When the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in late 1992, news media were at a loss regarding how to report on this massive and diverse new book. The church's teaching has developed slowly over the last 2,000 years -- How could a reporter find a news angle in something that was, at its heart, ancient?
Well, the first news stories focused on "new sins." These is nothing less original and less inspired than sin. But the media provide a daily chronicle of people's sins, so in a way it was natural for reporters to ask if there is any new way of sinning. In fact, one of the "new sins" described in the Catechism has to do with journalists themselves: "They should not stoop to defamation" (no. 2497).
Ignored in such an approach, however, is that the Catechism's description of Christian living is not based on what is bad, but on what is good. Even in the lengthy analysis of the Ten Commandments, the discussion of each commandment includes a a look at the positive value which that commandment seeks to protect. "Thou shalt not bear false witness" is a commandment because truth is a positive value which should be respected.
Absolutely central to a full understanding of how to live a Christian life are the Beatitudes -- Jesus' eight-point summation of how to be happy. The person who lives a fulfilled life is someone who is poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker. Again, this description of the moral life is a positive one. It says what we should try to be like, rather than giving a list of actions which are forbidden.
The Beatitudes describe the ideal life and an ideal community. This ideal is something which cannot be realized in this world, distorted as it is by sin. However, the ideal will be realized in heaven.
And the way it will be realized depends on how we act in this world. We should love this world and the opportunities it provides for us because those opportunities provide us with the raw material for building the kingdom of God. This life is not just a series of hoops to jump through so we can get to the really good stuff in heaven. It is the first unfolding of God's kingdom which will come to pass in its fullness after sin and death have been destroyed.
The Catechism says that the heavenly beatitude "invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all else. It teaches us that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement . . . but in God alone" (no. 1723).
The Beatitudes do not put limits on how we act. They are a prescription for freedom. Examined closely and reflected on in the light of our own lives, they describe a counter-culture which is radically different from a secular materialistic culture in which gaining power over others and self-gratification often reign supreme. They call us to continuous conversion so that we are single-mindedly focused on God.
The positive morality of the Beatitudes is, in fact, far more demanding than those moral laws which only say what we are forbidden to do. It calls us not merely to avoid being bad, but to constantly strive to be good.
Each person is called to be good in his or her own way. For Elizabeth, poverty of spirit will be lived out in a way much different than by Eugene. Elizabeth has her own unique talents, formation and circumstances. Jesus is calling her -- and calling each and every person -- to live out those Beatitudes in a unique way.
Elizabeth determines what sort of person she is by whether and how she lives out the Beatitudes. Insofar as she does, she is helping to create the kingdom of God, the kingdom that will last forever and that cannot be destroyed.
As a long-time journalist, I know how difficult it is to find news in an age-old story. But it is still unfortunate news reporters were reduced to enumerating "new sins" in their efforts to tell the world about the Catechism. The heart of Christian morality lies elsewhere. It lies in our vocation to beatitude -- our call to live with the holy values which will endure forever when we are fully united with our heavenly Father.
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