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Chapter 25: Christian Love as the Principle of Christian Life


Participation in the divine nature is not a human act, and so charity itself is not a human act, although it is related to such acts. As a disposition to fulfillment in divine life, charity is not something one does but something one is to remain in. As the principle of our response to the commandment to love God and neighbor, charity is a disposition to good human acts; but the fulfillment to which it is directed is not a human action. Thus certain actions are called “acts of charity” not because they are themselves charity but because they are closely related to it.

Moral goodness is not a condition or means for receiving charity, for charity is purely a gift of God. Having received this gift, however, one can and must live a morally good life. Such a life means loving human fulfillment. For every other good reflects and participates in the goodness of God, and one who does not love human goods as they should be loved is failing in love of God.

The moral implications of Christian love are partly but not completely expressed by the commands to love God and neighbor. Closely linked by Jesus, the two requirements can be taken as a single, complex norm, a formulation in religious terms of the first principle of morality. They remain, however, within the framework of the old covenant, while the parable of the Good Samaritan begins to suggest a fulfillment of the law and prophets which goes beyond them.

Jesus himself embodies perfect love. Christian life is a sharing in the fullness of love, the personal divine-human communion which Jesus is. His love is unique in magnitude and selflessness, yet he commands us to love as he does. This requirement to love as Jesus loves—that is, as divine children—is new. We are empowered to do this by charity, divine love poured forth in human hearts by the Holy Spirit. Christian morality transforms the first principle of all human morality—that we ought to will only those possibilities which are compatible with a will toward integral human fulfillment—into a more definite norm: To will only what contributes to the integral human fulfillment being realized in the fulfillment of all things in Jesus.

The principles of Christian morality are none other than those of natural law. Yet there are specific Christian moral norms. This is so because humankind’s actual situation as fallen and redeemed can be fully known only by faith. Since faith proposes new options, it generates specific norms which could not be articulated without it. Thus, Christian norms add from within to common human moral requirements by specifying them, not from without by imposing some extrahuman demand upon human acts.

Without faith, people can still know moral truths, but their knowledge is inadequate in many ways. Great religious and moral teachers—upright and clearheaded men such as Socrates and the Buddha—were aware of the human need for redemption. But even they could not find the way to live a wholly realistic and good human life in the actual human situation. This way is revealed only in Jesus. Only by faith can one recognize this way and know that one must follow it.

Christian moral life is cooperation with Jesus’ redemptive act. Since every act of a Christian’s life should carry out his or her personal vocation, everything should be transformed by charity. Christians should be able to say at every moment that what they are doing is a specifically Christian act: following Jesus by doing this or that. Thus, every act of Christian life will be a response to God’s gifts (an act of sacrifice and thanksgiving), a preparation of the materials of the heavenly kingdom, a revelation of God’s truth and love to others, and a contribution to true self-fulfillment (holiness). To guide choices so that they will fit into such a life, specifically Christian norms are needed. These are found in the Gospels, not as a detailed moral code, but implicit in the moral principles exemplified and taught by Jesus. These specifically Christian principles transform the modes of responsibility into modes of Christian response.

The new law does more than just specify the old. For central to the new law is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus the new law not only tells one how to live, it empowers one to live in this way. This outpouring of the Spirit of God, anticipated in the Old Testament, is promised by Jesus and fulfilled at Pentecost. The action of the Spirit is the reality and effective power of divine love, poured forth in human hearts. Although even natural law seems a burdensome, alien imposition to fallen humankind, Christians, formed by divine love, are freed from law in its burdensome aspect. If they are faithful to this gift, Christians will spontaneously prefer right ways of acting and find nothing good alien.

Charity can be called “grace” in two senses. “Sanctifying grace” is that in Christians by which they are transformed into adopted children of God. Since the Church has not taught, and theologians do not agree, whether or not charity and sanctifying grace are the same reality, one is free to call charity “sanctifying grace,” and no distinction seems needed for the purposes of moral theology. As for “actual grace,” the term refers to various realities which move people to contribute to God’s redemptive work. First among these is God’s causality, but, as a dynamic principle of Christian life, charity also can be called “actual grace.”