Seventh Sunday of the Year. Fr. Aidan Nichols asks what Catholic morality really is.
What is the code of behaviour we as Catholics are bound to? What are the principles for living you can draw from Catholicism as distinct from, say, the common sense ones about how to survive that you can work out by looking at how other people manage, in the family or at work or in social life at large?
The Catholic Church, we say, has ‘authority to teach on faith and morals’. So what are these ‘morals’ we’re bound to live by specifically as Catholic Christians?
One of the more extraordinary results of the withering away of Christian faith and Christian attitudes in the world we live in is that what according to public opinion distinguishes Catholics in matters of morality — no contraception, no divorce, no abortion, no purely secular education for their children — are not in fact distinctively Catholic things at all. Having a right judgment about these things — sex and the family and education — is just a matter of getting things into perspective simply as a human being.
So far from being distinctively Catholic things, the Church refers to them as truths of the natural law – what a society whose human heart is sound would accept even if it had never heard of Jesus Christ or the apostles or the Pope. But on these topics our society has broken with an older tradition of civility and left the Catholic Church holding the baby — sometimes, quite literally!
If anyone asks what is distinctive about the Catholic understanding of life, it would be better to put down for the moment that particular baby — literal or metaphorical – and pick up St Luke’s Gospel, opened at the passage we’ve just heard. St Luke’s summary of the ethical teaching of Jesus Christ is clearly not just about how to be an ordinarily decent, good-living member of natural society.
The Gospel teaching is not of course any less serious, less demanding, than such an ordinary reasonable ethics would be. But it’s so different from our usual attempts to act fair with people, that it sounds really quite wild and zany — indeed, downright foolish. This ethic commands love of people who hate you and work against you, so that you become vulnerable to those who have already shown they can strike and wound you. It enjoins giving away your electric cocktail-mixer to a thief who’s already making off with your battery-powered toothbrush.
It requires you to lend without charging interest. It demands that you refrain from ever condemning anyone who does you harm and to give and give until it hurts. Surely any society which tried to put this code into practice would more or less collapse overnight!
True. But not because the ethics of Jesus are not meant to be taken literally — they are! The real explanation is that there’s something wrong, something out of joint, with the world. Gospel ethics look impracticable because they are for humanity as it ought to be — humanity in the image of Christ as the Father intended it. And this is where we come up against the hard fact that Catholic Christianity — Christianity in its fulness — is not primarily a teaching at all.
Primarily it’s a way of salvation, a way of so sharing in the power and freedom of God that we have resources to live by – resources for moral effort — which go back deep into the life of God himself. Because God, in an excess of unreasonable folly, a kind of divine madness, entered the world in the person of his Son, the Poor Man of Nazareth, to make himself vulnerable in the weakness of Jesus Christ, we can begin to live — at least on occasion — with just a touch of the extravagant generosity the Gospel demands from us.
The transformation we call ‘holiness’ comes about when we respond in kind to the reckless, non-calculating, goodness of God in Jesus Christ. Owing to change at that level we can start to be ‘fools for Christ’s sake’. The Catholic vision of man, the distinctively Catholic picture of morality, is to live with such ridiculous generosity as to be reckoned a fool of the eyes of a fallen world.
This is the imitation of Christ, and since the deeds of Christ are the gestures which point us to what God is like, living with this sort of — absurd – generosity is the imitation of God as well. So:
Be merciful as your Father is merciful.