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Chapter 28: The Practicability of Christian Morality

Question F: How can the requirement that Christians live according to the modes of Christian response escape rigorism?

1. We have seen how people organize their lives and how Christian life can be most perfectly organized—namely, as a personal response to one’s personal vocation. We also have seen (in 27‑C) that the modes of Christian response generate norms which specify strict moral responsibilities—that is, ones whose violation is sinful. These two points make it possible to clarify how Christian morality, although strict, avoids the rigorism classical moral theology rightly feared.

2. The obligation to live the Christian life is limited by blameless limitations on a person’s understanding of its responsibilities. Not just children and people who have been inadequately instructed suffer from such limitations, but, to one degree or another, every Christian—except Mary—of every age and condition.

3. This is so because the modes of Christian response are very general. They make a definite demand upon conscience only when a person can recognize an option as an instance of a kind of act which a specifically Christian norm enjoins. The capacity to do this consistently, in turn, depends on two factors.

4. First, one must be living one’s life as a Christian vocation and must be conscious of doing so. This is an obligation: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3.17). But the obligation can be fulfilled only gradually, as one lives one’s Christian life, so that the formation of oneself by commitments and the integration of self with living faith constitute what is necessarily a lifelong process.

5. Second, one must not be following any norms except Christian ones. A possible course of action will not be recognized as an instance of a kind of act enjoined by Christian norms if one innocently limits nonabsolute Christian norms by other genuine (although not yet specifically Christian) norms thought to be controlling. But that is inevitable in the life of a Christian who has not reached perfection.

For example, many Christians who would never deny their faith are reticent when it is challenged in polite society, although they actually ought to speak out boldly in its defense. Often the omission is without sin. The nonabsolute norm of polite intercourse in pluralistic society is to avoid acrimony by avoiding religious debate. The nonabsolute Christian norm is to proclaim the faith—a responsibility which varies in its specifications according to one’s condition and state in life. Many sincere Christians are not clear about how they are required by their personal vocation to proclaim the faith, and they do not know how to do it without acrimony. So they innocently limit their affirmative responsibility to speak up by nonabsolute norms of etiquette accepted uncritically from the common culture.

6. Thus, even for Christians, a more or less extensive part of the body of specifically Christian norms is subjectively beyond reach. This state of affairs depends upon conditions which need not be blameworthy and which cannot be removed by general instruction, but only by individual spiritual and moral development. Hence, the general moral instruction of the Church concerning sin (especially mortal sin) usually treats only the minimal moral responsibilities common to every Christian or very important for those in certain states of life.

7. At the same time, the specifically Christian moral norms have never been neglected by the Church. They have been constantly proposed by the reading of the New Testament in the liturgy and by personalized modes of instruction (for example, spiritual direction in connection with the sacrament of penance) permitting individuals to grow in understanding and fulfillment of the responsibilities of Christian life. Each faithful Christian’s sense of sin grows gradually as the exigence of specifically Christian moral norms becomes clear.

When classical moral theology insisted upon the need for a serious effort to strengthen oneself against temptation and avoid occasions of sin, it implicitly insisted upon a responsibility to fulfill specifically Christian modes of response. In practice, the view taken here is not more rigoristic, for it does not suggest that there is grave matter where the Church has not said so, and does not even suggest that imperfection is venial sin until the obligation to move toward perfection is recognized.

What classical moral theology lacked was a clear understanding of the intrinsic and dynamic relationship between the demands of natural law and the life of Christian perfection. These were thought of as two worlds, each complete in itself, existing on different levels. In reality, the relationship is more organic, like that of an animal’s vegetative and sentient life. For an animal, unlike a plant, a complete system of growth, nourishment, and reproduction without sensation and emotion is quite impossible. The animal’s vegetative life is the foundation for its higher, sentient life. But, at the same time, only by unfolding into the full, animate life of its kind can any animal long survive and flourish even in its most basic vegetative functions. Similarly, Christian life specifies human life, and human life can be lived as it should be only if one becomes Christian and proceeds toward Christian perfection.

8. Rigorism is relative. It is asking too much to expect fallen men and women as such to live as children of God. But it is not asking too much to expect God’s adopted children to do so by living in Jesus (see Jn 15.4–7). Since Christians can do the works Jesus does and greater, this is a realistic expectation—not, of course, because human beings can manage it by human power, but because the Father gives those who believe the power of the Holy Spirit (see Jn 14.12–17). Mary and the other saints are only human beings; what God has done in them he wishes to do in us, for his will is our sanctification (see 1 Thes 4.3; 1 Tm 2.4; 2 Tm 1.9; Ti 2.11).

9. The gift of the Spirit is love. Love makes possible—even easy and joyous—what would otherwise be impossibly difficult. Without minimizing the requirements of Christian life, without compromise, love finds a way: the way which is Jesus, the way of the cross, the way to resurrection and eternal life. Following this way, Christians moved by the Spirit create new and beautiful lives, which they offer to God. In exchange for the gift of his Son and his Spirit, his own truth and love, we return to the Father the gift of our own lives, lives truly human but also, with Jesus and in his Spirit, truly divine.

Today it is often suggested that Christian life is bound to lead to psychological disaster. The strain of fulfilling the standards of Christian marital morality, for example, is pointed to as a cause of marital disharmony and a reason for approving contraception. This objection, though insubstantial in theory, is formidable for people engaged in pastoral activity, and so it deserves some consideration.

The psychological difficulties which arise for those who try to live according to Christian moral standards probably stem from two sources. First, if one lacks insight into the personal and human value of fulfilling the Christian norm, one undertakes to live up to it, if at all, only for the sake of ulterior considerations, such as fear of mortal sin and the threatened punishment of hell. Second, if one lacks a helpful and supportive community and yet tries to do anything which is very difficult, the strain can become unbearable. It is hard to follow a way of life at odds with that of almost everyone one meets each day.

The remedy for the first source of difficulties is a closer personal relationship with Jesus and more adequate instruction, especially in Christian moral principles. The faithful need to be helped to see the intrinsic connections which form a tight chain between their act of faith and their motives for making it, on the one hand, and the difficult requirements of Christian life, on the other. If they are not so instructed, they might undertake to live according to Christian standards out of obedience to the Church’s teaching for the sake of attaining heaven and avoiding hell, but this undertaking will be unnecessarily burdensome and can lead to psychological difficulties.

This does not mean that the hope of heavenly reward should be de-emphasized. Quite the contrary. The morality of Christian love demands that this motive be greatly emphasized. If one loves one’s father, one does what he wishes in order to obtain the rewards he promises, when it is clear that he wishes one so to act. Likewise, if we love Jesus we will be eager to gain our heavenly reward, for he has made it clear he desires this for us.

Rather, the point is that the meaning of this heavenly reward as human fulfillment needs to be explained to Christians who find it hard to live their faith. They can be helped by understanding the intrinsic relationships between life in this world and heavenly fulfillment (which was the subject of chapter nineteen), the reason why Christian life in this world must be difficult if it is to be worthwhile (which was the subject of chapters twenty-two and twenty-three), the way in which faithfulness to the Church’s teaching helps Jesus complete his redemptive work on earth (which was treated in chapter twenty-three), the beauty of the gift one can offer to God by living a life like that of Jesus (which was the subject of chapters twenty-five through twenty-seven), and the process of growth in holiness which truly is possible and necessary (which will be the subject of chapters twenty-nine through thirty-three). Understanding these things, those who love Jesus and yet find it hard to live up to their faith will nevertheless find the effort meaningful, not meaningless suffering.

The Church’s teaching never has left these intrinsic connections wholly obscure, but they need to be made clearer, and they can be and are being made much clearer today. If priests and teachers whose own love is ardent will do the work necessary to understand these matters deeply and to convey richly and abundantly what they come to understand, good fruit can be expected for Christian life.

The other problem of a psychological kind arises from lack of an adequate, supportive community. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal 6.2). Here, too, the Church always has offered help and still does. Yet much more is needed. The Church is made up of sinners struggling for salvation. It needs to have something of the character of a flourishing chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Its members suffer repeated experiences of shipwreck. It needs to have something of the character of those groups who by mutual support and common effort have survived shipwreck and sailed to safety in small boats over thousands of miles of open sea. Its members feel weakness and loneliness. It needs to have something of the character of the mother whose capacious lap and soft breast offer comfort to her little ones. The Catholic Church in modern times has shown less of these qualities than have various Protestant churches. Much work is needed to make the Church the home and family it ought to be.