What Catholics Believe - Chapter Twenty-Four
Life in Christ - The Foundations of the Christian Moral Life
“Geraldine” was the name of one of the most famous and endearing characters developed by the late comedian Flip Wilson. Perhaps the most famous line popularized by this character was: “The devil made me do it.” I suppose one of the reasons so many people enjoyed “Geraldine” was that they could identify with her. Who of us would deny that there have been times -- presumably many, many times -- when we have freely and knowingly chosen to do something wrong? What is it about us human beings that we so often give in to the temptations which always seem to be tugging at us? Saint Paul reflected on this universal human struggle when he wrote: “I cannot even understand my own actions. I do not do what I want to do but what I hate. … What happens is that I do, not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not intend” [Romans 7:15, 19].
“Sadly, because of the Fall, we also suffer the impact of Original Sin, which darkens our minds, weakens our wills and inclines us to sin. Baptism delivers us from Original Sin but not from its effects -- especially the inclination to sin, concupiscence” [CCA 310]. While we must not be blind to this reality of our human existence, we must also not conclude that we are all victims of forces and circumstances that are completely beyond our control -- that we are not truly free. If that were really so, we would all be able to say, like “Geraldine,” that “the devil made me do it” and not feel any responsibility for our actions.
The Word of God, however, tells us that we have been created in the image and likeness of God [Genesis 1:27]. Since the image of the Creator is imprinted in our human nature, we possess real freedom. “Without freedom, we cannot speak meaningfully about morality or moral responsibility. Human freedom is more than a capacity to choose between this and that. It is the God-given power to become who He created us to be and so to share eternal union with Him” [CCA 310]. With the help of God’s grace and the guidance of a community of faith, the Church, we are able to know what is truly good and to freely choose it. Repeatedly choosing and doing “the good” is the way that we avoid sin and grow in freedom and virtue. “Freedom comes from being moral. Slavery to sin arises from being immoral” [CCA 311].
There is no denying, however, that even the best of us, like Saint Paul, will occasionally have difficulty seeing and choosing what is the right thing to do in a given situation. Human choices can be complicated by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. A look at the three aspects of a moral act should help us better understand the choices we make. Every moral act has an objective act (what we choose), an intention or motive (why we are choosing it) and the circumstances in which we find ourselves (the who, what, when, where and so forth). For it to be good, all three aspects of a moral act must be good. Now, this can get a bit complicated because life is complex, but suffice it to say that we must always avoid choosing to do anything which is evil in itself (like murder). Nor should we do evil in order to achieve good (the end does not justify the means). Also, it is possible that certain situations make it impossible to completely avoid evil. The circumstances can sometimes reduce or eliminate our responsibility for doing something evil, but it does not change a bad act into a good one.
Discipleship is a lifelong endeavor. The Lord is always ready to assist us in our efforts to live in imitation of Him. Yet, it is also important that we make every effort to help ourselves to live a moral life. Within each of us is that “inner sanctuary in which we listen to the voice of God” [CCA 314]. This is what we call the conscience. The conscience represents the human capacity to know what is good and to make good judgments. We have an obligation to follow our consciences, but “we also have the great responsibility to see that it is formed in a way that reflects the true moral good” [CCA 315]. If we use all the means the Lord has placed at our disposal to help us follow Him more closely in this life, we can then confidently entrust ourselves to His merciful love.
We live at a time and in a country where personal freedom is cherished and guarded more than ever. No wonder, then, that so many people chafe at the mere mention of “natural law,” or “God’s law,” or the “moral law.” Sadly, negative perceptions toward the moral life are not uncommon. Who of us hasn’t heard someone dismiss moral teaching as ‘just a bunch of Catholic rules?’ When Catholic tradition speaks of a “rule” or, more specifically, a “rule of life” it is generally in reference to a standard for living virtuously. Thus, just as a ruler serves as a standard of measurement so does the Gospel serve as a standard or guide for the moral life.
Yet, even without the guidance of the revealed word of God—the Bible—it is possible for human reason to see in the natural order of things a reflection of the mind of God. “Through our human reason, we can come to understand the true purpose of the created order. The natural law is thus our rational apprehension of the divine plan. It expresses our human dignity and is the foundation of our basic human rights and duties. This law within us leads us to choose the good that it reveals” (CCA 327). Furthermore, since the natural law is unchangeable it is able to serve as a sure guide for people of every time, place and culture. Any reasonable person can understand the natural law because it is ‘written in the human heart.’
When the Word of God—Jesus—took flesh and lived among us he confirmed the truth that “the natural law is rooted in God’s plan found in human nature” (CCA 327). Yet, Jesus was all too aware that it was the weakness of our human nature—our tendency to sin—which resulted in our being separated from God. By his Passion, then, He obtained forgiveness of our sins and restored us to right relationship with God and with one another. Finally, He established the means—particularly the sacraments—to continuously provide us with the assistance we need to live the moral life. The help that God gives us is called “grace.” “Grace is the free and undeserved assistance God offers us so that we might respond to His call to share in his divine life and attain eternal life” (CCA 329). God never violates our freedom. Since it is sin that weighs us down and restricts our freedom, God’s grace is a freely-offered and freely-accepted help toward holiness of life—that is why we call this divine help “sanctifying grace.” In addition to sanctifying grace, there are the graces that are proper to the sacraments. We can also speak of the many ways in which God assists us as we go about our daily lives. We call these “actual graces.” Actual grace is a particular help that God gives us, it is the ‘grace of the moment’ as when we are tempted in a specific way but mysteriously receive the strength to overcome it.
There is no denying that trying to ‘live in Christ’ is not easy. So where do we look for help when we are faced with serious moral questions these days? Fortunately for us, when the Lord established the Church He, in effect, gave us a “mother” and a “teacher” to guide us through the vicissitudes of life. “”Jesus said to the Apostles, ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me’ (Lk 10:16). In the Church, when we deal with matters of faith and morals, the authoritative voice of Christ is exercised by the pope and bishops, successors of Peter and the Apostles who form the Magisterium. They are guided by the Holy Spirit, who abides with the Church to lead us into all truth” (CCA 330).
So you see, moral living has nothing to do with seemingly arbitrary rules designed to restrict our freedom. “Life in Christ” results from saying “yes” to Jesus who invites us to live in imitation of him so that we might find true freedom and fullness of life in heaven.