Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 22, 2004
Manners precede ministry
Most parents strive to have their children develop good manners. It's not an easy struggle. Babies are not born with a desire to use a knife, fork and spoon, and lots of children are naturally averse to saying "Hello" to a stranger who greets them in the company of their parents.
Now parents have support from Catholic philosopher Nancy Sherman who maintains that good manners are a preparation for ethical behaviour. Even if they can be a front disguising immoral behaviour, manners are meant to help to shape our moral selves.
Of course, dressing appropriately and complimenting the host on her fine dinner are hardly the antidote to overcoming the moral rot which perennially threatens to undermine civilization. But it is a start.
It raises the issue of how one grows to have the sort of moral courage that, say, enabled St. Maximilian Kolbe to give up his life at Auschwitz so that a man with a wife and children could live. Kolbe's self-sacrifice was no momentary impulse; it was the fruit of a lifetime of moral and religious development.
Moral theologian Servais Pinckaers distinguishes three stages in moral development. The first is that of the child. The child learns moral laws and learns to obey them. Of course, the child sees all these negative precepts such as, "Don't leave your clothes on the floor," "Don't hit your brother" and "No more candy" as a restraint on freedom.
The art of the parent is to present such prescriptions in a manner so that if at first they appear the imposition of a higher external will, they will eventually resonate with the innate sense of goodness and truth in the child. There is a parenting path, different for each child, that lies somewhere between non-direction and authoritarianism.
The second stage, Pinckaers says, begins at the end of adolescence when the young adult takes responsibility for his or her own moral development. The person begins to love virtue for its own sake and to love others for themselves. The individual sees the value of overcoming bad habits, enduring suffering and putting up with annoyances for the sake of a higher good.
One makes promises and keeps commitments.
If the Ten Commandments provided the schema for moral development in the first stage, the Sermon on the Mount shows the way in the second. The person learns about "the yeast of the Pharisees" - how one can obey the law yet still be self-seeking.
The third stage is that of the adult who brings his or her talents, virtues, ideas and feelings together in the pursuit of a higher end. One has found and is living out one's personal vocation in life. This may be a job, but is also likely to include commitments to family and the wider community.
The Holy Spirit is palpably active in one's life. And one sees the truth of Romans 8:15 - "You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption."
We are co-creators with God and are no longer slaves to the law.
The Romans saw courage as the highest virtue. But it was not the sort of courage that leads one to rescue a child from a burning house. Rather, courage is developed through "small victories of self-conquest" as Pinckaers put it.
The person of little courage rebels against the rules, but is unable to overcome his desires in any lasting way that would allow him to initiate and achieve life's lasting fruits.
In the final stage, one is a leader, even if one's station in life is minor. Here one encounters the cross in its full terror.
The little acts of self-denial that one has made earlier in life have prepared one for the drama of living out one's personal vocation faithfully in the face of opposition that will surely come.
One thing is certain: A person does not reach the higher level of moral development without years of self-mastery, dedication to virtue and contemplation of the good which God has called one to realize in one's life.
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.