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Chapter 25: Christian Love as the Principle of Christian Life

Question E: Are there specific norms knowable only by faith whose fulfillment is strictly required by Christian love?

1. The love command of the New Testament adds a new incentive to pursue human goods in a morally upright way. In the light of Christian faith, integral human fulfillment is more than an ideal; its realization is included in the Christian’s hope for the fulfillment of everything in Jesus. The gospel also proposes certain counsels of perfection in a specifically Christian style of life, but the fulfillment of these is optional; they are not strict moral requirements.

2. Of course, Christian love strictly requires the fulfillment of all true moral norms—all the specific norms which direct action toward integral human fulfillment. All such norms, according to the account proposed in chapters four through ten, follow from the basic human goods and the first principle of morality, whose primary specifications are the modes of responsibility. Although faith’s teaching clarifies and calls attention to these principles of natural law, all of them can in principle be known without faith. Divine goodness and human goods are not alternatives for choice, and all moral choices are between human goods (24‑E). Hence, it seems that there is no room for specific norms, in principle knowable only by Christian faith, whose fulfillment is strictly required by Christian love.5

3. Nevertheless, it seems there are specifically Christian moral norms. St. Paul, for example, calls upon Christians to conform their lives to the mind of Jesus rather than to the world (see Rom 12.2), to walk according to the Spirit rather than the flesh (see Gal 5.13–26). Matthew’s Gospel describes Jesus as presenting a strikingly distinctive set of norms, which as a body go beyond anything in the Old Testament as well as in any other religion or philosophy. For example, his demands for forgiveness and love of enemies, while suggested by others, are at the core of a distinctive way of dealing with evil, most perfectly illustrated in Jesus’ own life, passion, and death (see Mt 5.38–48; Mk 8.31–33; Lk 9.22). Moreover, he calls on anyone who wishes to follow him to take up a personal cross (see Mt 16.24; Mk 8.34; Lk 9.23).6

4. An adequate answer to this question requires a synthesis of both the preceding points of view. On the one hand, there are no specific norms other than those required to direct action to the fulfillment of the possibilities proper to human nature as such. Charity does not dispose to any human fulfillment other than that in basic human goods. A Christian’s will, enlivened by charity, chooses and acts rightly only by its disposition toward integral human fulfillment. Thus, the principles of Christian morality are none other than those of natural law, treated in chapters four through ten (cf. S.t., 1–2, q. 108, a. 2). But, on the other hand, there are specific moral norms knowable only by Christian faith.7 Charity strictly requires the fulfillment of these norms because they are moral truths whose fulfillment is necessary for human fulfillment itself.

5. This answer to the question is paradoxical. One begins to resolve the paradox only by recognizing that humankind is fallen and redeemed. Original sin transforms the human situation in many ways, making moral uprightness seem unattractive and the irrationality of immorality seem unimportant (14‑G). This actual situation and its humanly acceptable solution is known fully only in the light of Christian faith. The gospel teaches how sin and its consequences can be overcome and how human acts can contribute to this as cooperation with God’s plan. It also teaches how the Christian’s life contributes not only to earthly progress but to integral human fulfillment within everlasting life.

6. The teachings of faith neither conflict with any of the general principles of morality nor add any new principles to them. Yet faith does generate specific norms proper to Christian life. It does this by proposing options both possible for and appealing to fallen men and women—options which either cannot be conceived without faith or would lack sufficient appeal to be considered in deliberation in the absence of Christian hope. Specific moral norms are generated only when proposals are articulated as appealing possibilities for choice. Thus, by advancing fresh proposals, faith generates specific norms which could not be known without it.8

7. An analogy helps clarify this. Dietetics sets down general norms for an adequate, balanced diet. To work out specific diets for various difficult cases, a dietitian must consider the problems each abnormal condition poses. Thus, a dietitian preparing a diet for an individual suffering from a certain disease—ulcers, say—produces a specific set of norms which are fully in accord with the general norms but also add to them: for example, by excluding certain foods which are generally permitted, by setting a special pattern and frequency for meals, by specifying how food is to be prepared, and so on.

8. Christian morality is like this. The human race is in a pathological condition. At the same time, it must be in training to accomplish the spectacular feat of reaching integral fulfillment. The facts of the human condition must be taken into account in considering the practical implications of the true, general requirements of human morality. If the facts—which are only fully disclosed by revelation—are ignored, people will behave more or less unrealistically.

9. In taking the actual human condition into account, divine revelation proposes specific norms, which can be derived from the general norms of human morality, yet are unknowable without the light of faith. Christian norms add to common human moral requirements from within, by specifying them, not from without by imposing some extrahuman demand upon human acts. Rather than ignoring or violating the general requirements of human morality, one who lives by Christian faith fulfills them.

10. Every true moral norm sets a requirement whose fulfillment Christian love demands. Even in the fallen human condition, many of these requirements are known very widely. The conventional moralities of all peoples contain much truth, especially in directing action toward substantive human goods by the cooperation of small groups such as the family.

11. Yet without the help of divine revelation, no widely accepted morality is free of gaps, misunderstandings, and false norms (see DS 3004–5/1785–86). These defects appear especially in dealing with moral evil and its consequences, and in interacting with individuals and groups beyond one’s own clan, tribe, caste, or nation. All the great moral and religious teachers of humankind have recognized these deficiencies in conventional moralities and sought to remedy them by radical reflection and more original and disciplined ways of life than those which suggest themselves to common sense.

12. Socrates and the Buddha, for example, in their distinct ways, considered the human situation with unusual clearsightedness. Like all men and women, they were given the grace necessary to live uprightly even in this fallen world. Unlike some, they apparently accepted it; unlike many, they reflected on the human condition with wisdom and tenacity. They sought a way for men and women to live uprightly in a world broken by sin. Since what they sought is found only in cooperation with God’s redemptive work, even such good and wise men did not find the true plan for a good human life. Rather, they imagined a world in which redemption by human effort would be possible, a world different from ours in important ways—for example, in respect to the human significance of death and the need for human effort toward a better life in this world. (This point is treated more fully in the appendix to chapter twenty-six.)

13. Thus, without Christian faith even the wisest men did not discover the true way to live in the fallen world. Morally good possibilites often lack appeal, and appealing possibilities often lack the human goodness demanded by the upright consciences of men like Socrates and the Buddha. The distinctiveness of Christian morality is clearest in its linking together seeming opposites.9 For example, one must love enemies, but absolutely refuse to compromise with them; one must suffer for the sake of uprightness, but not passively regard the world as broken beyond human effort to repair; one must concede nothing to anyone’s moral error, yet judge no one wicked.

14. Beyond such norms, each of which by itself might in principle be known by reason alone, Christian faith proposes actions inconceivable except in its light. Because Jesus’ redemptive act is cooperation with God’s work, known only by revelation, it is a specific kind of human act inconceivable apart from revelation. Jesus served the good of religion and the whole of humankind in a unique way by choosing to do what he did. While the life of Jesus as man is entirely within the framework of human goods and the moral principles proper to human life, the specific norm according to which he accepted his personal vocation could not have been formulated except by him.10

15. Moreover, Jesus’ life is not only an inspiring example but a real principle of the new covenant. Those who enter this community by faith are really freed from the fallen human condition. Since they are aware of God’s redemptive work, kinds of acts otherwise impossible become possible for them. Chief among these are the acts by which one finds and commits oneself to one’s personal vocation. Doing this will involve the specific acts of helping Jesus communicate divine truth and love to humankind and of preparing the sacrifice, united with his in each Mass, which merits God’s re-creative work, by which alone integral human fulfillment will be realized.11

16. In sum, there are certain specific norms, knowable only by faith, whose fulfillment is strictly required by Christian love. An important example is that one should find, accept, and faithfully carry out one’s personal vocation. Or, in the language of the gospel: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9.23).12

Inasmuch as we, although children of God, remain human persons with moral responsibility to act in ways consistent with integral human fulfillment, the perfect unity (without loss, separation, or commingling) of the divine and human in the being of Jesus and in his life is the standard to which our own being and lives must conform. Jesus “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (GS 22). The words and deeds of Jesus manifest the perfect love of God and the perfect human response to this love; it is the truth contained in this manifestation which the Spirit teaches (see Jn 14.26). The Spirit gives to Jesus’ followers his mind and renews their hearts in conformity with his sacred heart.

The reality of the Incarnation—that Jesus is a man as we are human, in everything except sin—demands that human nature in him not be nullified. By this very fact, human nature in us is recalled to the perfection toward which God originally ordered it when he made man and woman in his own image and likeness (see GS 22, 34, 38, 45). Therefore, the requirements of natural law—the humanly intelligible conditions for human fulfillment—remain in Jesus and are satisfied in him. Insofar as he is our norm, these requirements of our own humanity become demands of Christian love. For this reason, Vatican II teaches that the perfection of charity which comes from following Jesus and living in him is a holiness by which “a more human way of life is promoted even in this earthly society” (LG 40). Christian holiness is not an alternative to true humanism and involves no escape from human responsibility to pursue human goods in this world.

5. In recent years some Catholic theologians, emphasizing only this side of the problem, have concluded that Christian morality can add no normative content to the general human norms which belong to natural law. See Timothy E. O’Connell, Principles for a Catholic Morality (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 199–208, and 227, note 11; Bruno Schüller, S.J., “Christianity and the New Man: The Moral Dimension—Specificity of Christian Ethics,” in Theology and Discovery: Essays in Honor of Karl Rahner, S.J., ed. William J. Kelly, S.J. (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980), 307–27, ably answered by Richard Roach, S.J., 328–30, and Mary Rousseau, 331–35. Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, trans. John Bowden (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 586–600, admits a distinctive specific normative content for Christian morality, but gratuitously reduces it to the status of an ideal, always subject to situational exceptions—note his treatment of divorce, 592–93. At the same time he supposes that all strictly binding norms or commands are mere conventional impositions of only relative value—note his definition of “paraenesis” (904). Underlying these assertions is a question-begging division which leaves no place for moral norms as truths and so no place for the conception of conscience and natural law so clearly reaffirmed by Vatican II (see 3‑B and 7‑A).

6. For systematic exegesis which establishes the point made in this paragraph: W. D. Davies, “Ethics in the New Testament,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2:167–76; Matthew Vellanickal, “Norm of Morality according to the Scripture,” Bible Bhashyam: An Indian Biblical Quarterly, 7 (1981), 121–46.

7. See William Cardinal Baum, “The Distinctiveness of Catholoic Moral Teaching,” in Principles of Catholic Moral Life, ed. William E. May (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1980), 3–17. Baum correctly points to a solution to the problem in a Christocentric and sacramental understanding of Christian life: “Revelation, therefore, plays a constitutive part in the formulation of moral teachings and moral theology. The purpose of these teachings is to identify the way of life that is in accordance with the truth of revelation and Redemption” (6). See also Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Nine Theses in Christian Ethics,” in Readings in Moral Theology, No. 2: The Distinctiveness of Christian Ethics, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 191–93, where the primacy of Jesus in Christian life is clearly stated. Although he denies at one point (39) that Jesus has given any new specific precept, Edouard Hamel, S.J., Loi Naturelle et Loi du Christ (Bruges: Desclée de Brouwer, 1964), 11–43, offers a synthesis of virtually all the elements of a proper solution to the problem, and articulates and cogently criticizes the more important, inadequate positions.

8. Joseph Fuchs, S.J., “Is There a Specifically Christian Morality?” in Curran and McCormick, eds., op. cit., 14–16, recognizes that Christian realities do determine the intentionality, the concrete conduct, and the ways of conduct of those who undertake to live Christian lives. Yet he fails to see that in doing all this, faith specifies moral requirements unknowable without it, requirements whose fulfillment is strictly demanded (and made possible) by Christian love. Fuchs’ failure to see the implications of the facts he recognizes is explained by his assumptions about both human acts and moral norms. He fails to see that acts with different intelligible content, even if they are behaviorally the same, are different moral acts. Thus he misses the impact of a Christian “intentionality,” displacing it into the mysterious realm of fundamental freedom. He also thinks of moral norms as if they were a limited set of available rules. For this reason he thinks that features of Christian action not related to norms knowable without faith are somehow transmoral. Both of these defects follow from the influence on Fuchs of classical moral theology’s legalism and inadequate theory of natural law.

9. Joseph Ratzinger, “Magisterium of the Church, Faith, Morality,” in Curran and McCormick, eds., op. cit., 176–78, clearly sees this aspect of the solution and rejects the false notion that Christians have simply adopted whatever conventional morality they encountered.

10. Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), 552, affirms Jesus as norm: “We might then summarily define Jesus’ unique significance for human action in this way: with his word, his actions and his fate, in his impressiveness, audibility, and realizability, he is himself in person the invitation, the appeal, the challenge, for the individual and society. As the standard basic model of a view of life and practice of life, without a hint of legalism or casuistry, he provides inviting, obligatory and challenging examples, significant deeds, orientation standards, exemplary values, model cases. And by this very fact he impresses and influences, changes and transforms human beings who believe and thus human society.” Yet Küng denies that there is any specific normative content to Christian ethics (541–49), for he fails to see that a model is followed only by grasping and willing its intelligibility. In place of Christian norms, Küng accepts (534) a pragmatic principle: “The morally good then is what ‘works’ for man, what permits human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed and to work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered.” Specific norms are hypothetical imperatives and only relatively valid: “All these precepts and prohibitions are valid therefore, not however for their own sake, but for the sake of realizing the greater good” (537). In practice, Küng holds (540) “the non-evidence, uncertainty and vagueness of the norms and of the pluralism of the ethical systems resulting from this,” and so embraces a form of cultural relativism: “. . . we must be content to say briefly that knowledge of the good, its norms, models, signs, is conveyed to the individual by society” (541).

11. Dionigi Tettamanzi, “Is There a Christian Ethics?” in Curran and McCormick, eds., op. cit., 20–49, provides a rather helpful summary of the controversy concerning the distinctiveness of Christian ethics; he also states (49–57) most of the essential elements of the solution, although without all the precision one might wish, especially with respect to the distinction and relationship between grace and nature in human moral life. Similarly: Ph. Delhaye, “Questioning the Specificity of Christian Morality,” in ibid., 234–69; his critique is especially valuable for pointing out the inadequacies of various partial solutions and the need for a balanced position in accord with the call of Vatican II for renewal in moral theology. The following studies also are helpful: Ferdinando Citterio, “Morale autonoma e fede cristiana: Il dibattito continua,” Scuola cattolica, 108 (1980), 509–61, esp. 542–6l; 109 (1981), 3–29, esp. 26–29; Teodoro López and Gonzalo Aranda, “Lo específico de la Moral cristiana: Valoración de la literatura sobre el tema,” Scripta Theologica, 7 (1975), 687–767; Bernhard Stoeckle, “Flucht in das Humane? Erwägungen zur Diskussion über die Frage nach dem Proprium christlicher Ethik,” Internationale katholische Zeitschrift (Communio), 6 (1977), 312–24; Georges Cottier, O.P., Humaine raison: Contributions à une éthique du savoir (Friburg: Editions universitaires, 1980).

12. Charles E. Curran has argued that a distinctively Christian ethic would necessarily involve several false presuppositions, such as exclusion of non-Christians from the order of salvation, a doctrine of total corruption of human nature, a sharp separation of nature and grace, and of creation and redemption. See Catholic Moral Theology in Dialogue (Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides Publishers, 1972), 1–23. None of the presuppositions he points to underlies the solution to the problem proposed here. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., Notes on Moral Theology: 1965 through 1980 (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981), 299–303, offers several telling criticisms of Curran’s position, but himself fails to see how Christian faith can propose specific norms unknowable without it, without introducing anything into the human from without. Like most who have dealt with the question, McCormick fails to see that faith can generate new norms by proposing new kinds of acts; he takes for granted that all the possibilities for human acts are given beforehand.