Sunday, January 05, 2014

Christian Morality: Not A Quilt of Virtues, But The Person as Gift

39. Just as the organic unity existing among the virtues means that no one of them can be excluded from the Christian ideal, so no truth may be denied. The integrity of the Gospel message must not be deformed. What is more, each truth is better understood when related to the harmonious totality of the Christian message; in this context all of the truths are important and illumine one another. When preaching is faithful to the Gospel, the centrality of certain truths is evident and it becomes clear that Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults. Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others. Under no circumstance can this invitation be obscured! All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love[s1] . If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards[s2] , and this is our greatest risk. It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options. The message will run the risk of losing its freshness and will cease to have “the fragrance of the Gospel”.
40. The Church is herself a missionary disciple; she needs to grow[s3]  in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth. It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help “the judgment of the Church to mature”.[42] The other sciences also help to accomplish this, each in its own way. With reference to the social sciences, for example, John Paul II said that the Church values their research, which helps her “to derive concrete indications helpful for her magisterial mission”.[43] Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow[s4] , since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.[44]
41. At the same time, today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness. “The deposit of the faith is one thing... the way it is expressed is another” [45 John XXIII: Opening of Vatican II][s5] . There are times when the faithful, in listening to completely orthodox language, take away something alien to the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, because that language is alien to their own way of speaking to and understanding one another. With the holy intent of communicating the truth about God and humanity, we sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal which is not really Christian. In this way, we hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance. This is the greatest danger. Let us never forget that “the expression of truth can take different forms. The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning”.[46]
42. All of this has great relevance for the preaching of the Gospel, if we are really concerned to make its beauty more clearly recognized and accepted by all. Of course, we will never be able to make the Church’s teachings easily understood or readily appreciated by everyone. Faith always remains something of a cross; it retains a certain obscurity which does not detract from the firmness of its assent. Some things are understood and appreciated only from the standpoint of this assent, which is a sister to love, beyond the range of clear reasons and arguments. We need to remember that all religious teaching ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life, which awakens the assent of the heart by its nearness, love and witness[s6] .
43. In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them[s7] . At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few”.[47] Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts

 [s1]All virtues are at the service of self-gift because “virtues” are objects, and self gift is subject.

 [s2]The Church’s moral teaching would be a house of cards if built on the abstraction of nature (Stoics). Rather it is built on the dynamic of person imaging God as self-gift.

 [s3]As the Church grows in the experience of Christ, it grows in consciousness. Concepts don’t grow and develop, but experience and consciousness does.

 [s4]There is a growth in understanding by the Church. The experience of Christ is not static and fixed. Concepts are abstractions that are fixed.

 [s5]The “content” of faith is the Person of Christ. The way we experience Him in ourselves gives us a consciousness of ourselves as becoming Him. Reflection on that consciousness gives us concepts that are static as abstract.

 [s6]This is Ratzinger’s “Theological epistemology:” the only one I experience directly is myself. I can have an experience and a consciousness of Christ only by going out of myself as He is “out of Himself” as Son of the Father. That is, “only God knows God.” I “know” Jesus Christ only by becoming “Ipse Christus” (Escriva).

 [s7]This is what Francis is doing. With the discernment of office and the authority of same, he is examining the Church as David burdened with the armor of Saul. It had to be jettisoned to free David enough to engage in battle with Goliath.

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