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Chapter 27: Life Formed by the Modes of Christian Response

Question C: How do the Christian modes of response lead to specific Christian norms?

1. Specific norms can be derived by considering the relation of the willing involved in each kind of action to the intelligible goods which actions of that kind bear upon (10‑B). This consideration is carried out in the light of the first principle of morality and the modes of responsibility. Because the modes of Christian response should shape all the actions of a Christian’s life, they also must lead to specific norms.

2. Like the modes of responsibility, the modes of Christian response determine the moral character of kinds of action by evaluating the ways in which one’s will in doing them relates to human goods. However, there are two special features of the derivation of Christian norms. First, the actions of a Christian’s life always are specifically different from those possible without faith (25‑E). Second, the modes of Christian response are themselves affirmative norms of a very general kind, for they direct that every action of a Christian’s life be a way of living redemptively in Jesus.

3. In practice, individual Christians need not derive all the specific Christian norms for themselves. Some important ones are found in the New Testament and the Church’s constant and universal teaching—for example, injunctions to fast and give alms, to do good to persecutors, to correct erring fellow Christians in a certain way, and so on. Many other specific norms can be gathered from the lives of those honored as saints, rules approved for religious families, practices commended in pastoral exhortations, and so on. Such norms often can be adapted to determine precise responsibilities for those Christians to whose options they are relevant.

4. Most of the affirmative responsibilities of Christian life follow quite clearly from the commitments which constitute one’s personal vocation. Whenever one recognizes some kind of action as appropriate to carry out one’s vocation, doing that kind of action becomes obligatory unless there is another good option or some reason for not doing it. Of course, at times the richness of options or difficult conflicts can make it hard to see how one ought to proceed in accord with one’s vocation.

5. In such cases, reflection on the factual situation and its possibilities in the light of the Christian modes of response often leads to a solution. This solution will be a new and appropriate kind of action together with a norm requiring that it be chosen. For example, pressed either to swear falsely or to commit treason, St. Thomas More saw it as his duty to avoid both by a careful refusal to speak his mind, which entailed his suffering the penalties of loss of position, property, and personal liberty.

6. When individual Christians—or even the Church as a community—finds it necessary to seek solutions by deriving new moral norms, it is important to bear in mind that Christian morality does not negate any moral truth known without the light of faith. Hence, if a norm of common morality is absolute, any Christian specification of it will also be absolute. An act which is always immoral for anyone is always immoral for a Christian. Otherwise, Christian norms could direct one to act in a manner incompatible with integral human fulfillment. It is necessary of course to keep in mind that an absolute norm determines the morality of a kind of act morally described, not a kind of act behaviorally described.

Blasphemy, for example, is wrong. Understanding “blasphemy” as the choice to demean what one believes to be divine, the norm of common morality already is absolute. The Christian norm of morality cannot change this moral determination, although the norm is more specific insofar as God and humankind’s relation to him are better understood. However, in a culture which is not Christian, certain patterns of behavior will be counted “blasphemy” which in the light of Christian faith really are not such. For example, the Jewish leaders considered blasphemy what Jesus did not (see Mt 26.65; Jn 10.36). Therefore, what the standards of conventional morality consider blasphemy can be obligatory for a Christian, yet the specifically Christian norm on this matter does not change the negative moral determination of the norm of common morality against blasphemy.

7. Moreover, even when a norm of morality for a kind of action considered without faith is nonabsolute, a similar action done within Christian life will have further specifications. In view of these, the corresponding Christian norm can be absolute. For example, even without faith one can know that marital faithfulness until death is a moral responsibility. But a Christian’s marital commitment is a richer act than is that of a person without faith. Christian marriage necessarily is a vocational commitment to which Jesus is a party; the sacramental bond of marriage shares in and contributes to his unbreakable union with the Church. The result is that the nonabsolute norm of morality holding even nonbelievers to faithfulness in marriage until death is replaced by an absolute norm of Christian morality.

8. Christian reflection also sometimes leads to a specific moral judgment which seems to reverse an apparently sound norm. When this occurs, Christian morality is not overriding any moral truth knowable without faith. Rather, the Christian action is different in kind, because faith provides new options and enriches existing ones with new meaning (25‑F). The result is that many nonabsolute norms articulated without faith, although true for the realities they take into account, prove inadequate for Christian life. What would be approved or even required by upright judgment without faith often must be rejected by Christian standards. The opposite also is true.

For example, common morality enjoins that family members compose differences in religious practice in a way likely to promote the family’s solidarity. The norm is nonabsolute, but sound at its level of specification, since apart from revelation religion is not superior to essential social solidarity, and since the good of religion in general does not generate any specific requirement of exclusive worship in one form. Christian revelation, however, is divisive (see Lk 12.52), for it puts the claims of Jesus above those of family solidarity, requires that any form of religious practice incompatible with the gospel be avoided, and even demands a profession of faith when failure to make such a profession would be equivalent to denial by silence. Thus, the specifically Christian norm about religious differences and family solidarity sometimes requires what the nonabsolute norm of common morality would correctly exclude.

Again, according to a nonabsolute norm of common morality, divorce is wrong, for although marriage is not in itself sacramental and absolutely indissoluble, the relationship is morally unbreakable. However, according to a more specific norm of Christian morality—the so-called “Pauline privilege” (see 1 Cor 7.15)—a Christian can accept as definitive the refusal of a nonbelieving spouse to live in a marriage in a manner compatible with the Christian partner’s observance of the duties of Christian life. (Thus Christian norms specify the common requirements of marital faithfulness in two seemingly opposite ways, but both are understandable if one bears in mind the distinction between marriage in general and specifically Christian marriage.)