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Chapter 27: Life Formed by the Modes of Christian Response


Although logically distinct, the modes of Christian response all point in one direction and guide every action of Christian life. Their unity is explained by the fact that the various modes of Christian response are aspects of Jesus’ one redemptive act. By dealing with sin realistically, this act not only passes the test of the modes of responsibility but contributes to the realization of integral human fulfillment.

Since Christians enter into Jesus’ redemptive act by faith, this fundamental option embodies the modes of Christian response. They are embodied even more clearly in commitments of personal vocation and the particular choices made to implement them. Thus, insofar as Christians faithfully carry out their personal vocations, the modes of Christian response will mark each and every choice they make.

Like the modes of responsibility, the modes of Christian response lead to specific norms. But because Christian life is a specific type of human life, Christian norms are more specific than those of common morality. In practice, individual Christians need not derive all the specific Christian norms for themselves. The Church’s guidance and the claims of personal vocation go far to indicate what each Christian needs to do. Moreover, the moral absolutes of common morality hold true in specifically Christian morality. As for the nonabsolute norms of common morality, they sometimes give place to absolute ones in Christian morality. In other cases, the Christian specification of such norms remains nonabsolute, but may characterize as wrong what common morality commends, and vice versa.

While a Catholic’s conscience should conform absolutely to the Church’s teaching, and this excludes certain choices, still the Church’s teaching can never say by itself what one positively should do. It points out no specific positive duty which might not yield in some circumstances to some other responsibility. Thus, a conscience wholly faithful to the Church’s teaching has work to do in every choice, for one must always choose what one will do, not just what one will not, and this often requires a very complex affirmative norm. A mature Christian conscience is not satisfied with knowing one possibility is forbidden and another permitted; it seeks instead for the right choice.

To find it, not only an adequate norm but prudence is required. Prudence judges the right time to end moral reflection and determines which of two or more morally good options is to be preferred. In difficult situations it also can play a creative role by proposing fresh possibilities.

Vatican II teaches that every Christian is called to the perfection possible in this life. Charity is the heart of Christian holiness but it does not constitute perfection by itself. One must grow in charity by prayer, the sacraments, and a morally good life whose perfection includes the human goods. Since perfection includes love of all human goods, the demand for perfection extends to the whole of moral life. Christians respond to the universal call to holiness in no other way than by responding to the call of personal vocation, in whose carrying out Christian perfection is realized.

The gospel’s demand for perfection clearly requires that in some circumstances Christians forgo their rights. People are often concerned about their rights simply because they are theirs, and conventional morality approves this, though it violates the fifth mode of responsibility. Less often, people are concerned for their rights as a matter of justice and take the same view of the rights of others; this conforms to the requirements of common human morality. But Christians, imitating Jesus, should voluntarily forgo their rights, when this can be done without injury to their responsibilities, and should more than fulfill their duties.

Since Christian responsibility extends to all human beings, inasmuch as all need redemption, how can a Christian give preference to certain persons, such as fellow Christians? Part of the answer is that there is an order of charity, grounded in the Trinity. As there is a definite order among the divine persons, so there is an order of charity among human persons. All who are saved, are saved by being united with Jesus as members of the Church, within which there are different roles and a definite order. This order inherent in charity explains why so much emphasis is placed on fraternal charity among Christians. The order of charity likewise requires preference for certain persons whenever this is a responsibility of one’s vocation.

Another puzzle arises from the Church’s teaching that life according to the counsels is recommended but not obligatory. But if such a life, as the Church further teaches, is conducive to perfection, it must be obligatory; however, if it is obligatory, the counsels are not “counsels” but obligatory norms for all Christians.

The beginning of an answer is that carrying out the counsels only becomes obligatory by a commitment to the religious life; until one discerns that this form of life is one’s vocation, there is no obligation to fulfill the counsels. Furthermore, as St. Thomas points out, the counsels are means to perfection but not perfection itself; they are one way, but not the only way, of fulfilling the precept of complete integration of self with divine love. Moreover, the mission of the Church as a whole requires both that some live according to the counsels and that others respond to different vocations.

The question remains: Why is life according to the counsels not strictly obligatory for those capable of making this commitment? The answer is that one becomes capable of the commitment only by discerning that one’s vocation is to follow the counsels. They help one to discern this, but do not morally require the preference to which they point.