In order to reach heaven, we must have the grace of God.
Beyond what we have when we enter this world, we need divine grace in order to
reach everlasting life in the world to come.
The main source of this grace is the sacraments, beginning
with Baptism. And the most important of the sacraments to keep us spiritually
alive and well is the Holy Eucharist.
But the sacraments alone are not enough. We must cooperate
with the graces we receive. God keeps giving us constant illuminations of the
mind and inspirations of the will, and we must respond to these divine
visitations. We must be mentally alert to what God is telling us He wants. And
we must be ready with our wills to choose what He tells us to do.
The English word morality is misleading. We speak of
something a person does as moral or immoral, to describe something good
or bad. Properly speaking, however, every action we perform with conscious
awareness of what we are doing, and freely choose to do it is a moral action.
There are therefore morally good and morally bad actions. If the action is done
consciously and voluntarily, it is a moral action. And if what we choose to do
is what God wants us to do, it is morally good. Otherwise it is morally bad.
If we further ask: Why does God want us to do certain
things? The answer is because He knows that certain actions will lead us to
Our main task on earth is to decide with our minds and
choose with our wills what God tells us will bring us to heaven. Nothing else
really matters during the few years we have between birth and death. Our main
purpose is to live a good moral life here, so we may enjoy a happy eternal life
We see immediately that the foundation of all morality is
knowledge and freedom.
Knowledge means that we know in our minds what we should do
to reach heaven. When what we think should be done is what God wants us to do,
we have the truth. In other words, truth is the agreement of mind with reality.
And reality in moral matters is what God knows and tells us will bring us to
our final destiny.
Freedom means that our wills are not compelled to do
something. They are not forced either by some pressure from outside of us, or
compelled by some power inside of us, to do what our mind informs us is
desirable. We are free because we can choose what we want. Of course, we are
truly free when we are at liberty to choose to do what is morally good and
choose not to do what is morally bad.
There is a close relationship between knowledge and freedom.
Before we can choose anything we must first know what to choose. Our wills must
be informed by our minds that something is desirable. The person, place, or
thing must at least appear to be good before we can reasonably choose it.
Sources of Moral Knowledge. There
are, in general, two sources of knowledge available to us to help us to live a
good moral life: They are reason and revelation.
Our reason has the natural ability to learn what is the
right course of action to follow in a given situation. By reflecting on
ourselves and other people, we can obtain some knowledge of what is right and
wrong, at least in some basic areas of human behavior.
Thus our reason can attain some knowledge of the existence
of God as a Supreme Being whom we should obey, and to whom we should pray. Our
reason, too, can conclude that because we want others to respect our life and
property, we should act the same way toward them. Therefore hurting or killing
another human being, or stealing from someone is wrong. We expect others, when
they talk to us, to be honest in what they say. So we naturally conclude that
when we speak to others, we should not tell a lie.
But our minds have been darkened by original sin, and
further darkened by living in a sin-laden world, and even more darkened by our
own personal sins. That is why God has seen fit to teach the human race, by His
special revelation, many things that we might otherwise not all know, or know
as well as we need to reach our heavenly home.
We may safely assume that God began this special revelation
of His will at the dawn of human history. But once He called the children of
Abraham to be His Chosen People, He revealed to them many duties that have
since become the common possession of the human family. The single most
important summary of these duties is the Ten Commandments.
When God became man in the person of Christ, he did not do
away with the commandments of the Old Law. But He developed and deepened them
beyond anything that was known before. That is why, when we speak of Christian
morality, we mean all that Jesus Christ meant when He told the apostles to
teach all nations to observe everything that He commanded. This everything
includes whatever human reason can know about the divine will, whatever God revealed
since the dawn of human history, and whatever Jesus taught we must do to return
to the God from whom we came.
The Churchs Role as Teacher of Morality. Christ
did not leave His followers without a living guide. That is why He founded the
Church. She was to keep intact the truths of faith which His followers were to
believe. She was to remain the universal sacrament of salvation, as the channel
of grace so that those who believe might live on in a blessed eternity. But she
was also, and with emphasis, to continue teaching and explaining the moral
responsibilities of historic Christianity.
A Catholic catechism has always contained these three
essentials: the faith to be believed, the sacraments to be received, and the
commandments to be observed. But in modern times, there is a special and
crucial need for understanding how Christians are to live by their obedience
to the will of God.
The key to this moral understanding is the teaching
authority of the Church, vested in the successors of the apostles in union with
the successor of St. Peter.
Given the foregoing principles, it is obvious what the
Church understands by the conscience. Conscience is the practical judgment that
a person makes whether a particular action is morally good or bad. Conscience
is the mind deciding on the morality of a given action. But the basis of this
decision is always our human reason enlightened by faith in Gods revealed
truth as taught by the Catholic Church.
Seen in this way, it becomes clear that we must always
follow our conscience. But we have the prior responsibility of making sure that
our conscience is properly educated. There are objective norms of morality, and
it is our duty to learn these norms from prudent reflection on the world in which
we live, from humble acceptance of divine revelation, and from sincere
obedience to the Churchs magisterium or teaching authority.
Virtues and Vices
Experience tells us that we develop moral habits according
to our fidelity to the voice of conscience.
There is an iron law in the formation of habits. Apart from
the supernatural action of divine grace, we can acquire good moral habits,
called virtues, as we can acquire bad moral habits or vices. The law which
underlines all formation of habit says that every thought tends to become a
desire, every desire tends to become an action, and every action tends to
become a habit.
Consequently, there is no such thing as a sterile thought.
We conceive a thought and, unless checked, it grows into a desire. The same
holds true of our desires. Unless checked, they become actions. And so, too,
with actions. Simply because I have performed any action, interior or exterior,
it spontaneously grows into a habit by sheer repetition.
Moral Virtues. Unlike the
theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the moral virtues are
immediately directed toward morally good actions.
- Prudence enables us to make correct moral judgments. A prudent
person can recognize what needs to be done, and what morally good means should
be used to do what is pleasing to God. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that prudence
is composed of no less than eight elements:
- the memory of past experiences on which a person draws when making a moral decision.
- understanding of the basic principles of morality, derived from reason and revelation.
- docility or the willingness to learn from others, especially those of mature age and experience.
- shrewdness in being able to make a wise conjecture about the best course of action to follow in a particular case.
- reason or the ability to apply general principles to a concrete situation.
- foresight is the single most important part of prudence. The
very word prudence means being able to provide or foresee how something should be done.
- circumspection takes into account the circumstances under which
we plan to do something. Thus the time, place, and persons involved have an
important bearing on the morality of our actions.
- caution is the final ingredient of prudence which anticipates
the evils or harm that an otherwise good action may occasion or produce.
- Justice concerns our dealings with others. Unlike prudence,
justice is a virtue of the will. It respects the rights of others, that is, the
rights of God and of our neighbor.
There is a profound sense in which
we are to practice justice toward God. And we have come to call this justice
the virtue of religion. Religion means respecting the rights of God as our
Creator and Lord. Everything we are, and have and hope to become and possess,
come from Him. He therefore has a right to our recognition and respect, to our
gratitude, and love, to our obedience and submission to His will.
There are two forms of virtue in
our dealings with others, namely commutative and distributive justice. While
both concern our respecting the rights of other people, they differ in the
relationships that we have with one another.
There is first of all the mutual
relationship between people. As individuals, each of us has certain rights that
another person is to respect. When I recognize the rights of another, I
practice commutative or mutual justice. Each of us has a right to be treated as
a person who has certain needs like food, shelter, and rest for the body; like
attention and affection and acceptance for the soul. Each of us has a right to
fulfill these needs and to possess the necessary means to their fulfillment.
Others are to honor these rights and not deprive us of what we possess or need
to acquire to live as human beings with an external destiny.
But we are also members of a natural society like the family or State, and the
supernatural society of the Church. Those who hold authority have the duty to
provide the members with all the means necessary to fulfill their respective
role in the society to which they belong. Indeed they have a right to these
necessary means. And when those in authority respect these rights, they are
practicing distributive justice by distributing to those under their care each
ones just and proportionate share.
- Fortitude is the virtue of the will which controls our natural
fears. We are afraid of pain, whether bodily or spiritual, and instinctively
draw away from a painful experience. But immediately we must distinguish two
kinds of fear, which call for two different forms of fortitude.
The first kind of fear arises from
the prospect of doing something difficult. It may be as simple a thing as
writing a letter or as important as entering marriage, or as demanding as a
vocation to the consecrated life. In this case, we need courage to do what
conscience tells us we should, or even undertake a lifetime responsibility that
is clearly Gods will. Our wills are weakened by sin and therefore shrink from
either starting or persevering in what our better judgment says should be
undertaken or carried through.
The second kind of fear is
different. What we dread is our own weakness in enduring trial or suffering
that God sends us. It may be sickness or disability, rejection by someone we
love, or opposition from persons who were formerly friends. The pain may be in
the body, the emotions, or in the depths of the soul. And we are all too aware
of the strength it will take to suffer without complaining, not to say to
remain calm and cheerful under duress.
Fortitude is necessary to cope with
both kinds of fear. But the second kind of fortitude, faith tells us, is
especially needed to remain loyal in following Christ. More than once, the
Master predicted that to be His disciples we must resign ourselves to carry the
Cross. That is why Christian fortitude is, above all, the courage of patience.
- Temperance, like fortitude, is a virtue of the will that
controls our natural impulses. But whereas fortitude protects us from running
away from pain, temperance preserves us from running toward sinful pleasures.
Temperance controls our spontaneous desires.
There would have been no need for
temperance, as we now understand it, except that we have a fallen human nature.
We are drawn to whatever pleases us, regardless of whether or not what we
desire is morally good. We need food and drink, clothing and shelter, sleep and
rest for the body. In order to survive, the human race needs to reproduce
itself. On the mental level, we need to acquire knowledge; on the social level
we need acceptance, companionship, and understanding love.
But our wants tend to exceed our
needs, and our needs do not always correspond to our wants. There is imbalance
between reality and desire. This is where temperance is not only useful or
important. It is absolutely necessary if we are to be at peace in this world,
and attain the happiness, for which we were created, in the world to come.
Temperance is at once a brake and an accelerator. As a brake, it keeps our
desires from getting out of control; it tempers our urges to make sure they
correspond to what reason and faith tell us is really, and not only apparently,
good for us. As an accelerator, temperance stimulates our dormant impulses to
want what we should desire, even when we have to rouse ourselves to seek what
There is a close connection between
fortitude and temperance. In order to control our desires and direct them
toward what God wants us to do, we need courage, especially the courage to face
difficulties and not collapse under the sometimes heavy demands of Providence.
But fortitude also requires temperance, because we need motivation to sustain
us under trial. Part of this motivation is the desire to obtain the reward,
already in this life, that God has promised those who courageously submit to
His divine will.
As with fortitude, so temperance
has been immensely elevated by the coming of Christ. He has given His followers
such powerful reasons for self-control as were never known before. He has also
given us such good things to desire as were unknown in the annals of human
history. By His grace He made available supernatural means to subdue our
irrational drives. And by the same grace He has made it possible to aspire to
become like Him who is our God.
Capital Sins. Technically speaking,
a vice is a bad moral habit. Just as the repetition of good moral actions
gradually develops into the corresponding virtues, so the repetition of sinful
acts induces sinful habits that we call vices.
However, there is more at work here than merely human
psychology. No doubt, habits are produced by repeatedly performing certain
acts. If I hold back my temper every time I am provoked to anger, I will
acquire the virtue of patience. And if I regularly give in to my love of ease,
I will acquire the habit of laziness.
But Christianity teaches that we have a fallen human nature.
Since the fall of our first parents, even though we recover the supernatural
life through Baptism, we have sinful tendencies that remain with us until
death. There tendencies have come to be called capital sins. We may say they are the main, or capital
inclinations we have to commit sin.
Scriptures may even call them sins. But the Church tells
us they are not really sins. Rather they come from sin, and unless resisted
they lead to sin.
- Pride, as a sinful inclination, is the inordinate desire for
self-esteem. In relation to God, we were nothing until, in His almighty love,
He brought us into existence, and except for His sustaining hand, we would
lapse into the nothingness from which we came.
The problem is that we tend to
forget who God is and who we are. The most fundamental form of pride,
therefore, is to think of oneself independently of God.
The further problem is that we not
only tend to take other people for granted, and forget how much we owe to
everyone whom God has put into our lives, but we are slow to recognize the good
qualities of others, and become preoccupied with ourselves.
The remedy for pride is a sincere
knowledge of self, especially of ones sinfulness. We must pray for humility
and accept the humiliations permitted by divine Providence.
- Lust is an inordinate desire for sexual pleasure. There is a
God-given desire for sexual pleasure within the sanctity of marriage. But the
urge is so strong that it requires the constant help of divine grace to be kept
In order to master the sexual
passion, it is necessary to control ones thoughts. But there can be no control
of the mind without constant discipline of the senses, especially the eyes.
- Avarice is the disorderly love of material possessions. Greed is
extreme avarice. We need material things in order to serve God in this world of
space and time. But the world is so attractive and its pleasures so seductive,
that our fallen nature wants to acquire far beyond what we need. Avarice is the
desire to accumulate, which has become an addiction.
Avarice must be controlled by an
interior detachment from worldly possessions. Daily reflection on the passing
nature of everything in this life is necessary to free ones heart from sinful
attachment to material things.
- Envy is the sadness felt when another person has something which
is considered detrimental to ones own reputation or self-esteem. Envy is a
deeply interior urge that demands careful watchfulness. The surest remedy, with
Gods help, is the practice of selfless charity.
- Anger, as a sinful tendency, is the inordinate desire to remove
obstacles or difficulties that stand in our way. Anger can be sinless, and even
virtuous, as when Moses was angry with the rebellious Israelites, and Jesus was
angry with the money-changers in the temple.
What makes anger sinful is either
the cause of the anger or its intensity or duration. It is righteous
indignation when there is a justified reason for becoming angry, and the
intensity or duration is kept under reasonable control.
The surest way to control ones
temper is to develop the habit of patient thoughts. Keeping ones mind off
things which annoy or irritate us is necessary if we are to acquire the habit
- Gluttony is an unreasonable desire for food or drink. As with
the other capital sins, it is not the desire that is wrong, but that it gets
out of control.
Mortification of ones appetite is
a proven way of mastering the urge to gluttony. This means not only controlling
the amount of food and drink to reasonable limits, but also avoiding
self-indulgence in taste and extravagance. There is such a thing as luxury in
food and drink that a follower of Christ should mortify. Moreover, abstinence
may be necessary, especially in the use of alcohol or other addictive
satisfaction of the palate.
- Sloth is the desire for ease, even at the expense of doing the
known will of God. Whatever we do in life requires effort. Everything we do is
to be a means of salvation. The slothful person is unwilling to do what God
wants because of the effort it takes to do it. There is such a thing as
weariness in well-doing. Sloth becomes a sin when it slows down and even brings
to a halt the energy we must expend in using the means to salvation. Sloth is
Sloth and laziness are not the same
thing as fatigue. We need a break and relaxation from work. But we give in to
sloth when we are unwilling to pay the price of exertion in doing what reason
and faith tell us God wants us to do.
Remedies for sloth are frequent
reflections on the harm it causes, by developing the habits of punctuality,
prudent planning, and meditation on divine justice in rewarding human effort
and punishing laziness in the service of God.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism