Tag Archives: Catechism of the Catholic Church

June 10: Justice VI: Justice, Gratitude and Religion

samaritanwoman

Abbey of Saint Maurice, Switzerland.

We have not yet talked about justice expressed toward God, but we need to. It is of crucial importance. The Catechism’s definition of justice mentions God as the principal recipient of our justice. Why should that be so? God does not need anything from us! Isn’t justice about responding to need?

Yes, justice is about responding to need, and about paying our debts. But justice is not primarily a virtue by which we learn to add up the numbers and pay the bill. On a more fundamental level, justice is the virtue by which we become increasingly sensitive to our indebtedness. The distinction is subtle, but important. There can be a grudging quality that goes with paying a bill, as we know when we see our hard-earned money vanishing so quickly.

But, a grudge does not belong in the virtue of justice as it relates to God. In being sensitive to indebtedness, we realize how much we have been given by God. In him we have received something far beyond what we have strictly deserved – the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the very kingdom of heaven, as Jesus expresses it.

Even if we do not acknowledge God as our loving Father, and the creator of the universe, it is hard to avoid admitting that we have been given gifts in our lifetime that are of vital importance to us, that have helped us to become ourselves. This gives us a recognition, simply put, that someone has loved us, and has shown it, and our life has changed for the better because of it. When that Someone is acknowledged as God, then we need a way that allows us to make some sort of response. Tomorrow, we shall reflect on this.

SJC

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June 9: Justice V: The Fruits of Justice

 serre eyraud

Because ‘the object of justice is to keep men together in society and mutual intercourse’, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, then when justice succeeds the result must surely be that society enjoys the blessing of peace. And on the personal level, holiness must be one of the fruits of this virtue. There is even an element of voluntary self-sacrifice in the virtue of justice, according to St. Thomas. He says justice ‘disregards its own profit in order to preserve the common equity’ (Q 58:11).

Perhaps one wouldn’t expect ‘justice to ‘disregard its own profit’. Doesn’t self-sacrifice go beyond justice? Wouldn’t it make more sense to place sacrifice under the virtue of charity, maybe? But, no. Not in St. Thomas’s thinking. For him, since justice deals with the rights of others, all the virtues pertaining to life with others are part of justice and enable one to exercise justice. So kindness, mercy, liberality, succouring the needy and so on are all ascribed to justice. The good person is above all the just person, says Josef Pieper, commenting on St. Thomas. ‘Justice reaches out beyond the individual subject’, he says, in order to ‘pour itself out, to work outside itself, to be shared with others, to shine forth. A thing is more eminently good the more fully and widely it radiates its goodness’ (see Josef Pieper’s book, The Four Cardinal Virtues, part 2:3). Yet, we were not wrong in seeing the close connection between the outpouring of justice and the outpouring of charity. The Catechism underlines this in the remark, ‘It is characteristic of love to think of the one whom we love’ (no. 2804). It is likewise characteristic of justice to think of the other, whom we love.

SJC.

Photo MMB, 1970, Le Melezin, Serre Eyraud.

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June 6. Justice II: Justice and Prudence Work Together

Traveler

Following the herd

 

When we consider the virtue of justice, we first find that it is intimately linked to prudence. Josef Pieper again says: ‘justice is based solely upon the recognition of reality achieved by prudence.’ No prudence, no justice, he seems to be saying. Why is that? Surely, an imprudent person cannot be all bad. Even someone with a limited capacity for making prudent decisions would not wish to be unjust, we might argue. But, sadly, the wish to be just is not the same thing as the capacity to be just.

What is justice? The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a wonderful definition:

Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour. Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion.’ Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbour (no. 1807; also see nos. 2095 and 2401).

Justice is not about merely wanting to be just. Justice, like prudence, requires ‘habitual right thinking.’ The word habitual is the operative one, I think. Once in a while isn’t good enough. Life is too complex, and if we just drift along like an animal in a herd most of the time, without actively questioning our culture’s half-truths and exercising our powers of insight, we will not develop the ability to evaluate situations truly, nor will we recognise what our obligations are in the situations life throws at us. Nor, for that matter, will we respond generously if, by chance, we happen to notice that something is required of us.

SJC

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8 March, Human Will IV: The Will and Virtue

 

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In the Church’s anthropology, our will is one.  We have ‘free will.’  Saint Irenaeus, in the third century, wrote that the human person is ‘master over his acts’ precisely because of his free will.  We are therefore responsible for our decisions and actions.  Those decisions and actions of which we are ashamed cannot be panned off on some other sort of ‘will’ present within us.

At the same time, we know that our will’s capacity to respond to the promptings of our conscience is not always immediate or consistent.  Although Augustine thought our emotions and our will can and should work as one, the fact is that sometimes the will is under the sway of our emotions.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this important observation:

Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts [no. 1734]. 

Let us pause over this sentence and savour it a bit.  It means that if we want our will to function properly with ‘mastery’ over our acts, it needs some help.  First, as the Catechism indicates, help is needed on the level of virtue.  The Church defines virtue as ‘an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.  Virtue allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself’ [Catechism, no. 1803].[1]

What is important to note here is the encouraging news that we can grow in virtue.  Each time we do something truly good, the will is strengthened by that action, and we grow in our ability to continue to do good.  We grow not only in terms of the ease with which we act in a good way, but we grow in our understanding of what we are doing and why: we grow in spiritual depth.  We thereby make real progress in virtue, and strengthen the power of our will.

The next idea in the sentence we are considering is that our will’s mastery is strengthened by our progress in ‘knowledge of the good.’  Perhaps you are someone who has been a Christian all your life, or perhaps you are someone who is just discovering God, Jesus, Christianity.  But, wherever we may be on the Christian timeline, we all need to grow in our ‘knowledge of the good.’

We do not live in a society that accepts that ‘the good’ exists in a way that makes requirements on all people.  Much of what Christianity declares to be truly good in an unchanging and universal sense, our society simply writes off as mere opinion – not binding on anyone except those who hold such opinions.  This can be confusing, both for long-term Christians, and new Christians.  To really know ‘the good’, it is necessary to turn to the teaching of the Church, to pray for understanding, and to be courageous enough to reject some counterfeit notions of goodness that are the currency of our culture.  The Church has always been counter-cultural and Christians must simply expect that the ethical and moral teachings of the Church will be a challenge to many of our society’s popular notions of morality.   As we gradually come to understand what is truly good, and live in accordance with our knowledge, our will is strengthened, and its mastery over our acts is enhanced.  We become more alive, more joyful, on a very deep level.

And lastly, our phrase from the Catechism uses the word ‘ascesis.’  What is that?  Perhaps we can call it the ability to set limits on our pleasures.  Living for mere pleasure can quickly degenerate into addiction.  And it is well known that addiction’s pleasures operate by the law of diminishing returns.  This is not to suggest that a Christian should have no pleasure, but that pleasure is the by-product of joy, and joy comes when our will, guided by our reason and informed by faith, exercises mastery over our acts.  Perhaps it is easiest to understand ascesis as self-discipline that functions for the purpose of enabling us to be free of dependences in order to live fully for God.  St. Augustine’s prayer, published at the beginning of these posts, affirms God helps us on the level of our will.  He is the strength of the will that serves him.

 

[1] This is not the place to give a detailed treatment of all the virtues, but those wishing to understand more about this subject may refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1804 – 1829.

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Evening Lectures at FISC: “What is theology saying?”

austinFr Austin McCormack will be speaking on Thursday evenings this term. I recommend these lectures to any Christian, including those from Reformation traditions who may wonder what we Catholics are all about. Please feel free to come to as many of these lectures as interest you.
Start time 19.00. You are asked to make a donation to cover expenses.
WT.
The subject of the course is:

“What is theology saying?”

3. 27/10: How about Papal infallibility?
4. 03/11:  How should we explain the Eucharist?
5. 10/11:   Who is Jesus Christ?
6. 17/11:  What difference does Grace make?
7. 24/11: What about Original Sin?
8. 01/12: What morality did Jesus teach?
9. 08/12: Should we renounce the world or change it?
10. 15/12: Is there salvation in other religions?

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October 15: CONSCIENCE VIII: Should we Beware of all Authority?

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CD.

Religious extremism, dictatorships, totalitarian systems, or simply capitulation to the moral values promulgated by the powerful voice of the mass media can desensitise our conscience.  Our conscience needs to be alive and well, and able to evaluate and resist such voices.

In saying that we need to be on our guard against dictatorships of all kinds, am I not saying that we need to be wary of all authority, even that of the Church?  How do I know whether or not the teaching authority of the Church isn’t just another form of dictatorship?  Joseph Ratzinger’s paper, ‘Conscience and Truth’ [reference, part VI], to which we have already referred in these posts, shows that our conscience holds the key to the answer.

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Let us return to what The Catechism says: in our conscience we ‘are alone with God whose voice echoes in [our] depths.’   Cardinal Ratzinger says that in our depths we have a mysterious “memory” of divine love.  This “memory” makes us alive to the fact that behind the commandments, behind the law of God, behind the moral truths enjoined on us by the Church, lies a truth that exists for us not as an imposition from without but as an expression, even a liberation, of what is deepest within the soul.

He says that this “memory” is not like the memory one might have of, say, one’s phone number, or the vocabulary of a foreign language.  It is ‘not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents.’  It is something much more profound.  It is more like the knowledge of oneself that is awakened by a very deep human love.  Human love can awaken the lover to a new depth of self-knowledge that both comes from the loved one and yet is experienced as a true aspect of oneself.  In a similar but even more profound way, the ‘god-like constitution of our being’, as Joseph Ratzinger expresses it, gives us a capacity to “hear” on the level of our conscience the voice of God – a voice which is at once other and yet is experienced as one’s deepest, truest self.  We say, “That’s it!  That is what my nature points to and seeks.”      There is a very real sense in which the truths that the Church proposes for belief liberate our true self and give us our deepest identity.

But – and this is why the authority of the Church is not a dictatorship – we cannot discover this true self and deepest identity in isolation.   Cardinal Ratzinger says that ‘The “memory” instilled in our being needs, one might say, assistance from without so that it can become aware of itself.’  This assistance is what the authority of the Church gives.  It is in no way set in opposition to our deepest identity.  Rather, it awakens it and affirms it.

To grasp this is to grasp what the conscience is and is for.

SJC

Joseph Ratzinger By Manfredo Ferrari

 

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October 10: CONSCIENCE III: Under the Microscope

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There is good news and bad news about our conscience.  The good news is that our conscience has an affinity with what is good, and on this level of our being we “are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths,” as The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us [no. 1776].  This wonderful “sanctuary” is given to us by God, we only need to put aside our many distractions in order to enter it.

But, if that is so, then why do good people sometimes go off the rails?  Surely, so much God-given moral integrity should keep us pretty steadily on the right path in life, once we have made the decision to take it.  Thus, the bad news about our conscience is this: its wisdom can be ignored, as St. Thomas Aquinas remarks [Summa Theologia, I, 79, 13].  He points out that conscience is not like our intellect and our will, because these two faculties of the soul have permanence; the powers of our mind and will are always functioning and cannot be laid aside.    Conscience is something else again.  It requires, St. Thomas implies, a certain depth of spirituality in order to do its work well; otherwise, its promptings can simply be tuned out.

Why is this so?  Recall, we do not live in a state of harmony within ourselves.  The true voice of conscience can be out-shouted by other parts of ourselves: our emotions, for example, can, and often do, overwhelm us and can make the judgement of conscience difficult to discern.  My emotion of anger, say, when someone offends me, might cause me to fail to take into account the fact that the offender did not intend to cause hurt.  I may find myself lashing out unreasonably, without listening to my own conscience telling me to give the other person a chance to explain.  Or, say, my greed for a new, stylish pair of shoes might be more insistent than the voice of my conscience telling me that I cannot really afford these designer stilettos, and I shouldn’t add the price of them to my credit card debt.

What do we do about this state of affairs?  Perhaps we need to view our conscience as we view our muscles.  Weak muscles need exercise in order to become strong.  Our conscience is something like that.  Ignore its voice and the voice becomes weaker and harder to hear.  Seek to follow the voice of conscience, and its guiding voice will strengthen and become easier to discern.  

SJC.

 

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9 October: CONSCIENCE II: Presence to the Self.

Picture Friday wk 3 (1)

We are reflecting together for a few days on the notion of conscience.  Here is a passage I love from The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience.  This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection: “Return to your conscience, question it… Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness” [no. 1779].

It would seem that being present to oneself ought to be perfectly natural.  Why even mention it?  Yet, anyone who has begun to take seriously the challenge of living an interior life every day (and not just sometimes) soon discovers that it is far from easy.  Sooner or later, a painful absence of harmony within ourselves and with others becomes evident.  This is one of the results of original sin, and, as The Catechism expresses it, ‘…the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered….’ [see no. 400].

Our capacity to be present to ourselves, our capacity for true interiority is therefore impaired.  Unless we try to do something about this, we will only be living out of a small and superficial portion of ourselves.  We will be vulnerable to any fads or addictions that seem to promise release from our inner disharmony.  Without working on our interior life, without understanding what our conscience is, we will not have the strength to adhere to what is good.  We need our conscience in order to fulfil our human potential and claim our dignity as human persons.

Yet, many people today do not desire to be present to themselves.  We are apt to go to great lengths to avoid being alone with ourselves.  In the car, music must be playing, as it is in most shops.  In many homes the television is on all day long, largely unwatched, but providing background noise and the possibility of self-distraction whenever the mind is insufficiently occupied with the task at hand.  Now the Internet, with its instant communication, unlimited entertainment, and information on tap, means that some sort of contact with others whenever we want can entice us away from being present to ourselves.  Even people who have discovered how unsatisfying a life of self-distraction can be can testify that giving up their distractions was deeply challenging at first.  I doubt former ages were really very different from ours.  Our alienation from our deeper self is as old as the human race.  Self-distraction simply took other forms in other eras.

The reason we are considering the subject of presence to ourselves is to examine the necessity of living in touch with our conscience.  The quotation from The Catechism with which I began this post suggests that there is a step one and a step two with regard to conscience.  Here is step one: with Christ, with his grace, we must first work to acquire presence to ourselves.  This involves turning off the electronic media gadgets from time to time, it means self-discipline, prayer, a measure of silence and a willingness to be alone sometimes.  And step two: there must be some self-questioning going on.  We need to look at our thoughts and our instinctive drives and to ask them where they are taking us and whether they accord with true goodness.  In this way we will draw near to the reality of our conscience.  I would like to explore this in the next few posts.

SJC.

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8 October: CONSCIENCE I: Why bother to look closely at the conscience?

 hionahill

 If you are reading this Daily Reflections blog, chances are you are not doing so merely because at this moment you have nothing better to do.  You are reading this because you want to have God in your life, you wish to deepen your interior life, to become a better person, become someone who is more prayerful and loving.  In that case, it may be of help to you to reflect for a few days with me on the notion of conscience.

Why do this?  Why bother to look closely at the conscience?  Certainly everyone knows what it is, you might say.  It’s that little voice inside that makes you feel guilty when you’ve done something wrong.  True enough.  But there is much more to our conscience than that.  Our conscience is not just an irritating little guilt generator.  It is an extremely important piece of moral equipment that enables us to love what is good and reject what is evil.  It is really a very noble part of ourselves.  Here is what The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.  Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary.  There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths [no. 1776].

This beautiful passage brings out the nobility of our conscience.  It is the “place” within us where we find that we have a spontaneous affinity with what is good, with what is of God.  We are, after all, made in God’s image.  In a manner similar to the way genetics cause traces of the parents’ appearance to be seen in the face of their child, we can also find traces of our Heavenly Father’s heart in our own hearts, through the “genetics” of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us.  Conscience is about that reality.  Conscience contains a “law” that we have not laid upon ourself; it is the law of love.  This law does not force us.  We remain free.  But it calls to us, invites us to grow more like our Heavenly Father.  Our conscience points to the love God has for us, and helps us respond in kind.  Our conscience sanctions our good works and provides the happiness we experience when we do what is good and avoid what is evil.

 

SJC

 

 

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July 18: John Cassian, II. Can my Heart Really Contain God?

 

 heart

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “…the heart, in the biblical sense of the depths of ones’ being, [is] where the person decides for or against God” [no. 368].  This decision exists in the human person as a dynamic and constant impulse toward God.  In John Cassian, whose writings we are considering for a few days, the decision issues in the willingness to labour unceasingly to make the vessel of our heart able to bear the indwelling of Christ.

For Cassian, in order for this to happen, the person needs to gain insight into what he already has within the vessel of the heart.  And, recall, according to Cassian, we can’t say, “Oh, I’m not a vessel, so I don’t have to worry about this.”  For Cassian, the acknowledgement that we are vessels must be our starting point.  It’s how we’re made.  So, what’s in us, then?

Although the human person responds naturally to love, beauty, truth and goodness, and we achieve our human fulfilment through augmenting these qualities within ourselves, there is another, less sanguine aspect of our interiority to consider.  Cassian maintains that the vessel of the heart can be a place of conflict and temptation.  The decision for God must be made again and again, on ever deeper levels.  Purity of heart, therefore, is our goal, not our starting point.  This is what he says,

For the sake of [purity of heart] then, everything is to be done or desired.  This should be our principal effort, then; this should be constantly pursued as the fixed goal of our  heart, so that our mind may always be attached to divine things and to God [Conf. 1, VII: 1].

 

So, it is a given that we are vessels, but it is not a given that we are automatically pure of heart.  To become so: that is our longing; and everything we do should be done not just with this goal vaguely in the picture.  Cassian puts it more strongly.  It should be our “fixed goal”, our “principal effort”.  How do we undertake such a project?  Tomorrow we will look at one way to proceed.

SJC.

 

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