1. There are several senses in which Christian morality can be said to propose an ideal. To begin with, norms which are admittedly demanding can be called “ideals,” insofar as they are principles of faithful and determined effort. Purity in thought in sexual matters, for instance, can be called “an ideal.” This is not to deny that deliberate violation of such purity is a sin. Rather, it is to point out that most people attain purity only by a determined struggle, sometimes marred by more or less serious failures due to weakness. Christian morality does propose ideals in this sense, for the modes of Christian response only gradually gain control of the imagination and emotions.
2. Integral human fulfillment remains a mere ideal for humankind, if natural human capacities alone are considered. Moreover, even with grace, perfect love of God—love with one’s whole mind, heart, soul, and strength—remains an ideal in this life. A person proceeds toward this goal of Christian striving only by determined effort throughout a lifetime.
3. Again, Christians ought to bear witness to Jesus by their common life in a loving community whose practice lends support to the gospel it proclaims. Yet the imperfections of the Church are insurmountable for any individual Christian, and the perfection of life in a Church fully conformed to the heart of Jesus is an ideal. The Church should be a perfect image of Jesus, but the sinfulness of her members makes it more or less difficult to discern him there. Individuals can only work to build up the Church and pray that the Spirit will make their work fruitful.
4. Granting that Christian morality proposes an ideal in the above senses, the Christian modes of response must still not be reduced to mere ideals. They are to govern our lives as binding norms, not counsels.1 As was shown in previous chapters, they articulate the requirements for a life lived in accord with the love of God and in union with Jesus’ redemptive act. For Christians, such a life is not optional (see Mt 25.31–46; 1 Jn 3.16–17), since every Christian is bound to pursue holiness, which primarily consists in perfect charity (see LG 42).2 Nor is being a Christian optional. The truth which every person is obliged to seek, embrace when found, and live when accepted is Christian faith (see DH 1–2). Specifically Christian moral norms are therefore not mere ideals.
5. Some moral theories lend support to the opposite idea, for they begin by trying to formulate norms for a society whose every member is perfectly upright, then try to adapt this wonderful system to the world as it is. Kant’s philosophy suggests this, and many theologians influenced by him try to interpret Christian morality along these lines.3
6. That this approach is mistaken is shown by the fact that requirements to love enemies and undergo evil with redemptive intent are among the highest norms of Christian morality. In a perfect community, however, they would make little or no sense. Only when the day of the Lord comes will his own no longer need to suffer for his sake. Meanwhile, such requirements make it clear that Christian morality does not propose an ideal designed for life in a perfect community—one to be adjusted by compromising with the realities of life in this broken world. Christian norms for dealing with evil show that Christian morality is meant for this world as it is.
Sometimes it is argued that the norms of Christian morality cannot be taken literally. Are Christians to pluck out their eyes in order to avoid occasions of sin which they could avoid if they were blind? Is the saying of the Liturgy of the Hours in choir to be forbidden in favor of saying it in one’s room? Are we to offer no resistance to a kidnapper who is trying to snatch one of our children?
Some suggest that while the teaching of Jesus was meant to be taken literally, it was aimed at the brief interim before an expected, early end of the world. Others urge that if Christians need not pluck out offending eyes, neither need they remain faithful in a marriage which has hopelessly broken down—for example, if the other party has obtained a civil divorce and remarried.
There is a difference between taking teaching literally and taking it out of context and misinterpreting it. Christian moral teaching, especially the Gospels, certainly must be taken literally, but it also must be understood accurately.
Hyperbole—exaggeration for rhetorical effect—is found in many illustrative examples in the Gospels. But if one reads statements in their wider context, one can distinguish what is hyperbolic from what is not. In the catechesis in the Epistles, there is nothing about plucking out offending eyes. But the teaching on divorce is stated by St. Paul with the explicit assertion that it comes from Jesus (see 1 Cor 7.10–11). Similarly, the modes of Christian response articulated in the Gospels also enter into the more prosaic formulations of the Epistles, as was shown in chapter twenty-six.
Of course, there are cases in which the precise norm could not be disengaged if one had only the text of the New Testament.4 But the Bible exists in the Church, and the Church has constantly read and interpreted it. Hence, one can look to tradition to clarify many obscure points.
For example, one might not be certain whether the Christian prohibition of oaths (see Mt 5.33–37) is an absolute or a nonabsolute norm. The tradition makes it clear that the norm is nonabsolute. Christians ought to be consistently honest, speaking as it were always under oath. If they are perfectly honest, they never have occasion to take an oath on their own initiative. However, if a process—for example, in court—requires an oath, then Christians are permitted to acknowledge publicly that they are bound by faithfulness to God’s truth also to speak truly under these conditions.
By applying the norm of the Church’s understanding of the New Testament’s moral teaching, one can be certain that this teaching was not intended only for the interim before the momentarily expected second coming of Jesus. The Church always has taken this teaching to be the message to be conveyed to all nations and times. If the New Testament’s specific moral norms could be dismissed as an interim program, there would be nothing revealed there for us.
It also is worth considering that, with respect to what is at issue here, it makes no difference whether the world is expected to end momentarily or go on indefinitely. Suppose Jesus asked us to live by his standards for, say, one month. If, however, one can live up to Christian moral norms for one month, one can as well live up to them for two, and so for the whole of one’s life—which, after all, will end quite soon, whether or not the world does.
1. This point is more than a theological conclusion, for it is part of the ordinary teaching of the Church. See, for example, Leo XIII, Exeunte iam anno, 21 ASS (1888) 327–28; The Papal Encyclicals, 108.10: “By the infinite goodness of God man lived again to the hope of an immortal life, from which he had been cut off, but he cannot attain to it if he strives not to walk in the very footsteps of Christ and conform his mind to Christ’s by the meditation of Christ’s example. Therefore this is not a counsel but a duty, and it is the duty, not of those only who desire a more perfect life, but clearly of every man ‘always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus’ (2 Cor 4.10). How otherwise could the natural law, commanding man to live virtuously, be kept?” On the preceptive and practicable character of the law of Christ, see Edouard Hamel, S.J., Loi Naturelle et Loi du Christ (Bruges: Desclée de Brouwer, 1964), 11–43; Augustine Stock, O.S.B., Counting the Cost: New Testament Teaching on Discipleship (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1977), 26–60; Servais Pinckaers, O.P., La quéte du bonheur (Paris: Téqui, 1979).
2. On St. Paul’s teaching of the universal call to Christian perfection: Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., and Stanislaus Lyonnet, S.J., The Christian Lives by the Spirit (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1971), 197–219.
3. This paragraph is not intended to be a description of Kant’s methodology, but a simplified indication of the implications of his approach, especially as it influenced the development of situation ethics and compromise theories of Christian morality. Kant sets up the model of a kingdom of ends, which he does not intend as a plan for society but uses to generate norms: Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts, 1959), 56–59. Then, when he deals with specific normative matters, Kant introduces casuistical questions which make norms nonabsolute without providing any method of limiting exceptions: The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, introduction by Warner Wick (Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts, 1964), 71; examples: 84, 88, and so on. For a clear example of theological situationism influenced by Kant: Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, vol. 1, Foundations, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 609–67. This sort of theology has influenced Catholics, for example: Charles E. Curran, Catholic Moral Theology in Dialogue (Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides Publishers, 1972), 209–19; Curran distances himself from more radical, Protestant theories of situation ethics.
4. For exegesis of New Testament moral teaching in conformity with this Catholic principle of interpretation, see Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Moral Teaching of the New Testament (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965). Jesus’ moral teaching is both strictly binding and practicable: 73–89.