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Chapter 23: God’s Redemptive Work in the Lives of Christians

Question F: Why should Christians follow the same moral standards in carrying out their different personal vocations?

1. In one sense, Christians with different personal vocations follow different moral standards—for example, a Catholic priest and a married layman must follow different standards inasmuch as their lives differ. But where the morality of a single kind of choice is in question, all Christians should agree in the truth of the same moral norm. Moral norms, after all, are truths, not rules imposed on us or changeable laws. Moral truth is one because it directs all men and women to the only complete good: fulfillment in Jesus. Moreover, the prophetic character of each Christian’s personal vocation demands that all Christians know, accept, and do their best to live according to the same moral standards.

2. A prophet is one who speaks before others. True prophets of the Old Testament received divine revelation and uttered the Lord’s word to his people. Their work supplemented the Torah and kept its truth alive, especially by the reiteration and application of its moral implications. The prophets exhort, admonish, threaten, promise; in God’s name they demand that sinners repent and commit themselves anew to the covenant.11

3. A person is personally called to prophetic responsibility and is obliged to make a commitment to fulfill it. The prophet’s task is a demanding one. It is given him whether he wants it or not; he has no discretion about the content of his message; he must not only speak God’s message but live it out. His audience is invariably more or less resistant; often he is killed or otherwise persecuted.

4. Old Testament prophecy constantly points toward Jesus and prepares the way for him. Although the title of prophet seems inadequate in the case of Jesus, who was himself the fulfillment of all prophecy, he nevertheless acted as a prophet in many ways. Moreover, the role of prophet continues after Jesus’ ascension. With the Spirit’s coming to the Church, all who belong to Jesus share in prophecy, and some are especially gifted in this respect.

5. Vatican II teaches that Jesus continues to carry out his prophetic office, “not only through the hierarchy who teach in his name and with his authority, but also through the laity. For that very purpose he made them his witnesses and gave them understanding of the faith and the grace of speech (cf. Acts 2.17–18; Rv 19.10), so that the power of the gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life” (LG 35). As prophets of Jesus, all Christians are called to communicate him in speech and in action. Revelatory deeds and words should make up the life of every Christian; those who meet a Christian should come to know God’s saving truth and love through the experience, just as those did who met Jesus during his earthly life (see AA 6).

6. The role of prophet requires that one’s faith and one’s life be clearly of a piece. As ever in revelation, deeds and words can only work if they work together. Moreover, since Christians must proclaim the faith together, in one and the same Spirit, they must live the same kind of life, according to the pattern of Jesus. Jesus’ disciples are known and make him known by their love (see Jn 13.34–35; 17.22–23; 1 Jn 4.7). Divergent and conflicting moral standards reduce the Church’s witness to Jesus to confusion and babel.

In his encyclical, Sapientiae christianae, on the duties of Christians as citizens, Leo XIII develops this point in a perspicuous and compelling way. After quoting Vatican I’s exhortation to the faithful, calling upon them to help repel errors and spread the pure light of faith (DS 3044/1819), Leo adds: “Let each one, therefore, bear in mind that he both can and should, so far as may be, preach the Catholic faith by the authority of his example, and by open and constant profession of the obligations it imposes.” In this work, Leo explains, the laity also play a part, but they must not act individualistically:

  The faithful would not, however, so completely and advantageously satisfy these duties as is fitting they should were they to enter the field as isolated champions of the faith. Jesus Christ, indeed, has clearly intimated that the hostility and hatred of men, which He first and foremost experienced, would be shown in like degree toward the work founded by Him, so that many would be barred from profiting by the salvation for which all are indebted to His loving kindness. Wherefore, He willed not only to train disciples in His doctrine, but to unite them into one society, and closely conjoin them in one body, “which is the Church” (Col 1.24), whereof He would be the Head. The life of Jesus Christ pervades, therefore, the entire framework of this body, cherishes and nourishes its every member, uniting each with each, and making all work together to the same end, albeit the action of each be not the same (cf. Rom 12.4–5). Hence it follows that not only is the Church a perfect society far excelling every other, but it is enjoined by her Founder that for the salvation of mankind she is to contend “as an army drawn up in battle array” (Sg 6.9).12

Leo proceeds to draw out the implications; emphasizing the importance of unity of mind, he cites St. Paul’s exhortation (see 1 Cor 1.10), and adds: “The wisdom of this precept is readily apprehended. In truth, thought is the principle of action, and hence there cannot exist agreement of will, or similarity of action, if people all think differently one from the other.”13

7. The life of the Church is a participation in divine love. The many believers must live with a single mind and heart (see Acts 4.32). Certainly there is room for plurality, but Christian plurality can involve no inconsistency. Rather, it must be the richness of many gifts united in the one body of the Lord Jesus (see 1 Cor 12–13). Not the cacophony of a stage full of soloists all playing at once but the rich harmony of a symphony orchestra provides the appropriate metaphor for Christian life.

8. The Church’s unity is modeled upon that of the Trinity (see UR 2), who always act outwardly as one God (see DS 1331/704). If the Church is to communicate God’s truth and love by her outward life before the world, her members must provide an image of the unity of God’s action. To be sure, the image cannot have the absolute unity of its model; but its clarity and effectiveness will be needlessly diminished by conflict among the members.14

9. Therefore, Christian moral standards must be articulated and shared by all even in their details. To lend substance to the truth they profess, all must adhere to the same plan of life and act together. The Church must have only one mind: the mind of her Lord Jesus.

Christians who live their lives among others must communicate God’s truth and love to them by revelatory words and deeds. Vatican II teaches: “For, wherever they live, all Christians are bound to show forth, by the example of their lives and by the witness of their speech, that new man which they put on at baptism, and that power of the Holy Spirit by whom they were strengthened at confirmation. Thus other men, observing their good works, can glorify the Father (cf. Mt 5.16) and can better perceive the real meaning of human life and the bond which ties the whole community of mankind together” (AG 11). The divisions among Christians seriously interfere with this sign, which ought to be given to nonbelievers (see UR 1).

To be prophetic, Christian life must really be humanly good, not merely conventionally good. The sinful world knows and understands its own; its own tell it nothing new. Supernatural truth is not at once recognizable by the world. The truly fulfilling for human persons, however, is something even sinful persons can recognize and wonder at. The purity and courage of Maria Goretti, the noble loyalty and truthfulness of Thomas More—even men and women who are children of this generation can grasp the sign in such virtue.15

Free choice as such is not ultimately intelligible; there is no sufficient reason for any free choice. However, when a person acts out of self-interest and when people choose according to expediency, then all the world can explain such acts and lives: Nothing is done which does not serve the individual’s desires or the group’s conception of its common interests. Each truly Christian life points to something beyond this world. In doing so, it is a powerful sign. It makes credible the words of faith which explain it.

Of course, not all of us are saints. Many of us are miserably weak and sinful. How can our lives bear witness to the truth and love of God? Despite our sins, they can. The Catholic is called to repentance and the sacrament of penance (see DS 1542–43/807). The sins we must confess do not communicate the truth and love of our Lord Jesus. But the line of people waiting to go to confession and the tears of grateful penitents help to make the Church a sign which challenges the unbelief of the world.

Vatican II teaches that the primary condition for effective missionary activity is interior renewal. All the faithful are duty-bound to share in the expansion of the Mystical Body, so that they can bring it to fullness as quickly as possible (see AG 36). The primary responsibility in the spreading of the faith is to lead a fully Christian life. Such a life will make the Church appear as Jesus intended her to be: a sign lifted before the nations, the light of the world (see AG 36; cf. Is 11.12; Mt 5.13–16).

11. See “prophet,” Dictionary of the Bible, 2d ed., 468–74; C. Brown, “Prophet,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3:74–79. Gerhard von Rad, The Message of the Prophets (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 30–59, articulates several salient aspects of the prophetic role: the prophet has a personal vocation to which he must respond by a free commitment; he often makes this commitment reluctantly; in it he enjoys a special relationship to God; this relationship carries with it heavy responsibility; the prophet does not always bear his responsibility gladly; God rebukes him for this; the prophet suffers in carrying out his responsibility; his message is often ill-received; and prophets often come to a hard end at the hands of those to whom they are sent.

12. See Leo XIII, Sapientiae christianae, 22 ASS (1889–90) 392; The Papal Encyclicals, 111.16–17.

13. Ibid., 393;111.19. This entire encyclical provides powerful support for the argument of this and the next questions. In many places, Leo remarkably anticipates the perspective of Vatican II’s teaching on the apostolate of the laity.

14. See Paul VI, Paterna cum benevolentia, 67 AAS (1975) 5–23 (Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation within the Church), for a description of the effort of some to bring about a revolution comparable to the Protestant revolt in the Church, the damage this process does to the Church as sign, and the large role in this process of false “pluralism” in dissenting theology.

15. On Christian life as sign: René Latourelle, S.J., Christ and the Church: Signs of Salvation (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1972), 18–38, 254–64, and 285–319.