings, moreover, are made by God in his image and likeness, thereby having an inherent dignity and the gifts of reason and freedom, which bestow upon them the capacity to live in harmony with or to resist their Creator. Scripture and Tradition reveal that the first human beings misused their intellect and free will, choosing to turn from God by sinning, which can be defined as disobeying the will of God that had been made known to them:

From Scripture:

“Then God asked: ‘... Have you eaten from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat?’” (Gn 3:11).

From Tradition:

“[F]rom the very onset of his history man abused his liberty, at the urging of the Evil One. Man set himself against God and sought to attain his goal apart from God” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 13).

Foundations in Christ

God, however, who is perfectly free, chose not to leave human beings in their sin. Instead, he chose to forgive them and to offer them a path toward reunion with him through Jesus Christ. “It is in Christ, Redeemer and Savior, that the divine image, disfigured in man by the first sin, has been restored to its original beauty and ennobled by the grace of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1701). Through his life, passion, death and resurrection, Jesus not only saves humanity but also shows them how to accept the offer of salvation: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). Therefore, if one wants to know the meaning and substance of Christian morality, then one needs to look at Christ.

The word “morality” is often defined as a set of principles that leads a person who adopts them to right conduct. A particular system of morality also tends to be linked with a teacher, like Aristotle or Immanuel Kant. As the term implies, “Christian morality” is linked to Christ, who, like any teacher, has rules and commandments that he shares with his disciples. More importantly, Jesus models for his disciples how to live. However, the aim of Jesus’ instruction is not simply right living or even happiness (although both are certainly included) but rather the fullness of life experienced in the communion of divine love. Union with God is the goal of human existence. Indeed, it is the original state of human beings (as has already been noted). Christian morality, therefore, is less an ethical system and more a school of love. Its master is Jesus Christ.

Samaritan2
Marble of the Good Samaritan at St. Charles Borromeo Church, Antwerp, Belgium. Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

Love is the way

Jesus, of course, never used the term “Christian morality”; it is being used in this article to refer to his teaching on love, and the Church’s principles give support in following the Lord’s teaching. Support is needed because many people have experienced great frustration in understanding Jesus’ words. The rich young man, for example, wanted Jesus to state unequivocally that by obeying the commandments, one would gain eternal life (Mk 10:17-31). When Jesus asks him to go deeper toward the spirit of the law, which calls for a complete gift of self to God and neighbor, the young man walks away. Then there are those like the religious leaders at the time who hated Jesus precisely because he would set aside the letter of the law in order to heal someone (Mt 12:9-14) or to feed his hungry disciples on a Sabbath (Mt 12:1-8). Even those who seemed to recognize the centrality of love in Jesus’ way of life, the Twelve Apostles, wanted to know exactly how much love one had to give. Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37), which makes it clear that love does not simply satisfy the law, nor can it be measured. Love is the way and the goal; it moves toward wholeness and union, whether that means taking the steps to care for a neighbor or, ultimately, entering eternal life.

Love of God and love of neighbor: These two commandments are the substance and meaning of Christian morality. “There is no other commandment greater than these,” Jesus says (Mk 12:31). Nevertheless, the force of Jesus’ words, the fact that he is asking for wholehearted and completely selfless love, can be disconcerting to say the least (see Mt 19:25). Who can even begin to live by these two commandments? It seems impossible. Yet, Jesus does not say, “Try to love like me, or give it your best shot.” He says, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34). Jesus takes it for granted that human beings can participate in his love by both receiving it and sharing it. They just need to be reminded.

Religious Laws
A common reaction to “religious” laws put forth by the Church is that they appear repressive regarding the human person’s free will. Yet, in the public square, laws are seen as helpful to the common good, helping people to avoid conflicts and, when used correctly, promoting freedom.

Reason and freedom

Fundamental to Jesus’ Good News is that he became man out of love for all men and women, to save them from their sins and eternal death. Moreover, Jesus lays down his life for human beings in order to remind them of both their inherent dignity and their capacity to respond to his love (see Jn 10:15). Created in the image and likeness of God, human beings have two gifts: reason, which enables them to understand “the order of things established by the Creator” and freedom, which enables them to direct themselves to their “true good,” which is eternal life with God (CCC, No. 1704). While human beings still suffer the consequences of original sin (and any personal sin), they need not remain enslaved to sin if they receive Jesus’ forgiveness and mercy. Through the grace of forgiveness, human beings are able to follow Christ; they are capable of “acting rightly and doing good” (CCC, No. 1709).

However, having the knowledge of one’s inherent dignity and possessing the attributes to accept God’s invitation to communion with him does not make it any easier to act on these good gifts, which is why the Church has sought to explain the way of Christ’s love, or Christian morality, in a manner that is, perhaps, less daunting. While Jesus remains the author and archetype of Christian morality, and participating in divine love is its essence, the Church provides certain principles that can help a person respond better to receiving and sharing God’s love.

“Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.”

Fundamental principles

Two fundamental principles that ground Christian morality are “there is objective truth” and “there is the ‘good.’” Neither one is universally accepted as self-evident in the present culture. Nonetheless, the Church proclaims that God is the source of all truth and whatever is good. And human beings, through their reason and free will, are able to discern what is true and choose what is good. Moreover, these qualities, inasmuch as they have their origin in God, do not change based on human culture. The dignity of the human person is an example of an eternal truth. The protection of innocent life is always a good to be achieved. In God’s “economy,” what is true and good for one person is true and good for another, and both are discernible through the use of reason and God’s revelation.

Natural law

Closely related to truth and goodness is what the Church calls “natural law,” which does not refer to nature in the sense of irrational beings. Rather, natural law “shows man [or woman] the way to follow so as to practice the good and attain his [or her] end,” which is union with God (CCC, No. 1955). The Ten Commandments express the principal precepts of the natural law. They teach human beings how to honor the relationship with God (the first three commandments) and with one’s neighbor (the last seven), which are ways of participating in the good. The beatitudes proclaimed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount build upon the Ten Commandments by showing what a person who yields to the grace of God and imitates the life of Christ must do in love. Whereas the Ten Commandments are easily accessible to human reason, the beatitudes (and the Sermon on the Mount in general) reveal “the countenance of Jesus Christ and portray his charity” that his disciples are invited to share (CCC, No. 1717).

Human beings, because they have free will and the offer of God’s grace, are able to shape their lives according to the principles made known through natural law and revelation. They are able to choose between good and evil so long as they remain on earth. Freedom also makes the human person responsible for his or her acts: “It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach” (CCC, No. 1732). At the same time, the Church teaches that “[t]he imputability or responsibility for an action can be diminished or nullified by ignorance, duress, fear and other psychological or social factors” (CCC, No. 1746). Still, human acts — “that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience” (“conscience” will be the subject of the next article in this series) — are either good or evil, and determining which depends on “the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; and the circumstances of the action” (CCC, No. 1750).

CainandAbel
Sacrifices of Cain and Abel” is painted in the Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum in Rome. Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock
More Abel, Less Cain
For some the mention of “Christian morality” conjures up images of the Inquisition or stirs memories of a nun or priest warning their eighth-grade class about the fires of hell. Still, others question the Church’s moral authority nowadays given the scandalous and sinful behavior by some of the clergy and religious. The weak and sinful side of the Church must never be covered up. Indeed, it must always be confronted. The only way to root out evil — in a person or an institution — is to expose it for what it is and to take decisive action against it. At the same time, the good and holy side of the Church must not be neglected or overlooked either. The poet John Pauker (1920-91) wrote a two-line poem that expresses well this perennial conflict, not only for the Church but also for every human being:

Good intentions

The object of an act is “a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself” (CCC, No. 1751). What does the person want or desire; what is he or she looking for? Obviously, the ultimate good can and should be behind every subordinate good: “I want to get all “A’s” in medical school so that I can better serve my brothers and sisters who are sick and give glory to God.”

Getting ‘A’s’ is an object, and it is a “good.” But notice that the intention is crucial. If the person’s intention had nothing to do with helping the sick and was really only about guaranteeing a certain salary, then the act loses its goodness (money, by the way, is not evil in itself, but the love of money is). Finally, the circumstances “contribute to increasing or diminishing the goodness or evil of human acts” (CCC, No. 1754). In the present example, a person who wants to do well out of fear of God is less good than one wanting to do well out of glorifying God.

Internalizing morality

These principles that ground the practice of Christian morality may not be as daunting as Christ’s commandment to love as he loves, but they certainly can seem rather complicated in the context of daily living. Does one really go through such a detailed analysis of one’s actions to make sure that they conform to the Church’s teaching on right conduct and Jesus’ commandment of love? The answer is: hopefully not. For the most part, human beings engage these principles automatically after living the Christian faith for years and through a conscience that has been well-formed by prayer, study and good habits. Still, the principles can be very helpful, even to mature Christians, in times of crisis or in matters that are difficult to discern. They can provide support and grounding when responding to a culture that relativizes truth and goodness. Nevertheless, their real purpose is to free a person to attain the good for oneself and for one’s neighbor through participation in divine love.

An analogy might be a better way to show how living by the principles of Christian morality blossoms into a participation in the love of Christ. Consider this: Who is freer to play the piano? A person who has never played before or the virtuoso who started playing when she was 5 years old, dedicating countless hours to learning notes, reading music and perfecting timing? Obviously it is the virtuoso. Through her discipline and practice and by developing her skill from the firm foundation of the fundamentals, the virtuoso now has the freedom to play the piano whenever she wants. Moreover, whereas the basic skills are still evident in her playing, she no longer thinks about them. Indeed, now that they have been formed into a good habit, they free her to express her own personality in the music.

Our Lady of Prompt Succor
Stained glass in the Basilica of Vysehrad in Prague, Czech Republic, depicts Jesus speaking to his disciples jorisvo / Shutterstock
“A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting ‘in order to be seen by men’). The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts — such as fornication — that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil. It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object, such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1755-56

Morality in practice

The analogy is not perfect. Christian morality is not a discipline in the same sense as playing the piano if for no other reason than Christian morality originates in the person of Jesus, who is able to grant his gifts to whomever he pleases. Yet, the analogy is helpful. A person needs to know the basic rules and commandments of Christ to put them into practice. The person, moreover, needs to be an active participant in a relationship with Jesus: reading and pondering his words, meditating on his deeds and following his example. Receiving his grace and love, too, through participation in the sacraments, and then sharing these gifts with others, are part of anticipating the full communion in heaven. When desires conflict with this ultimate goal, the person must exercise the freedom to say “no” to himself or herself as well. All of these good practices build up a person to both receive and to share the love of Christ. Indeed, just like a beginner at the piano progresses to virtuoso status via fundamentals and hard work, a person who loves like Christ matures to the point where commandments like “thou shalt not steal” or “thou shalt not bear false witness” are no longer shaping the person’s character but have become fully integrated in the person’s way of life.

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The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness (holy living) to those who are trained by it” (12:11). Just so, when a person is immature in love, many of love’s demands seem like an obligation. Yet, when love has matured, the demands are sweet and become an oblation to the One who is perfect Love. May each person, through the grace and love of Christ, enter this perfect Love who remains for all God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

David Werning writes from Virginia.