Christian morality can be called an ideal in certain senses. Its norms demand faithful and determined effort; perfect love of God requires a lifetime of striving; individuals cannot overcome the imperfections of the Christian community, the Church, but can only work to build it up and pray their work will be fruitful. Still, the Christian modes of response are not mere ideals; they are principles of binding norms, not counsels. Certain moral theories err in seeking to formulate norms for a society of perfectly upright people and then adapting these to the world as it is. Christian norms, such as loving enemies and suffering evil redemptively, are meant for this world precisely as it is.
Christian norms can be fulfilled. Granted, people are not morally responsible for anything they truly cannot choose (because it never occurs to them, because they can see no point to it, or because they can think of no way to begin doing it), and in this sense Christian norms are impossible for some. But in this sense, also, the impossibility can always be overcome. In any case, when people say Christian morality is “impossible,” they usually mean that they do not wish to surrender some contrary commitment or that they often fail in their efforts to live up to Christian norms. Some say Christian morality is incompatible with human nature, and indeed it is at odds with our fallen condition. But human nature is truly renewed by Jesus’ redemptive act, and Christian norms are not impossible for those open to this radical transformation.
Christian norms express the requirements of charity; but since the fullness of charity is perfection, gradual fulfillment of these norms constitutes growth toward perfection. This does not mean charity, a divine gift, is itself subject to change; rather, one receives charity more perfectly as one’s life is increasingly organized by faith and lived according to love.
Failures in respect to the Christian modes of response are sins. To see why this is not a rigoristic view, one must consider how people organize their lives.
For many, this probably does not go beyond a structuring based on spontaneous willing—likes and dislikes, goals and objectives—and choices in this framework. Some, however, take more control over their lives by making commitments, which establish their identities.
Christian faith is a commitment which should generate constant growth toward perfection. Yet growth is not apparent in Christians for whom their faith, though a genuine concern, is only one concern among many, and is more or less insulated from the rest of life. Wholly or in part, the lives of such persons lack the structure of personal vocation.
Commitment to a personal vocation does not guarantee progress in holiness or even perseverance in grace—one can still be radically unfaithful—but one who is not radically unfaithful is almost compelled to make progress. To live out a vocation, one must place oneself in the service of the source of the vocational commitment, living faith; but growing integration with living faith is precisely what is meant by progress toward holiness. The effort leads one to challenge the residual elements of other systems by which one may have structured one’s life. The meaning of the Christian modes of response becomes clearer and more definite, and the dynamics of Christian transformation become operative as one confronts problems in accord with these Christian norms.
The obligation to live the Christian life is limited by blameless ignorance of what that entails—ignorance from which every Christian suffers to some extent. One recognizes one’s responsibilities as a Christian only as one lives one’s Christian life. Inevitably, a Christian will sometimes take some other norm as controlling in a particular situation, overlooking the Christian norm. Thus, a more or less extensive body of Christian norms is always subjectively—and blamelessly—beyond one’s reach.
This state of affairs cannot be remedied by the Church’s general instruction, which usually focuses upon minimal moral responsibilities, but only by individual spiritual and moral development. Yet the Church has never neglected the specifically Christian moral norms; they have been constantly proposed by the reading of the New Testament in the liturgy and by personalized instruction such as spiritual direction in connection with the sacrament of penance. Perhaps it is asking too much—rigorism—to expect fallen men and women to live as children of God, but it is not too much to ask of God’s adopted children.
Hope is indispensable to living as a Christian. By hope one orients one’s entire Christian life to unseen fulfillment in Jesus, already existing in him and being built up as we live our lives. Hope deters us from attempting to overcome evil with evil. Hope is not purely individualistic; it is hope for humankind as a whole and indeed for the whole universe.