This week our attention in this series of articles on the Catechism of the Catholic Church shifts to the third pillar of our faith -- morality.
Actually, the way I have just described this pillars of faith mis-states its meaning. It may be convenient shorthand and people may know right off what I'm referring to as I describe the third pillar of the Catechism as "morality." But it is more properly called "Life in Christ."
This is not semantic hairsplitting. To think of the third pillar solely in terms of moral rules, The Ten Commandments or hoops to jump through before we're allowed into heaven is to seriously misunderstand the nature of Christian living. It is also an extremely common misunderstanding and one of the greatest barriers to the spreading of the faith today.
Father Gus DiNoia, chief theological advisor to the U.S. bishops, tells a story of a gathering of his family a few decades ago at which the topic arose of whether to donate money to the missions. One of his aunts proclaimed that "those people" did not need missionaries. "They get along just fine without us," she said. "We go in there with all our rules and we make their lives more difficult."
DiNoia's aunt saw the Catholic faith as Bad News. The faith, in her understanding, was a collection of laws and prescriptions which undermine the fullness of life. They do not help us to live better; they make us miserable. We would be better off without the church's teaching and without "its" moral laws. If we could escape the church, we would be happier.
Our problem is that having been baptized and taught the faith, we are stuck with it. For us to get to our eternal reward, we have to perform well in this never-ending series of obedience tests, from which only death will bring respite.
Millions of North American Catholics have essentially agreed with DiNoia's aunt. Only they have decided that they can escape all the rules and regulations and have simply stopped following them. We have had an enormous exodus of the Catholic faithful in recent decades largely because they believe there is more life outside the church than inside it.
Others have stayed and devoted themselves to a different task -- getting rid of as many rules as possible or finding loopholes around the rules that we are stuck with. Still others want to keep all the rules and see rules themselves as the core of the faith.
All of these groups are operating out of the same understanding of Christian life -- that it is a legalistic morality and that it is Bad News. Some embrace Bad News. Most don't and are looking for ways to escape it.
Furthermore, it must be said that these people are not imagining things. The church's way of teaching morality, especially in the last 300 or 400 years, has been legalistic. Seminarians were instructed with "manuals" of moral theology which focused on sin and enabled priests to counsel penitents effectively in the confessional on how to avoid and overcome various forms of sin. Legalism is entrenched in the Catholic psyche and will not be easily uprooted.
But with the teaching of Pope John Paul, especially his encyclical The Splendor of Truth and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the church is giving a different focus to its moral teaching. Moral law is not being tossed aside; it is being cast in a positive light. The primary purpose of Christian living is not to avoid sin or to learn to hate the world; it is to deepen the life in Christ given in Baptism and which is nourished by the Eucharist.
The Catechism's section on Life in Christ begins with a quote from St. Leo the Great: "Christian recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God's own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning . . ." (no. 1691). Through Baptism, we have been given an enormous, unfathomable privilege -- a sharing in God's own nature. We already have eternal life. What we have to do is, with God's help, live it.
Christian morality is not about Bad News, imposed misery or a debasement of our human potential. It is a path to the fullness of life. It is a path which, while sometimes difficult, will lead us to joy and peace beyond human imagining.
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