Forming Our Conscience

We have recalled some major distinctive (but, let us insist once again, not necessarily unique) moral convictions and concerns of Catholic Christianity: respect for all human life as sacred; a sexual responsibility located between selfish licentiousness and anti-body rigorism; a deep concern for truth and justice; care for all our neighbours in need; a defence of human dignity and rights. What is to be said when we move from moral principles to human decisions and actions? We conclude this chapter by proposing two fundamental principles for forming our conscience: the following of Christ and docility to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Notoriously the world has experienced and suffered from a 'morality' according to which we should create meaning and value for ourselves. In a spirit of unqualified self-determination and self-creation, some claim:

'The moral meaning of my acts is controlled by me and me alone.' In its own way such a moral stance recalls the Roman matron described by Juvenal: 'don't ask me for reasons; it is enough that I want something.' A self-directed self similarly allows the autonomous will by itself to justify deeds and their values; as John Paul II wrote, it 'grants to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly (Veritatis Splendor, 32).

But what of those noble 'liberal' thinkers, such as Sir Julian Huxley, who appeal to reason and conscience? In a book published two years before he died, this biologist and first director-general of UNESCO wrote: 'I have been an optimist all my life, trusting in reason, man's natural intelligence and his conscience.'233 All power to Huxley and his appeal to the human conscience, which Vatican II invoked234 and which John Paul II called 'the proximate norm of personal morality' (Veritatis Splendor,, 60). Huxley's optimism was underpinned, however, by an unqualified confidence in the 'natural' goodness and perfectibility of human beings that the Enlightenment thinkers propounded (see the end of Ch. 2). The harm done by sin to human beings, not least the impact of sin on our intelligence,235 and the help offered by the Holy Spirit to our ways of thinking, deciding, and acting simply did not enter Huxley's confident picture. Here St Paul proves much more realistic; he knew that our sinful minds need to be transformed and renewed before we can 'discern the will of God' and know 'what is good, acceptable, and perfect' (Rom. 12: 2). Before we discuss with the Huxleys of this world anything about conscience and moral decisions, we need to take them through the first eleven chapters of Romans and debate their picture of the human condition. They need to be ready to acknowledge not only our created condition but also that sinfulness which evoked the loving, redemptive activity of the tripersonal God.

At the same time, we should acknowledge how Huxley stood apart from those who facilely call on experience, science, and some supposed consensus in making up their moral minds. One must ask: whose experience counts? And then: what science counts? And how do we move beyond the

233 Memories II (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 258.

234 'In the depths of their conscience human beings detect a law which they do not make for themselves but which they must obey. Its voice always summons them to love and to do what is good and to shun what is evil' (Gaudium et Spes , 16).

235 See the sombre words of Vatican II about those who 'take little care to seek what is true and good' and whose conscience 'through a habit of sin' gradually becomes 'almost blind' (Gaudium et Spes ,16).

facts, presented by science, to values, or beyond what is to what ought to be? Some cases we cited earlier in this chapter (that of slavery, torture, and capital punishment) should give us pause about appealing to a consensus, even supposing that it has genuinely been established to exist. History shows how for much too long Christians conformed to regrettable social standards and were slow in opposing the prevailing consensus.

If we drop any debate with the Huxleys and others, what do we intend to say about the eminently practical exercise of applying the moral law to our concrete circumstances and forming our moral consciences or allowing them to be formed (see John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor., 54—64)? When they weigh up what they should do or refrain from doing at home or in work situations, whether these are such public institutions as schools and hospitals or private business settings, what principles should ideally guide Catholics and other Christians in evaluating their moral obligations and choosing a course of action? Ultimately, for Christ's disciples such principles seem to come down to two: the expectant hearing of the divine intentions communicated through God's revealed word and through the testimony of conscience, and a sense of freedom as the gift of God's Spirit.

1. Catholic and, indeed, all Christian morality is a morality of discipleship, for those who want to follow Jesus faithfully and unconditionally. Jesus himself endorsed the Jewish faith in the Torah as a divine gift, in fact as the special sign of the fact that God had chosen and entered into a unique covenant relationship with Israel. More than being ten rules for decent behaviour or an excellent summary of a natural code of conduct with which all ethically serious persons should agree, the Decalogue offered a way of life with God. Beyond question, Jesus took matters further—not only by subsuming all law under love (Mark 12: 28—34) but also by being himself the Law in person. Nevertheless, he expected his followers to attend with utter seriousness to the claims of the divine law and let their lives be shaped accordingly. He wanted them not simply to join Psalm 118 in celebrating the Law as God's extraordinary gift to Israel, but also to interiorize it and let it shape their hearts and minds (e.g. Mark 7: 20—3).

The Didache bears striking witness to this first principle of the attentive hearing expected from disciples. Its moral instruction for Christians around the end of the first century fashions its teaching about 'the way of life' and 'the way of death' by blending Christ's teaching about the life of love with the Ten Commandments and related prescriptions from the OT

(Didache, 1—6). The Didache says here in a more homely fashion what Paul had already expressed in his masterpiece. Christ has brought the OT law to its peak and perfection (Rom. 10: 4), and his teaching on love is the 'fulfilment' of the law (Rom. 13: 8—10). One might sum up the moral instruction from the Didache and the apostle as hearing the Decalogue to the accompaniment of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5—7).

Paul called this approach to moral living 'following' or 'imitating' Christ (1 Cor. 11: 1), an existence for which the primary aim is being like Christ or taking to heart his loving, generously self-forgetful style of life (2 Cor. 8: 9; Phil. 2: 1—12). The apostle pointed to Christ as the supreme moral exemplar, the paradigmatically good person, the teacher whose way of life we follow. St Irenaeus, among the most Pauline of the Church Fathers, expressed beautifully what such discipleship entails:

There was no other way for us to learn than to see our Teacher and hear his voice with our own ears. It is by becoming imitators of his actions and doers of his words that we have communion with him. It is from him who has been perfect from before all creation that we, so lately made, receive fulfilment. (Adversus Haereses., 5. 1. 1)

Such an existence means being, or rather letting ourselves be, transformed into the likeness of the crucified and risen Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3: 18). With this we move from the christological principle of moral existence to the pneumatological principle or 'life in the Spirit'. These two principles match Vatican Il's conception of Christian life as involving the following of Christ (Lumen Gentium, 41) and the free acceptance of the call to holiness (ibid. 40).

2. Paul vividly describes the powerful, trinitarian transformation of human existence effected by the Holy Spirit. Through their adoption as God's sons and daughters, men and women are enabled through the Spirit to leave behind everything that is deadly, join the Son in praying to the Father, and live in expectation of a glorious, resurrected life to come (Rom. 8: 1—30). This moral transformation brought by the Spirit looks forward to the definitive liberation and glory to come. Christian pneumatological morality is nothing if not end-oriented, totally shaped by the new existence of the final, heavenly kingdom, which will bring a face-to-face sharing in the life of the tripersonal God. 'The end governs all,' as a classical maxim put it. It is such a hope which gives the courage to 'stand up' in the face of evil, a courage that Pastor Martin Niemoller found tragically lacking among too many Christians under the Nazi regime.236 The need to be totally oriented towards our final destiny probably prompts fewer questions than talk of 'liberation'.

John Paul Il's 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor had as one of its major concerns the clarification of human freedom, and of the way it is limited inasmuch as it is 'called to accept the moral law given by God'. 'Human freedom', the Pope wrote, 'finds its authentic and complete fulfilment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God.knows perfectly what is good for the human being, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good in the commandments' (Veritatis Splendor,, 35).237 Vatican II had called the freedom with which we make 'this free choice of what is good' a 'freedom wounded by sin' and needing 'the help of God's grace' (Gaudium et Spes, 17). This teaching stands over against those false views of freedom that argue for an unqualified autonomy, as if less moral law would mean more freedom, and no law would bring perfect freedom. The OT story of the exodus, however, represents the God of the Sinai covenant and Decalogue to be precisely the faithful One who has delivered his people from bondage. God and God's law are liberating, not enslaving. The people of Israel were invited to accept their freedom as a gift that would bless their whole existence. Answerable to God for this gift, they pledged themselves in the covenant at Mount Sinai to avoid morally evil acts, which would destroy their freedom and make them slaves to sin.

At the time of the Babylonian Captivity prophets communicated the divine promise to give the people a 'new heart' created by God's 'spirit'. With this gift the people would be able to practice obedience to the Law and receive the divine blessings. In the words of the divine oracle, 'I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances' (Ezek. 36: 26—7). God promised to set his law 'within' his people and 'write it on their hearts' (Jer. 31: 33). Such language foreshadowed the NT gift of the Holy Spirit, who was be poured into human hearts (Rom. 5: 5) and dwell within the baptized as in a consecrated temple

236 Niemoller, who was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps during the Second World War and later (1961—8) became president of the World Council of Churches, berated himself for not doing more in opposition to the Nazis, as we can see from the quotation with which this chapter opens. After the War, and especially in the United States, he often concluded his speeches with a version of those words. But there is no precise source. One must be content with J. Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (Boston: Little & Brown, 16th edn. 1992), 684.

237 In his first encyclical John Paul II had written of our using the gift of freedom 'for everything that is our true good. Christ teaches us that the best use of freedom is charity, which takes concrete form in self-giving and in service' (Redemptor Hominis , 21).

(1 Cor. 3: 16—17; 6: 19). Guiding powerfully from within, the Spirit makes possible a life-giving obedience to the divine will (e.g. Rom. 8: 2, 4—6, 9, 14). Led by the Spirit, Christians can enjoy such fruits of the Spirit as joy, peace, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5: 22). Hence Paul can conclude that 'where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom' (2 Cor. 3: 17).

The apostle presents here true freedom as participatory—that is to say, a freedom which comes through sharing in the new life given by the Spirit. Paul significantly speaks of the Spirit not only as 'the Spirit of God' (e.g. 1 Cor. 2: 11, 12, 14) but also as 'the Spirit of Christ' or 'the Spirit of God's Son' (e.g. Rom. 8: 9; Gal. 4: 6). The genitive is exquisitely rich with meaning. The Spirit originates and comes from God the Father or from the Son. But the genitive also suggests how the Spirit puts believers in a relationship with the Father and with the Son. Through the Spirit sent into their hearts, they can join the Son in praying 'Abba, Father' (Rom. 8: 15; Gal. 4: 6). The liberated and liberating life in the Spirit brings the faithful into a fellowship with the three divine persons.

Understood in this way, the gift of moral freedom comes from and leads to that communion in the divine life which we described above in Ch. 6. Here it is worth adding that the three persons of the Trinity set, so to speak, the standard for an authentically liberated life. Within the tripersonal God, utter self-giving and complete self-possession coincide. Within God unity (or communion) and distinction are in direct, not inverse, proportion: the unique unity and communion between the divine persons go hand in hand with the unique distinction. This truth of faith has enormous implications for human life with God. The closer one draws to the community of believers, to all suffering people, and in and through them to the tripersonal God, the more 'self-possessed' and 'distinct' one will become. Authentic self-possession grows in direct proportion to our self-giving union with the tripersonal God and all human beings.

In this way the following of Christ and the guidance of the Spirit make Catholic and all Christian morality utterly trinitarian. The christological and pneumatological principles we have proposed look here and hereafter to our deepest communion in love with the life of the tripersonal God (Lumen Gentium, 42).238

238 For additional material see J. Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); W J. Woods, Walking with Faith: New Perspectives on the Sources and Shaping of Catholic Moral Life (Collegeville, Minn.: Michael Glazier, 1998).

10 Basic Characteristics of Catholicism

After this I saw a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues. (Revelation 7: 9).

When she had received the body of Christ, she beheld her soul.in the likeness of a tree fixing its roots in the wound in the side of Jesus Christ; she felt in some new and marvellous way that there was passing through this wound, as through a root, and penetrating into all her branches and fruit and leaves a wondrous sap which was the virtue of humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. (Gertrude the Great, The Herald of Divine Love, 3. 18)

After expounding the history of Catholic Christianity and its teaching, what should we say in drawing together and so summarizing the principal characteristics of the worldwide Catholic Church? Two thousand years of history and a current membership of a little over one billion people make this summary a daunting task. Before facing that task, let us repeat once again a point made in the Preface and subsequent chapters. The characteristics we present here will often hold true of other Christians and their communities. For that matter, some themes apply also to Judaism and to religions other than Christianity. But right to the end of this book we intend to write about Catholicism, without pausing to make elaborate comparisons and contrasts with other Christian churches and world religions. What is distinctive about the Catholic Church is not always and necessarily unique to Catholicism. Furthermore, we will continue to follow the advice from Aristotle that we invoked in the Preface: it is by examining the better or even the best features of something, rather than its defects, that we can more truly judge what we are looking at. We will not understand Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, or Catholicism by unilaterally attending to decadent and diseased expressions and adherents of these religions.

That said, any list of the key characteristics of Catholicism should include the following features: it is centred on Jesus, along with his mother Mary; it readily takes up material objects into its sacramental and devotional life; it practises the principle of 'both/and' (e.g. both grace and freedom; both faith and reason; both worldwide unity and new religious movements). The Catholic 'substance', to echo Paul Tillich's term, which we recalled in Ch. 2, will show forth at least those three characteristics.

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