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Chapter 26: Modes of Christian Response

Question I: What mode of Christian response corresponds to the sixth Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5.8)?

1. People whose primary love is charity are disposed to divine goodness above all else. Since this goodness includes every other good in its true measure and worth, love of God itself draws one to love as one should and turn away from loving as one should not. In this life, charity leads to continuous conversion; those who love God always have reason for sorrow that they do not love as they ought. Therefore, the sixth mode of Christian response is to strive to conform one’s whole self to living faith, and to recognize and purge anything which does not meet this standard. This way of acting is faith’s specification and charity’s fulfillment of the sixth mode of responsibility: One should not choose on the basis of emotions which bear upon empirical aspects of intelligible goods (or bads) in a way which interferes with a more perfect sharing in the good or avoidance of the bad.

In the fallen human condition, the prevalence of misery and disappointment, especially disappointment with other people, breeds hopelessness. If everything is vanity, if life is a story full of sound and fury but without ultimate meaning, then it is no more absurd to pursue immediate satisfactions, which one can experience, than to pursue true goods, for even if the former pursuit blocks the latter, the latter is pointless. Furthermore, lack of self-control is very common, and those who act irrationally in violation of the third mode of responsibility are very likely to give up the struggle and adopt a policy of satisfying desire as much as possible. Thus they are predisposed to violate this mode as well. Even apart from the New Testament, divine revelation deepens this mode of responsibility (8‑F). The struggle against pseudoreligion provides a paradigm for a sharp distinction between true goods and the merely empirical aspects of goods pursued for their own sake.

However, many people who are not pure in heart seem to avoid substituting apparent for true goods; they seem to have a serious, realistic, and clearheaded grasp on human goods. How do they manage to have such a disposition? To some extent it is a matter of ideology. One can develop a view of reality which virtually negates the value of human experience; one finds such views not only in idealistic philosophies such as Plato’s, but also in the grim practicality of the Marxist. More generally, many people settle for the apparent good with self-deception only in one area of life (for example, in the sphere of intimate, personal relationships) but live quite realistically in other areas, which they place in the service of the satisfaction they seek (for example, in experiences of superficial and unreal love or friendship).

Christian revelation, accepted with living faith, transforms one’s understanding of the attainability of true human goods: All can be realized in fulfillment in Jesus. Hence, one need not settle for mere appearances. But, at the same time, any way of acting which does not contribute to one’s Christian life—that is, any commitment or choice not positively integrated with faith—leads toward some experience of good which is less than one could be pursuing. In other words, for the Christian, any act not formed by living faith is an unreasonable pursuit of a merely apparent good. But to the extent that one falls short of the perfection of charity—which we all do—one’s life is not wholly integrated with living faith. The reality of this situation must be admitted, since only by admitting it can one strive for perfection.

2. The virtuous disposition inherent in this mode of response is single-minded devotion to God, essentially including a sense of sin and a process of continuing conversion. The devout life consists in having no commitments which do not constitute part of one’s personal vocation, seeking in every act only to fulfill one’s commitments, recognizing one’s failures in realizing this ideal, turning away from whatever underlies these failures, and so living ever more completely in faith’s light and by its power. Mediocrity and insincerity constitute the vicious disposition opposed to this virtue: One desires to be a Christian but is unwilling to surrender totally to Jesus, though this is an inherent requirement of Christian life.

3. The purity of heart envisaged in the Beatitude goes far beyond the ritual purity initially required for one to come into God’s presence in the liturgy (see Lv 11–16).28 Jesus declares that true purity is interior (see Mt 15.10–20; Mk 7.14–23). Purity comes ultimately from the word of truth (see Jn 15.3) and from holiness of life in Jesus. The perfection of charity “issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (1 Tm 1.5). Thus Christians must strive to love God with every part of themselves. Such striving is the work of the pure in heart (see Mt 22.37; Mk 12.30; Lk 10.27).

4. The First Epistle of John clearly expresses the twofold attitude central to Christian devotion. On the one hand, insincerity can be avoided only if one admits sin; a person who does not admit it is a liar, self-deceived, devoid of truth. Admitting sin is essential to being forgiven (see 1 Jn 1.8–10). On the other hand, no one begotten of God acts sinfully; sin belongs exclusively to the devil, while God’s children are immune to it (see 1 Jn 3.7–9). In short, Christians recognize the reality of sin in their lives and, with it, their constant need for conversion and mercy; but Christians also recognize the reality of divine love at the center of their lives and, with it, their real power to attain perfect holiness.

5. In excoriating the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus places special emphasis on their hypocrisy (see Mt 23.27–28; Lk 11.44; 12.1–3). Far from being irreligious, the Pharisees are devout; but their devotion—and this is Jesus’ quarrel with them—is not and does not even try to be total devotion to God. Primarily self-serving, it involves grave self-deception concerning their own uprightness, since they claim perfection by a standard which is false and which they ought to know is false (see Mt 12.22–42; 15.1–14; Lk 18.9–14; Jn 9.40–41).

6. According to St. Augustine, the gift of understanding corresponds to the sixth Beatitude.29 St. Thomas explains that by understanding one is free from vain imagining and from a limited and erroneous understanding of Christian life, and so helped toward perfection (see S.t., 2–2, q. 8, aa. 6–7).

Jesus condemned the hypocrisy of religious acts done for the sake of human respect (see Mt 6.5, 16). One cannot serve two masters (see Mt 6.24; Lk 16.13). One must follow Jesus without putting family duties, such as burying the dead, first (see Mt 8.21–22; Lk 9.59–62). Yet Jesus does not take his own out of the world; rather, he wishes them to live in the world lives consecrated in divine truth (see Jn 17.15–19). The invitation to the heavenly banquet is given to all, but those are excluded who would rather fulfill an incompatible commitment (see Mt 22.1–10; Lk 14.15–24).

The passage on the coin of the tax shows that Christian life does not preclude fulfilling secular commitments and responsibilities. However, these are of an order altogether different from that of the commitment of Christian faith. Hence, one gives to earthly authority only what is due it—material goods and services. Devotion is reserved to God (see Mt 22.15–22; Mk 12.13–17; Lk 20.20–26).

Christian life is founded upon Jesus who is not wishy-washy, not “yes” and “no,” but only “yes.” He demands total devotion and gives the Spirit as the pledge of fulfillment (see 2 Cor 1.17–22). Sincere love is now a real possibility, since the Holy Spirit has been given, yet we are not yet perfect (see Phil 3.12–16). The danger to the Christian is falling away from sincere devotion to Jesus (see 2 Cor 11.3).

Paul writes that as a Christian he has a new sense of values. Jesus is wealth, and nothing else really matters. To be in Jesus with the rightness which comes from faith in him is all-important. One must experience the power which flows from his resurrection and be shaped in the form of his death (see Phil 3.7–11). Then Paul adds thoughts distinctively Christian: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained” (Phil 3.12–16). Those whose hearts are set upon worldly things will end in disaster. Our citizenship already is in heaven (see Phil 3.20). Thus mature Christian spirituality is a progress toward perfection.

28. See Dupont, op. cit., 557–603.

29. St. Augustine, op. cit., 20.