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Chapter 26: Modes of Christian Response

Question B: How are the modes of Christian response related to the Christian moral virtues?

1. Unlike passages in which Jesus is portrayed as calling for faith or articulating a love command, the Sermon on the Mount presupposes these principles, for here Jesus is described as instructing his own disciples concerning the way of life they have undertaken in following him. As question A explained, the Beatitudes articulate eight distinct modes of Christian response. These are not specific actions but ways of acting—or, better, distinct aspects of the unique way of Jesus. The characteristics for which disciples are called “blessed”—such as poverty of spirit and mercy—are traits of a Christian’s character. In other words, they are Christian virtues.

2. Virtues are aspects of the character of a good person (7‑H). A good person’s character is his or her whole self integrated around a set of upright commitments. These commitments are upright because they fulfill true moral norms. Thus, virtues embody the skeleton of moral truth in the flesh and blood of a good life.

3. The distinctive norms of Christian morality are not a set of requirements added from without to the conditions one must fulfill to live a good human life (25‑E). On the contrary, Christian norms direct one to those humanly good options which one must accept if one is to live uprightly in the fallen world. In other words, Christian norms specify the requirements of moral truth in accord with the actual situation of humankind fallen and redeemed.

4. Any analytic treatment of virtues unavoidably seems to suggest that the virtuous character is less an organic unit than is the case. But since a morally good person is not split in two, we need not suppose that there are two sets of virtues in the Christian, one at the natural level and the other at the supernatural level. Christian virtues simply specify common human virtues further, thus making them genuine virtues in the present, fallen and redeemed, human situation. Hence, every true virtue present in a Christian will include the characteristically Christian way of being a morally good person.

Many sound Catholic theologians discuss human and Christian moral virtues. All agree that these are dispositions to morally good acts, and that Christian moral virtues dispose one to acts which are transformed by charity. Beyond these basic propositions, there is little agreement about human and Christian moral virtues, and no explicit, authoritative Church teaching on the subject. What follows clarifies the virtues within the framework of the assumptions of the present work.9

Choices are determinations of the self (2‑E). They are spiritual entities. Of themselves, they endure. Some choices are more comprehensive than others, in the sense that they extend to a larger part of one’s life. Among the more comprehensive choices are commitments, by which one settles one’s relationships with some other person or persons and with some one or more basic human goods. The fundamental commitment of Christian life is the act of faith, by which one commits oneself to cooperate in the redemptive, community-forming act of Jesus (16‑G). The commitments of one’s personal vocation, by which one forms one’s unique, Christian identity, give personal determinacy to one’s act of faith (23‑E).

The personal identity established by one’s commitments is an enduring disposition to morally good or bad acts. Insofar as it is a disposition to morally good acts, it is virtue. Thus, the essence of the moral virtue of Jesus is his disposition to live his life in fulfillment of his basic commitment and unique personal vocation. The essence of Christian moral virtue is the disposition to live one’s Christian life in accord with faith by carrying out one’s personal vocation.

5. As question A explained, the Christian modes of response transform the modes of responsibility, inasmuch as the former incline one toward fulfillment in Jesus, whereas the latter only articulate requirements which must be met if an upright will is to follow reason against wayward inclination. In other words, in the modes of Christian response, the normative principles which can be expressed in propositions already are embraced by a Christian’s will and at least somewhat embodied in his or her character.

6. To see why this is so, it is helpful to recall how Christian norms become known by adults who are converted to the faith. Such a person first discovers the Christian way of life as a happy solution to the seemingly hopeless human situation. The norms of Christian morality are accepted as true inasmuch as they are part of the gospel accepted in faith. Faith is a fundamental option, given with the Christian love which both motivates faith and is accepted by it. Thus, one who understands and assents to Christian moral norms already has a precommitment to live by them. Moreover, except for the abnormal condition of a Christian living in mortal sin, charity impels those who accept Christian standards to fulfill them by the Spirit’s power.

7. Thus, the integral self of a Christian, formed by divine love, is marked by dispositions which lead to a Christian fulfillment of the human modes of responsibility. Insofar as any virtue is perfected, the norm it embodies ordinarily is fulfilled without its coming to consciousness as a demand opposed to inclination. This is why Christians are liberated from the law, including the moral law insofar as it makes demands on the self. People who love God perfectly may do as they please, for nothing will please them except doing God’s will.

8. Because Christian modes of response are more specific than the common modes of responsibility and their corresponding virtues, one finds in Christians states of character which are vicious only by specifically Christian standards. Although the same dispositions might not appear particularly praiseworthy by common human standards, they would not be judged vicious.

For example, by the common human standard of impartiality, those who are careful to be perfectly fair with others meet the norm of impartiality, although they are equally exacting in making certain that their own rights are fully respected by others. To be as precise in requiring and obtaining what one ought to have as one is in giving others their due in no way violates the requirement of impartiality. A person who regularly behaved in such a fashion would neither be praised for kindness and generosity nor criticized for any significant moral failing.

However, as question H will explain, the Christian specification of the mode of responsibility which requires impartiality transforms it into the Christian mode of response which is marked by mercy or loving-kindness toward others. This mode of response demands that one meet others more than half way. One must do one’s duty and go beyond it. Hence, Christians who regularly insist on their rights, simply because these are their rights (not because insistence in a particular case is necessary to fulfill some commitment), fall short of the relevant Christian mode of response. This shortcoming includes the sort of thing one might call “stinginess” or “niggardliness.” This is not a humanly admirable quality, but neither is it a vice by common human standards as long as it does not lead to unfairness of some sort.

9. We must therefore speak, somewhat paradoxically, of “Christian vices.” These are dispositions incompatible with specifically Christian modes of response but not with the common human modes of responsibility and virtues. Christian vices are less drastically opposed to the Christian modes of response than common human vices (for example, stinginess is less opposed to Christian compassion than injustice is). But it does not follow that such vices are mere imperfections, unattractive but morally acceptable.

The Christian vices appear to lack appropriate names which fit them precisely, although a variety of negative traits can be mentioned in the area of each of the modes of Christian response which seem to meet the notion of a Christian vice. This difficulty ought not to prevent one from attempting to understand these traits with precision. Such understanding is likely to be especially valuable for the examination of conscience of persons who are avoiding grave sins (which usually violate common requirements of the modes of responsibility) and are striving for the holiness to which every Christian is summoned (see Mt 5.48; LG 40, 42).

9. The implications of the theological framework developed in this work point to an understanding of virtue rather different from that of St. Thomas and more like that of St. Bonaventure. See W. D. Hughes, O.P., in St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, vol. 23, Virtue, trans. and ed. W. D. Hughes, O.P. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 245–48.