One strength of Catholicism is its emphasis on social justice and personal moral righteousness. Our faith puts a major emphasis on the goodness of creation and the Incarnation as well as on our cooperation in carrying out God's plan for humanity.
That emphasis, however, may sometimes lead us to believe we can build the fullness of the kingdom here on earth by our own efforts or that we can earn our way into heaven by being good people. In fact, orthodox Christian teaching is that no one can possibly be good enough by virtue of their own efforts to earn a place close to God for eternity. It is the height of arrogance and presumption to believe we can.
We were born in sin and we make that sin our own by repeatedly turning away from God ourselves. We deserve nothing and we will attain nothing unless Christ's redemptive sacrifice is applied to our lives. This great gift we are given through faith, repentance and the sharing in the Paschal mystery through a life of prayer, sacrifice and reception of the sacraments.
This is a constant theme in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Over the next three weeks, we will see how it affects the moral life by examining the topics of moral law, grace, justification and merit. At the end, the Catechism leaves us with the simple meditation of St. Therese of Lisieux: "In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you Lord to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in our own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself (no. 2011).
If we end life with empty hands, why then do we need moral law? We need the law, in short, so that we see our own moral impotence and our utter dependence on God's grace.
There is enormous skepticism today about the existence of moral law. Maybe some of that skepticism is due to cynicism when people see bad things happening to good people. Maybe some of it is rationalization by people who do not want to have to admit the myriad ways in which they themselves have violated the moral law.
But God has planted in our souls the desire to pursue certain goods such as human life, friendship, knowledge and beauty. Anyone, even a convinced atheist, can see this. All our actions, even those of young children, involve the pursuit of one or more of those goods.
Moreover, there are principles which should guide how we pursue those goods. For example, we should do to others as we would expect them to do to us and we should not fail to do good because of laziness or lack of courage. All of these principles which we should use in guiding our actions are reasonable; they do not involve one person or group imposing their outlook on others. Taken together, a complete list of these goods and principles would make up the natural moral law. These principles are universal and unchangeable; they do not change relative to one's culture.
Moreover, every culture can be critiqued in light of the moral law. Every culture falls short of fulfilling the law. Any culture where there was no respect for natural law would degenerate rapidly into an anarchic war of all against all. It would be chaos. The natural law is "the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community" (no. 1959).
The Ten Commandments are a reflection of the natural law. One doesn't need divine revelation to know the natural law but God deigned to make a special revelation of his law. Why? Because our emotions and sinful habits can blur our awareness of the law which can be known through reason alone. The commandments provide a moral compass when we are lost. They are a gentle tutor, helping to form our consciences.
The law also helps us to name our sins and to see how powerless we are to overcome those sins. As such, it prepares the way for the Good News which makes salvation not only possible, but more magnificent than anything we might dare to hope for. The law shows that we cannot save ourselves. And it stirs in us the hope for a Messiah who will bring true salvation.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.