What must we do to be open to Grace? There are two ways to answer this – the first seems the correct one. The effort of the whole community is involved; an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust through which we try to come to an understanding of truth and are willing to receive it – whoever it is comes to such an enlightened position. The second answer seems self-defeating. Since intellects are clouded by sin, God must have instituted a guaranteed channel – the channel Catholics adhere to is the Magisterium of the Church. If the Pope declared something to be natural law it was guaranteed to be right reason.
This second view is self-defeating because it combines two sources of morality into one. Only authority is left, for reason and common sense have been eliminated. The point of the natural law was to guarantee a place for reason to show the continuity between reason and revelation. It makes us passive in our responsibilities, leaving only an obligation to obey commands. This sort of reasoning led to the rise of Nazism.
There is something else to consider. Common sense judgments do not come out of the blue; they are formed in particular situations, from actual experience. The difference between the two is highlighted by the common reaction to Humane Vitae of Paul VI, when many understood it as infallible teaching. However, if everything is not decided by right reason, we need to ask: are all moral teachings controlled by the Church, and therefore the Church can change them; or, have some questions been decided by Jesus so that they can never be changed? For instance the issue of divorce.
Friar Austin is back, talking over what Theology has to say to us today in the area of morality and responsibility.
A similar development to that around original sin is found in Church teaching on personal sin, our understanding of morality. We have had to ask how to decide what is the right thing to do in matters as yet never experienced – organ transplants, ways of controlling the frequency of births – as well as questions concerning the morality of public life. In a society that doesn’t change much a code or commandments for people to obey suffices; even without people knowing why something must or must not be done. Obey the rules and you are in harmony with God.
In the past Christian theology compiled its code, and it became very elaborate and detailed. We had volumes of moral theology textbooks. First, they were intended for confessors, to help with actions already done. However, the manuals affected preaching. Preaching and teaching are very different from what happens in the confessional. The Church turned to two sources in compiling the manuals – one was the already existing Church teaching; the other was common sense or right reason. The reason they appealed to common sense [natural law] was because morality is not arbitrary. God doesn’t invent rules at whim. The right thing to do is what is always in harmony with the plan of creation. Life is not absurd and eventually everything will make sense. Because we have reason and practical common sense, we thereby share in the creative wisdom of God, and can figure out what to do.
What we call natural law is accessible to everyone because it is a matter of reason, but it became evident that highly intelligent people did not always agree on the right answers to moral issues. Catholic theology says that our intellects are clouded by Original Sin through our involvement with the sin of the world; an unbiased judgement is by no means always possible – uninfluenced by personal likes, convenience and sympathy. This is a matter of observation – and is another aspect of our need for redemption through Grace.
It is God and his merciful justice that compels us to face these very real issues. The Church’s social teaching rests totally on the inalienable dignity and freedom of the human person. What is freedom and what does it mean? Certainly not individualistic free licence. Licence in fact makes itself dependent on the current moods, interests and emotions. Individual licence is also politically dangerous, making itself vulnerable to propaganda and advertising.
Freedom that is aware of its own dignity will always respect the freedom of others. It is freedom for others, not freedom from. Freedom becomes real when justice gives each his/her due. Freedom presupposes that others respect their own freedom and bring about a justice that is at the same time freedom regulated. So – what is justice, what is a just society? The ancient Greeks’ [Aristotle] is the midway between too much and too little. Law cannot legislate for all diverse situations, so justice is dependent on goodness as the higher value.
Natural Law is the foundation for justice – which persisted late into the modern era – which abandoned it, and yet a consensus is not yet apparent. Some see the concept of justice and talk about as dealing with empty formulas if not cliché suited to political propaganda to use and abuse for the sake of power games. Democracy without values soon descends into tyrannical governance. Democracy lives on presuppositions – that it cannot guarantee – but if we lose them or displace them as stating the obvious we end-up with relativism, which doesn’t accept absolutes but makes decisions according to market and/or power structures. If in the end there is no final truth, no absolute value then even the noblest expressions of democracy are without foundation; and tolerance gives way to its opposite against all disagreement.
As human being we are damaged goods, whilst having an inbuilt leaning towards good, we interpret good as what we see as goo: I did it my way. All our relating is infected with injustice which preceded us and which we inherited. This means our healthy survival makes pardon for the injustices we have given and received a sine qua non. We need to pardon past injustices and be reconciled again and again. Reconciliation is the only way out of the vicious circle of guilt and retribution.
Justice flourishes where there is forgiveness, reconciliation and mercy. Reconciliation and mercy do something seemingly impossible – it pardons what from the standpoint of justice is unpardonable. Forgiving the unpardonable violates a sense of justice that seeks retribution. It is by acting against the demand for retributive justice that forgiveness becomes the rock foundation of the new way of being human. I am the way…
St Stephen the Deacon, appointed to deliver Christian Mercy, carries a basket of bread. Church of St Stephen, Hackington, Canterbury.
All the major religions – enjoying many differences – come together in accepting the Golden Rule: do not do to another what you would not want done to you. Expressed positively – do everything to others that we would relish being done to us [find the negative formulation in the Old Testament and the positive in the New]. Augustine maintains that God wrote this rule on human hearts – it is the embodiment of the Natural Law.
However, in everyday expression religions are not only ambivalent, they are also contradictory; yet do possess things in common. According to the basic tenets of religions the connection of religion with violence represents a misunderstanding of real religion. Kant calls the Golden Rule trivial because it does not specify obligation. George Bernard Shaw observed: do not treat others as you would want them to treat you. Their taste may not be the same!
How does Jesus adopt the Golden Rule? See the Sermon on the Mount and its essential link with the love commandment – including love of enemies. Christian ethics links with a religious tradition that is open and common to all religions – yet cannot be reduced to a universal humanism, as if it were an acquired value. The fact is that compassion and mercy are inbuilt universal human values. Where compassion and mutual forgiveness are lost in favour of egoism and apathy towards fellow human beings gives rise to personal relations are confined to economic exchange. Whereas Christian mercy has shaped Western culture in a decisive way.
It is a common opinion that God in the Old Testament is a vengeful and angry God, while the God of the New Testament is gracious and merciful. There are Old Testament texts that support this – which speak of killing and expulsion of paganism, including some imprecations in the Psalms. However, this does not do justice to the gradual process by which the Old Testament view of God is transformed – ultimately both testaments witness to the same God.
In the Old Testament God’s mercy serves justice – mercy is God’s justice. In Scripture, the heart is not simply a human organ; it describes the core of the person, the seat of feelings as well as power and judgement.
Compassion is not regarded as weakness or as unworthy of a true hero. We are encouraged to show feelings and sadness, joy and grief – nor be ashamed of tears. Scripture speaks of God’s heart – God chooses according to his heart; his heart is said to be deeply troubled by the impact of sin on sinners. God leads with an upright heart. Hosea speaks of God’s heart recoiling, and God’s compassion grows warm and tender.