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Chapter 27: Life Formed by the Modes of Christian Response

Question A: What is the underlying principle which unifies the modes of Christian response?

1. Anyone comparing the general modes of human responsibility with the specifically Christian modes of response will notice that the distinctions among the latter are far less clear than those among the former. Yet the Christian modes of response include the human modes of responsibility and transform them. Why, then, do the Christian modes form so tight a unity that they seem almost to merge, rather like double images which fuse when a lens is focused?

2. Logically, the Christian modes are distinct among themselves. From a conceptual point of view, each requires something different from the others. Still, in many Christian acts one clearly sees the various modes exemplified together. For instance, the missionaries among the North American martyrs undertook the work of mercy of spreading the gospel, carried out their mission with single-minded dedication, lived as peacemakers among their enemies, and laid down their lives for Jesus. In fact, all the modes of Christian response come to bear upon every act of Christian life. All demand what each demands, all exclude what each excludes.

3. To see why this is so, it will be helpful to recall the relationship between the principles of morality and God’s redemptive work in Jesus. The first principle of morality is that one’s willing should always be that of a will toward integral human fulfillment. Revelation tells us that this fulfillment is more than an ideal; it is to be realized in the accomplishment of God’s plan for the fulfillment of all things in Jesus. By the gift of charity, God’s adopted children are disposed toward this greater good which will include their human fulfillment. Thus, the first principle of Christian morality is always to will in a way which contributes to human fulfillment as part of the fulfillment of all things in Jesus (25‑D).

4. Charity, one’s share in the divine nature, in no way limits or nullifies one’s human nature. Hence, the modes of responsibility which specify the first moral principle are still valid for Christian life. The fallen human condition, however, sets special requirements which must be met if one is to live uprightly (25‑E). In the fallen condition, persons confront death, lack the support of a genuine human community, and so see little point in an upright and energetic pursuit of human goods. Thus, without the grace of Jesus, it is in practice impossible for fallen men and women to live consistently good lives. They are constantly tempted to deal with evil inappropriately—for example, by destructive methods or renunciation of human hope for a good life in this world.

5. Jesus’ way of dealing with evil is uniquely appropriate to the actual human condition. Encountering evil with healing love, he meets all the requirements of moral goodness. He faces the human condition with absolute realism, rejects violence, yet sets to work to change things for the better insofar as this is possible through human action. On the basis of these characteristics alone, Jesus’ life is morally exemplary and his cause worthy of support. But his life and especially his death and resurrection also are revelatory. They show that humankind can escape evil and share in the realization of all human hopes by living in union with Jesus. For in accepting Jesus’ self-offering, God has made it clear that Jesus’ human life is cooperation with the divine redemptive work, which will be completed through the re-creation of the broken world.

6. With these principles in mind, one can understand the precise difference between the modes of responsibility and the modes of Christian response. The modes of responsibility are moral principles excluding ways of willing incompatible with a will toward integral human fulfillment. The modes of Christian response are norms for action which actually will contribute to the realization of integral human fulfillment. The modes of Christian response take into account what must be done if one is to live an upright life and realize human goods in the fallen human condition. They direct men and women to commit themselves to a definite kind of action—that begun by Jesus. Moreover, the modes of Christian response not only prescribe good acts, but include a precommitment to do them and, by the gift of the Spirit, the power to carry out this commitment (26‑B).

7. In sum, the modes of responsibility remain valid moral principles which, even in the fallen human condition, require human action in accord with integral human fulfillment. Their indications are all met perfectly in one human act: the sacrificial act of Jesus. In this completely virtuous act Jesus overcomes all the disharmonies of sin—within the individual, among the principles of human actions themselves, among human individuals and groups, and between humankind and God. Hence, Jesus’ act includes both the norms for the choices essential to these existential harmonies and their virtuous fulfillment. These norms and their realization are the modes of Christian response. Thus, the modes of Christian response, in transforming the modes of responsibility, merge like so many images of human goodness coming to focus in one perfect image.