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CHRISTIAN MORAL PRINCIPLES

Christian life is far more than observance of a moral code. To become Christians is to be given, as a gift, a new life in Christ. This new life is far more than a new morality. It enables us to enter into friendship with the Blessed Trinity, to love and to forgive one another, and to taste the joy of that new life in faith and hope and love that God pours into the hearts of those who accept his grace.

Yet believers, empowered by God’s grace, are called to “lead a life worthy of God” (1 Th 2:12). There are works of love that we have a duty to do, and evil deeds that we must avoid. Being morally upright people is not sufficient to make us Christians; and, indeed, we are not able consistently to lead morally good lives without the help of God’s grace. But a life of faith is not a lawless life. If we wish to be faithful followers of Christ, we must walk freely in the ways he points out for us.

The New Testament presents various kinds of duties that Christians have. Some things we must not do, for certain kinds of deliberate actions are incompatible with love. A Christian must avoid those evil kinds of acts that the Ten Commandments forbid (cf. Mt 19:16-19), and every kind of act so incompatible with love that those who do such things cannot “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9; cf. Gal 5:21; CCC 2072). But faith teaches positive duties also: We have the duty to believe God, to trust him, and to do the works of love (cf. Jn 6:28-29; Mt 25:34-46; CCC 1965-1968). Moreover, we are to acquire those virtues needed to give consistency and faithfulness to our lives: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. . . . Above all, clothe yourselves with love” (Col 3:12, 14; cf. CCC 1810-1811).

To grow toward the perfection of love of God and one another, we are to live lives shaped by the gifts of the Holy Spirit and by the Beatitudes (cf. CCC 1716-1717, 1830-1831).

While some of the moral directives of the Gospel are not precepts but counsels (like the invitation given us to give all we have to the poor, and to live a celibate life for the sake of the kingdom [CCC 1973-1975] ), it is far from true that all the Gospel’s difficult and sublime precepts are merely counsels or optional ideals. However much we must suffer to guard the faith, or to keep the commandments, or to forgive those who have really hurt us, the Gospel gives us firm precepts in all these matters; but it promises also to make “light and easy” the saving burden of Christ’s commandments (Mt 11:28-30).

Foundational Principles • The many moral directives taught by Catholic faith are not simply a mass of unrelated rules. All the duties faith teaches flow from simple and certain first principles. Christ teaches plainly that the greatest precepts are those of love: that we should love God with all our hearts and love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt 22:37-39). He teaches, moreover, that all our moral duties really flow from these two. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:40; cf. CCC 2055). This means that all the positive and negative duties of the Ten Commandments, all the moral requirements spoken by all the prophets and by Christ himself – all express simply what love requires. Nothing is needed except what love makes necessary.

Still, and this, too, is crucial, love does in fact make many things necessary. For example, one who swears falsely or commits adultery is in the wrong, for whoever performs these specific kinds of acts is really failing to do what love demands.

With all Christian tradition, St. Thomas Aquinas accepts faithfully the Gospel teaching that the two commandments of love are the first principles of moral life. One can, with a modest amount of reflection, see that all the precepts of the Decalogue are valid, because the precepts of love do imply the truth of the commandments (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 100, 3; CCC 1970). This is especially clear when we consider the material of the commandments in the light of what love requires, and in the light of other New Testament precepts noted below.

Contemporary Catholic moralists have done creative work in tracing out more precisely the path by which it can be shown that the saying of the Lord is true: that it really is the case that all the basic precepts of revealed religion follow necessarily from the duty to love. That means that, in a sense, love alone is required of us; but this is a meaningful and true love, a love like that spelled out in the Gospels, a love from which the Ten Commandments and many other specific precepts quite literally follow.

Other kinds of moral directives also serve as principles in Christian morality. In addition to the two precepts of love, from which all else flows, there are other Gospel principles basic to Christian morality. These clearly flow from the requirements of love and help us to see how surely a variety of universal precepts, like those of the Ten Commandments, also follow from love (cf. Rom 13:9). Thus we are taught in the Golden Rule that we should “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk 6:31); that is, we should treat each person with the fairness and concern we would wish others to show us. Observance of this, Christ tells us, sums up “the law and the prophets” (Lk 16:16).

One path such golden concern must take is this: We should never deliberately do harm to anyone, for “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Rom 13:10). Each neighbor is a person, an image of God, a bearer of inalienable rights, one to whom we must never deliberately do evil, even as a means to benefit others. And from the fact that we should never deliberately harm our neighbor, it follows, as the commandments conclude, that we should never injure the neighbor by murder or adultery or perjury (Rom 13:9).

A variety of factors must be considered in determining whether a particular human act is a morally good or bad one. All of the essential elements that determine whether an act is good or bad must be good for the act to be simply good. First, the kind of act done must be a good kind of act (one capable of serving love of God and of neighbor). The intention for which the act is done must also be good. Moreover, the circumstances must serve the goodness of the act. That means, for example, that one must not foresee that the act (however good its kind and the intention may be) is likely to produce evil effects out of proportion to the good the act is expected to realize (CCC 1749-1756).

Moral Absolutes • Christian faith has always taught that some moral directives have no exceptions at all. It is true that many moral rules indeed have exceptions. For example, we should keep our promises, but not all promises (such as promises to help another do something evil) should be kept. For such moral rules one needs to know the motive and circumstances of the individual act before one can make a final judgment on whether it is good or bad.

But some moral rules have no exceptions. Such exceptionless rules (called moral absolutes) include: never directly kill the innocent; never commit adultery; never swear falsely. One would need only to know that an act is an act of such a kind to know that one ought not do this act. For such acts “in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object” (CCC 1756; cf. Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, 79-83). Performance of such acts is always incompatible with authentic personal love.

Also characteristic of Christian faith is the teaching that one may not do any evil deed in hopes that great good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8; Veritatis Splendor, 80). To choose in the freedom of one’s heart deliberately to do a kind of deed that is evil – a deed like slaying the innocent, or committing fornication, or swearing falsely – is to do what a good person may never do: deliberately attack a basic good, bring about a real evil in a human person. It is true that the evil brought about in such acts – death, the unwitting acceptance of falsehood, and the like – are only “physical” evils; but the deliberate doing of such things is a moral evil, an offense against persons whom we have a duty to love and be concerned for.

Sometimes fear is expressed that the reality of moral absolutes might press people into impossible dilemmas. So, for instance, people have a duty to guard their families or protect those they love. Might not the only way to accomplish these things in particular circumstances be by performing a deed of this kind – one that violates a moral absolute, one that faith calls intrinsically evil, such as contraception or perjury? But faith is coherent: It reminds people that they have no duty to do, and never should do, evil kinds of deeds in order to obtain goods they have some duty to reach. One may have a duty to move heaven and earth in efforts to fulfill one’s duties through good acts; but one never is obliged or even permitted to do something really evil in order to achieve things that ought to be achieved. Here and now a good man has no way of achieving specific good objectives if the only means available is a bad one.

The Church always honored the martyrs who laid down their lives rather than do intrinsically evil deeds (cf. Veritatis Splendor, 90-94). St. Thomas More, for example, could see no other way to save his own life and to guard good things for his family, than by agreeing to swear falsely as the king demanded. But he knew he ought not swear falsely for any reasons whatever, and he had the courage not to do so. Sometimes heroism is needed to be faithful to what love requires and the saving law of God demands. But God never fails to make accessible to the faithful in difficult circumstances the measure of grace that they need to be as generous as duty requires.

Principles of Other Kinds • There are other kinds of principles underlying Christian morality, principles that are not themselves moral directives but cast light on the nature and meaning of moral principles. Some of these are spelled out with striking force in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor (cf. 35-45). For example, the reality of freedom (especially the freedom involved in free choice) and the truth that free human actions are of overwhelming importance are principles of Christian morality. Morality is not concerned simply with seeing to it that good deeds are done (it would be very alien to Christian morality to seek to condition or manipulate people so that they do good deeds) or that good results are produced. Rather, Christian morality is concerned primarily with freely doing deeds that are truly good; and unless human actions were free, they could not be morally important (cf. CCC 1749; Veritatis Splendor, 38-41).

Law is also a principle of Christian morality. But Christian morality is not a legalistic code. The divine law that gives light to our lives is not a mere act of will, not an arbitrary imposition. God does not simply command us to do or not to do certain things, without gracious concern for our freedom, our hopes, and our fulfillment. His eternal law, upon which all other just law is based, is no arbitrary precept. It is his eternal plan, which is rooted in intelligence and love, a plan that guides the whole world and each person toward authentic fulfillment. This law presses us to seek the good goals we ourselves by our very nature long for – goals we must pursue if our lives are to make sense. Grounded in this saving plan of God, the Christian moral law, natural and revealed, is not a set of arbitrary precepts: It is a guidance given by God’s great love to enable us to find paths that are truly good for us and that really fulfill our lives (cf. CCC 1950).

Grace, too, is a principle of Christian moral life. For God has called us not only to some purely natural end, like human satisfaction in an entirely human community; rather, he made us to become his friends, and to have inexpressible joy in sharing his divine life. Only by God’s favor, however, can we perform acts that lead to the salvation for which we were made. Moreover, in our fallen state, grace is needed to live a moral life faithfully (cf. CCC 1996).

The moral law is both a natural law and a revealed law. In fact, through Moses and the prophets, and most of all through Jesus Christ, God has made known to us the ways we are to live to please God, to fulfill the requirements of love, and to come to everlasting life.

Such Revelation was in some senses not necessary, since it is possible for people to know much of what the law requires even without Revelation. The moral law that faith calls us to observe is a law corresponding to what our own hearts need; it is a natural law, and we are naturally inclined to know it. “What the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15).

To say this, however, is not to suggest that everyone really knows all that the natural law requires. Obviously many people today do not know that euthanasia, say, or divorce is morally wrong. Nevertheless, to say that the natural law is written in the heart is to say its principles are indeed accessible to all. All of us are able to know that we should do what is truly good and should avoid evil; we are able to recognize some values that are genuinely good; and we are capable of understanding for ourselves that some kinds of acts are indeed morally wrong (cf. CCC 1954-1960). From these principles of natural law accessible to all, everything really follows. Still, amid the scandals, confusions, and passions of the world, many become confused and sincerely do not know clearly how they should guide their steps.

To remedy this situation, the natural law itself is revealed by God. The Decalogue sums up its basic elements. The teaching of Christ presents the moral law with great clarity and attractiveness. The graces associated with faith in Christ give deeper assurance to those who seek to lead good lives than any other source could provide. And those who know who Christ is, and know that he teaches in the Gospels and in his Church, have the right and the duty to walk in his ways.

Because the moral law is a natural law, we can defend it intelligently even before those who have not received the gifts of Revelation and faith. Because it is a revealed law, even the simple can be certain of it in the light of faith, even when they are not intellectually prepared to defend moral truth against every sophisticated objection.

Christ As the Principle of Christian Morality • Christ himself is clearly a first principle of our moral lives. He is himself the primary teacher of the way we are to live to please God, and he is the source of the light of faith by which we can grasp with certainty the truth and goodness of his paths. Moreover, he is the source of the strength we need to walk faithfully in the ways of life. He is the goodness that makes leading an excellent moral life attractive; he is the mercy that encourages us in all trials. He is himself both the life for which we long, and the way by which we can come to life.

Christian moral life is clearly not a dogged obeying of rules. It is rooted in love, and therefore at its heart it calls for a willing pursuit of what is truly good, for ourselves and for all we love. The Bible celebrates the truly and deeply good depths of reality. It celebrates life and friendship, truth and integrity of spirit, beauty and living in a glad, playful spirit before the Lord. The elements of life that philosophers have recognized as the goals of human striving, the goods that make human life rich and great, are also celebrated by the Scriptures.

Christian morality calls us to a humane and generous pursuit of what is good. Our actions and our lives are not simply instruments by which we seek to pursue even in unworthy ways the “greatest amount” of good. In special ways we must be concerned that our actions and our lives be good. It is neither wise nor loving to pursue good effects through evil means. The world was made, not so much that we should produce endless good things here, as that we should here shape loving actions and loving lives – shape ourselves, and encourage others to live in ways that respect what is truly good. The saints did not avoid evil deeds out of a selfish desire to obtain rewards or a shallow longing to escape every criticism. They avoided evil and brought about immense good in the world because they knew that, in pursuing the goodness and generosity God required of them, their lives would also become a blessing for all. St. Thomas More could not have foreseen how God would bring good out of the trials he endured patiently. But he knew that generous faithfulness to all God’s ways would be the only secure way to fulfill his own life and bless all those whom he loved.

See: Absolute Moral Norms; Beatitudes; Cardinal Virtues; Conscience; Divine Revelation; Evangelical Counsels; Freedom, Human; Fundamental Option; Grace; Law of Christ; Legalism; Martyrdom; Natural Law; Relativism; Sin; Ten Commandments.

Suggested Readings: CCC 1749-1756, 1949-1974, 1987-2016, 2052-2074. Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 22, 27-32, 79. John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, To Live in Christ Jesus. G. Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 1, Christian Moral Principles, pp. 173-204, 599-626. R. Schnackenburg, The Moral Teaching of the New Testament.

 

Ronald D. Lawler, O.F.M. Cap.

Russell Shaw. Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine. Copyright © 1997, Our Sunday Visitor.

 

 


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Last Updated: Sunday, April 01, 2001 01:25:11 PM