TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 28: The Practicability of Christian Morality

Question B: Is it possible to fulfill the norms of Christian morality?

1. “Possible” and “impossible” have many meanings. It is necessary to give them a precise sense in discussions of moral norms.

2. To begin with, one cannot be morally responsible for anything about which it is impossible to make a choice, except to the extent that one’s present voluntariness (other than choice) is conditioned by a past failure to choose or to make a right choice. This is important, for if one is not responsible, one certainly is not guilty. One cannot repent what one, after all, does not will, and if one is not guilty, one need not amend.

3. Under what conditions is it impossible to choose something which has the characteristics of an imaginable choice? There are several (see S.t., 1–2, q. 13, a. 5).

4. First, a choice is obviously impossible if the imaginable action never occurs to one. Thus, integral Christian morality is impossible to people who have never heard the gospel.

5. Again, the choice is impossible if one cannot see any point at all in doing the imaginable action. A small boy told by someone other than his parent or a person in authority to give up still more of his share of a candy bar to his sister, who has already taken more than her share for herself, will find it impossible to accept the suggestion, for he will see no point in it.

6. Finally, it is impossible to choose an imaginable action, even if it occurs to one and seems interesting, if one can think of no way to begin doing it. Someone who cannot read German and is given a book in that language might imagine reading the book and might be curious about its contents, but would still find it impossible to choose to read it. Similarly, someone who is depressed and is told, “Pull yourself together and cheer up!” cannot choose to do so, for lack of any idea how to begin. Again, an adolescent boy told simply to “avoid the occasions of sin” of impurity is likely to have the same sort of difficulty.

7. On these grounds, it can be impossible for some people to fulfill Christian moral norms. But in a strict sense Christian morality is not impossible. The obstacles noted above can be overcome. Ignorance and failure to see the point of living up to Christian norms can be removed by the preaching of the gospel and Christian education. Furthermore, a person who receives sound Christian moral instruction and spiritual direction is never confronted with a requirement of Christian morality which cannot be chosen because he or she cannot even imagine how to begin. Thus, such people could choose to put Christian norms into practice. If they do not, moral responsibility and guilt follow.

8. Ordinarily, when Christian moral requirements are said to be “impossible,” one of two things is meant. First, it may be that the Christian norm is absolutely incompatible with a contrary commitment which the individual (or many individuals) will not give up. For example, Christian norms concerning honesty in business are impossible for people who are in tight competition with dishonest rivals, are determined to continue and survive in business, and simply cannot do so while remaining honest themselves. Second, it may be that the Christian norm is difficult to integrate into one’s life, so that, although one usually wills to fulfill it, one sometimes surrenders to temptation and violates the norm by a sin of weakness. For example, someone struggling against sexual temptation, alcoholism, or a volcanic temper might say in a discouraged frame of mind that the Christian standard is impossible.

9. In such cases, “impossible” is not used in a strict sense. The individual knows what is good, sees the point in choosing it, and knows how to do at least something toward fulfilling the requirement. In fact, however, he or she chooses freely not to respond to the good and gives in to temptation. Calling Christian norms “impossible” may then be an exercise in self-deception, designed to evade moral guilt.

Nothing is impossible with God (see Jer 32.17, 27; Mt 19.26; Lk 1.37). Those who are dead in sin can be raised to new life. The miracle of moral regeneration is demonstrated by miracles of bodily regeneration (see Mt 9.1–8; Mk 2.1–12; Lk 5.17–26). With faith, one is borne up; without faith, one sinks in one’s sins. The Council of Trent definitively teaches: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are impossible to observe even for a man who is justified and in the state of grace: let him be anathema” (DS 1568/828). One can keep the commandments, for one can choose to do what one can and pray for God’s grace to make the impossible possible. He will give this grace (see DS 1536–39/804). (This point was treated more fully in 17‑F.)

10. Nonbelievers and those who speak of Christian norms as impossible in the loose sense frequently argue that Christian morality is incompatible with human nature. When everyone else is cheating, it is unnatural to be honest, even to the point of losing one’s livelihood and means of supporting dependents. It is unnatural to live without sexual satisfaction. It is supremely unnatural to love enemies, retaliate with kindness, and accept suffering willingly for the benefit of those who inflict it on oneself.

11. There is some foundation to this argument. Christian responses are incompatible with fallen human nature; children of Adam as such, merely natural men and women, cannot avoid sin (see DS 227/105, 242/133, 245/138, 1552/812; S.t., 1–2, q. 109, a. 8). However, human nature is not static; its sinful condition is open to radical transformation. Human nature is truly renewed by the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus (see Eph 4.17–24). The word “impossible” ought to be excluded from the vocabulary of Christian life.

In Jesus, the old nature is put to death and a renewed one given (see Rom 6.1–11). Jesus liberates from the confines of fallen human nature, and his Spirit provides a new principle of life (see Rom 8.7–11; Ti 2.11–13). Human nature truly is renewed (see S.t., 1–2, q. 106, a. 2; q. 107, a. 4). God’s grace is sufficient both to convert the sinner and sustain the faithful in their weakness (see 1 Cor 10.13; 2 Cor 12.9).

Some suggest that the whole of Christian morality—or, at least, many norms traditionally received as binding precepts—is subject to a law of “gradualness,” so that willful violations are acceptable provided one looks forward to living according to the norm at some time in the future.5 This idea is not clear, and so it is not easy to evaluate.

The suggestion certainly is compatible with traditional teaching concerning kinds of acts which are light matter or those which admit parvity in cases in which the matter is in fact small. Here the willful violation—the deliberate venial sin—is compatible with charity. But the suggestion does not comport with constant Catholic teaching concerning kinds of acts which are grave matter.

Perhaps implicit in the suggestion is some form of defective fundamental-option theory, such as was criticized above (16‑D). Or, more broadly, it might be assumed that sins of weakness of one or more kinds can be committed by a free choice without that free choice being self-determining. (This view was criticized in 17‑E.)

Whatever “law of gradualness” means, there are several things it should not be taken to mean if it is to be compatible with Catholic teaching. It must not be taken to mean that received moral norms characterizing various kinds of acts as grave matter merely mark out an ideal to be achieved in the future. Rather, such norms must be regarded as commands of Jesus demanding that difficulties be overcome right along. The process of gradualness has no place unless one accepts divine law with a sincere heart and seeks the goods which are protected and promoted by the moral truth clarified in Jesus and proposed to us in the Church’s moral teaching. Thus, the law of gradualness cannot be identified with a theory of gradations of the law, as if there were in divine law various levels or forms of precept for various persons and conditions.6

5. See, for example: Boniface Honings, “Christian Conscience and Humanae Vitae,” in Natural Family Planning: Nature’s Way—God’s Way, ed. Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., et al. (Milwaukee: De Rance, 1980), 204–5.

6. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 74 AAS (1982) 123–24; Eng. ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1981), 67 (sec. 34).