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Christian Morality

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Gospel Morality

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Before we get into our subject of Gospel morality, some explanation is needed as to what Gospel morality means. Briefly stated, Gospel morality is the study of what the New Testament teaches about Christ's expectation of His followers in the moral order. It might also be called the study of Christian revelation about human conduct.

Immediately, we see that Gospel morality is revealed morality. This does not exclude the natural law, since much of what God has revealed is also knowable by reason. But precisely because God revealed His will to the human race, we know what He expects of us far beyond what reason alone could ever attain. We might therefore say that Gospel morality is a synthesis of two levels of moral teaching, that of natural law attainable by reason and revealed law that could only be known by a special supernatural communication from God. From still another angle, Gospel morality is a composite of all the Divine commands laid upon mankind, whether natural because available by the light of man's natural intelligence, or supernatural because it had to be infused by Divine illumination.

The source of our knowledge of Gospel morality is primarily the four Gospels, but not the Gospels alone. The word "Gospel" in this context refers to the whole New Testament, that is, all the books in Sacred Scripture beyond what we commonly call the Old Testament.

Moreover, Gospel morality includes the whole of Divine revelation, whether Scripture or Tradition, that we may legitimately call the New Testament. This means that the scope of Gospel morality is the whole body of revealed truths that built on the Old Law as expressed by St. Paul, "God, who at sundry times and in diverse manner spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all in these days has spoken to us by His Son" (Hebrews 1:1-2). The subject matter of our reflecting, then, is what the Son of God has spoken to us about how we should behave on earth in order to attain happiness in the world to come.

Surprisingly, the matter we shall cover will be the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue. But where the Decalogue was originally given only to the Jews, Gospel morality is intended for the whole human race, or more accurately, to that part of mankind which has accepted Christ as the Son of God and His moral teaching as the Commandments of God to be observed by those who call themselves Christians. More than once the Savior emphasized that He did not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfill them. Our purpose will be to see what this means in practical terms of everyday life.

There is more implied here than meets the eye. It is not only that Christ fulfilled the predictions made about Him by David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other Messianic prophets. When He came into the world, Christ not only brought to pass what had been foretold. He brought to fruition what had only been sown before, or to change the metaphor, He actually completed what had been promised and gave the world a reality that, until His time, had only been foreshadowed.

What we hope to see in our study of Gospel morality is something of this reality as lived out in the Person of Christ and, for our purpose, especially as intended to be lived out by His followers. Gospel morality may therefore be contrasted with Mosaic morality, since it is God's will that the moral conduct of the disciples of Christ should tower above the behavior of the ancient Jews as much as the New Testament towers above the old.

There are many good reasons why understanding Gospel morality is not only useful but even necessary. No doubt the terminology is strange, and almost strained. Morality is either Christian or it is not worthy of the follower of Christ. Why then speak of Gospel morality?

For one thing, the term has been coined by those who make an unwarranted distinction between Gospel morality and ecclesiastical morality. In their opinion, the only real morality in the Catholic Church is what the Church herself has constructed on the Gospels. You might call it, man-made morality created by ecclesiastical authority to meet varying needs of different times. On these premises Christian morality is not literally revealed by God in the Person of Christ. It is rather superimposed by the Church's hierarchy with only a minimum reliance on the New Testament.

Why study Gospel morality? In order to know that all the essentials of Christ in the moral order are found in that public revelation which we believe was completed with the apostolic age. No doubt the Church has interpreted this deposit of faith, explained and developed it. But she did not create it. It was entrusted to her by the Son of God to be kept undefiled until the end of time.

Why study Gospel morality? We need this in order to know that Christian morality is absolute. What Christ revealed for His followers to do is to remain constant in its essentials in every period of history and among all cultures of mankind. In other words, Christian morality is not relative, as though it were subject to human whim or caprice.

Why should we study Gospel morality? We do so in order to become convinced that Christ's teaching about human behavior is binding and mandatory. It is not merely recommended or proposed as an impossible ideal.

Why should we study Gospel morality? We do so in order to protect us from the illusion of thinking that the following of Christ and obedience to His precepts are not demanding. Certainly Christ told us that "My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30), but He recognized that doing His will is a yoke on the human mind and a burden on the will. We are not naturally prone to practice the difficult virtues that the Savior preached. It is only by His grace that His commandments can become light or following in His footsteps is called easy. As we come to understand what Gospel morality means, we discern that it is not a morality of convenience; that it means carrying our daily cross in imitation of Jesus who, having joy set before Him, chose the Cross.

Why study Gospel morality? In order to find out that the commandments of Christ partake of mystery twice over. They are mysterious because, while not unreasonable, they are not rationally comprehensible; we can understand them only so far and no further; they are to be lived out on faith. Moreover, the commandments of Christ partake of mystery because they are, in their way, humanly impossible. As we put them into practice and live out what we believe, Christ who commands us becomes the Christ who strengthens us. The more faithful we are in our fidelity to His will, the more grace He confers on our wills to grow ever more faithful even to heroic sanctity.

Among the errors of those who are hostile to Christianity, none is more devastating than the claim that Christians are told to suffer in this life so they can be happy in the life to come. This is not true. Of course we must carry the cross here on earth. But we dare not say that we are to be unhappy until we reach eternity. God provides us with a prelude of heaven in this valley of tears. He wants us to anticipate our destiny by having a foretaste of the glory that awaits us in the everlasting future.

Qualities of Gospel Morality

Having seen something of the meaning of Gospel morality and reasons for studying it, we may briefly identify its qualities in contrast with the moral code before Christ came into the world. We have said that the New Testament is a fulfillment of the Old. This is true both of Christ's teaching of what we are to believe and of Christ's telling us how we are to behave. Our emphasis, of course, is on Christian behavior which among the followers of Christ is to be more perfect than was ever the conduct even of the Chosen People under the law of Moses.

How is Christian behavior as the practice of Gospel morality to be more perfect than what God expected of His people before the Incarnation? It is to be more perfect in being more interior, more loving, more generous; and it should be all of these because it is meant to be redemptive and sanctifying, and correspondingly more pleasing to God.

The inwardness or interiority of Christian behavior is spelled out by the Savior through most of His Sermon on the Mount. He brings out the stark contrast between the laws that were given to Moses as compared with the conduct of His own followers. True morality is never merely external. It either has interior motivation or it is not worthy of the name. Yet, as the Master points out, the children of Abraham were to practice numerous external prescriptions as a witness of their fidelity to Yahweh. The hundreds of precise prescriptions in the book of Deuteronomy alone are evidence of how exacting the Mosaic law could be. Days and seasons, amount and kind, gender and age, length and quantity, were specified in the extreme. All of this was part of God's will for His people to keep them united to Himself and united among themselves as the Chosen race.

Compare this with the moral teachings of the Savior. He does not exclude external practice because He knows that man has a body, that he is a social being, and that if he is faithful to the precepts of the Gospel his actions will be sensibly perceptible and to that extent, external. However, throughout His preaching, and especially in the Gospel of Matthew, the morality prescribed by Christ emphasizes the interior. Intentions and motives, the mind and heart, in a word the spirit with which we perform what Christ commands is what He mainly is looking for. This is so true that a case could be made out for Christian morality being the opposite of Pharisaic morality. Where the Pharisees stressed external behavior and were often in conflict with Christ, they were actually indifferent to the law of Moses. Christ taught almost the opposite. What God is mainly looking for in our conduct is not only what we do but also, and with emphasis, why we do it.

Love, like interiority, can never be completely absent from anything good that a person does. Even the most reluctant action that someone does has at least a tinge of affection in the motive for doing it, otherwise it would not qualify as human conduct. Consequently it is simply not true that Old Testament morality was simply the morality of fear. The Jews were told to fear God, indeed, but also to love Him, and they were likewise told to love their neighbor. Nevertheless there is a true sense in which Gospel morality is founded on love far more than Torah morality which without extending love, concentrated on the fear of God. The implications of this difference are a study all by itself. For the present, it is enough to note that the Incarnation makes a world of difference in the hidden wellsprings of human conduct. Once a person believes that God, who is Love, became man to prove how much He loves us, his conduct will be deeply affected. He will want to show his love for God in return, and this in turn will draw on his affections in a way that people before the Incarnation could not be inspired to behave.

Generosity is a fluid term. It means kindness and benevolence, friendship and liberality. But when applied to Gospel morality it is especially self-giving. Not until God became man in the Person of Christ did the world even conceive the kind of generosity that Christ revealed in His life and revealed perfectly on the Cross.

This leads us to a quality of Gospel morality that cannot be exaggerated. It is Christ-centered morality. Unlike the Mosaic law with its inevitable stress on minute regulations, multiplied to cover every aspect of personal and social living, the morality of the Gospels is founded on Christ, inspired by Christ, made possible only through the grace of Christ, and leading to the possession of Christ in eternal life in His company. Too often too many Christians look upon the moral teachings of the Church as just a later stage of the moral code of the pre-Christian Jews. No wonder so many of them react negatively to the Church's prescriptions because they forget that the heart of the New Law is a Person, and that Person is the Son of God who became man in order to inspire our imitation and by His grace, give us the strength to follow in His footsteps.

Furthermore, Gospel morality is redemptive. When a Christian lives up to what the Savior wants him to do, he is doing more than just obeying God or only saving his own soul. He is participating in the very work for which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The good behavior of a good Christian is not only salvific for the individual. It is a mysterious part of salvation history, where the redemption that Christ merited by His life, passion and death is complemented, filled up, in St. Paul's words, by the merits that Christ's followers gain by conforming their lives to the life of the Savior.

Moreover, Gospel morality is sanctifying in a way that could not be said of the Old Law. It is sanctifying because there is a reach to the practice of Christian virtue which does more than simply obey what God has prescribed. A Christian is offered the opportunity to go far beyond sheer duty. In greater or less measure he is given the grace not only to obey the Divine precepts but to sacrifice himself beyond the call of duty in the practice of the counsels.

Again Gospel morality is sanctifying because, since the coming of Christ, God has poured out the abundance of His mercy on fallen man and poured it out lavishly. Since Christ came into the world, the world is no longer the same. It has access to God's wisdom, an understanding of His will, and a power to love God to the contempt of self to a degree never known before. Compare the lives of the great men and women of the Old Testament with the heroism of Christian saints, and we get some idea of what the Apostle meant when he said that, "However great the number of sins committed, grace was even greater" (Romans 5:20). It is this grace, poured out to the brim, and overflowing, which the believing Christian has at his disposal to not only be saved but to be sanctified.

Finally, Gospel morality is a witness to God's presence on earth in a way that was never verified until God became man and manifested His Divine attributes by the practice of human virtue which those who believe in Him are told to duplicate. The witness value of Christian virtue runs as a theme throughout the Gospels. The faithful are called a city on a mountain top that cannot be hid. They are told to do their good works so that others may see them and thus give glory to God for the power He confers on fallen and weakened man. All of this has profound implications for those who believe in Christ. Not only is their moral conduct to inspire others to holiness, but their holiness is to be an abiding testimony for others to admire and seek to imitate. It is here perhaps more than anywhere else that Gospel morality is a living Gospel that continues to proclaim the Good News to a people in need of redemption. What happened in the early Church is continued in our day. The sublime moral behavior of the true followers of Jesus Christ is a continuing miracle that confirms the truth of Christ's teaching and makes it credible to an unbelieving world.

The Joys Of Gospel Morality

We do not commonly associate joy with the practice of Christian morality. This is not surprising. If there is one thing which Christ stresses in the Gospels it is the need to carry the cross. In fact, He identifies His true follower as the person who is willing to carry his daily cross in imitation of the Savior.

However, almost as emphatically as Christ tells us to carry the cross, He promises happiness to those who are faithful to His will. This is not only happiness in the life to come, but happiness already here on earth.

In fact that is what the eight beatitudes are all about. They are so many promises of not only happiness but beatitude, which is the highest form of happiness, to those who surrender themselves to God.

We might therefore say that the burden of practicing Christian morality is mainly our natural, even spontaneous, reluctance to conform our desires to the "desires" of our Lord. So much for the cross.

But Christ wants us to be happy in His service. This was the message He left us during His discourse at the Last Supper.

As the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, as I also have kept my Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full (John 15:9-11).

Immediately we see that three words are interrelated by Christ: commandments, love, and joy.

The commandments of Christ are what God became man to teach us, namely to submit our selfish wills to His Divine will.

The love that Christ expects of us is the underlying motive for our obedience. He died on His Cross by sacrificing His life out of love for us; we must die on our daily cross of sacrificing ourselves out of love for Him.

The joy of doing the will of Christ is one of the deepest mysteries of our faith. How much we have to learn from the saints who understood something of what this means. St. Ignatius Loyola could not have been more clear. "There is nothing sweeter," he tells us, "than to love God. But the greatest sign of love is to suffer for what one loves. To suffer for God, therefore, is true joy. It is supreme felicity."

Father Hardon is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.

Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica

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