Skip to comments.Recovering the Catholic Moral Tradition: The notion of happiness
Posted on 09/07/2006 4:10:23 PM PDT by Alex Murphy
"Mom, why do we have to go to Mass every Sunday? Can't I just pray to God on my own?"
"Love doesn't depend on a piece of paper; if you really cared for me you would be happy to just move in with me."
"I don't understand why these bishops and priests can't just shut up about all this immigration stuff. Get out of politics and concentrate on the real moral issues."
For many Catholics, living a morally righteous life can seem both confusing and burdensome. In fact, moral theology as taught in Catholic seminaries and universities from the 16th century right up until Vatican II was rather narrow in its self-understanding and could accurately be called a "morality of obligation."
Moral catechesis across the board focused on the rules. It was not too long ago that it was common for almost everyone who had gone to Catholic school or through Catechism classes to refer to Sunday Eucharist as one's "Sunday obligation." Most will remember also learning about every Catholics' obligation to do "their Easter duty."
Morality, as taught, had an almost exclusive focus on commandments, rules and obligations. Most of these were "negative" precepts --- in other words, what we were to avoid or abstain from in pursuit of moral purity.
Two facts remain indisputable. One, that obligations and commandments have a legitimate place in Catholic morality. And, two, that this kind of moral catechesis admittedly does have a 400-year tradition.
Nevertheless, the question remains, is the moral theology of the past 400 years "traditional" Catholic morality in the best sense of that word? A simple review of our new Catechism makes it clear that the answer is no! In entering a discussion on recovering our Catholic Moral Tradition we are really opening up two complementary but distinct issues:
---First, using the word "recovering" begs the question that somehow, the moral catechesis of the 20th century Catholic Church was not fully in touch with traditional Catholic morality. Is this in fact true?
---Secondly, we are suggesting that the Catholic Moral Tradition is based on happiness, not obligation. Could this also true, or at least defensible?
These questions may seem to be merely the musings of an "ivory tower" theologian that have little or nothing to do with the lives of the majority of Catholics who spend most of their energy just trying to survive, let alone thrive, in today's contemporary society. Yet I would counter by suggesting that in fact, these two questions are among the most basic and important for the Church of the 21st century if we intend to embrace our Catholicism and live it out in a world where moral questions surround us and even assault us daily.
Catholic Moral Theology is distinctive because it has three necessary characteristics; it is relational, it is reasonable and it is objective. The Tradition says that all three of these characteristics must be present and kept in a creative tension for morality to be authentically Catholic.
A morality of obligation focuses exclusively on the third characteristic, "objectivity." The reduction of morality and moral catechesis to the evaluation of actions which could be classified as either required or forbidden was a departure from the fullness of the Catholic moral tradition. Traditional Catholic morality has always included spirituality and conscience (as a capacity for choosing happiness) as equally important and essential aspects of Catholic moral theology.
The new Catechism helps us recover the importance of the Catholic moral Tradition so evident prior to the 16th century. The truth of Catholic morality that has too long lain dormant and only recently been recovered is that every authentic Catholic moral life must be founded on an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, lived out and expressed by a life committed to personal and liturgical prayer. Catholic morality is not a relationship to rules, but a relationship with Christ. When I know Christ, and love Christ then and only then is a moral life possible, because morality can never be reduced to "what I have to do," but is essentially "what I want to do."
This does not throw out the commandments and obligations, for as Jesus himself said, "I have not come to destroy the law and commandments," and neither must moral theology. However, our Tradition reminds us that we keep the commandments best when we keep them as a freely chosen and loving response to Jesus. As St. Paul says, "The love of Christ urges us."
This means that the Catholic Tradition teaches that the person of Jesus is at the center of our moral life --- in other words, that our moral life depends on and is nourished by our spiritual life. Thus the Catechism was deliberate in the fact that its first part is about faith, articulating the meaning of a true relationship with the Trinitarian God.
Only after one has a "right" relationship with Jesus --- has accepted the gift of faith --- does the Catechism move to a discussion of the celebration of the Sacraments and how we encounter the living Christ in the Church. Then, and only then, in the third section of the Catechism is the moral life taken up, because only a relationship with Christ, sealed in Baptism and lived out through the sacraments gives the moral life it truest meaning. For then it is a loving response to the true and living God, a response that is motivated by love, not by fear.
This leads us to a brief discussion of our second point. Some Catholics might be surprised to hear that Thomas Aquinas never taught a morality of obligation. He in fact taught that freedom was at the heart of morality. True freedom in the Catholic Tradition is freedom "for excellence" --- in other words to be fully human and truly happy. For Aquinas the Beatitudes, not the Ten Commandments, are the heart of authentic Catholic morality.
Thus Thomas suggested that every good moral choice is in fact a choice for happiness, eternal happiness. It is delightful to see that our new Catechism begins its discussion on the moral life with the title, "Our Vocation to Beatitude (CCC, n. 1716-1729)." The Catechism identifies the moral life with, "The Desire for Happiness":
"The Beatitudes respond to the natural desire for happiness. This desire is of divine origin: God has placed it in the human heart order to draw us to the One who alone can fulfill it" (n. 1718).
The Catechism then quotes St. Augustine, who stands along with St. Thomas and many others in this classic Catholic understanding of morality: "How is it, then, that I seek you, Lord? Since in seeking you, my God, I seek a happy life, let me seek you so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul and my soul draws life from you" (n. 1718).
The desire for real happiness is at the heart of Catholic morality. Morality is wanting and choosing to do what leads to real happiness (eternal life) because of one's personal relationship with Jesus. Following obligations, commandments and rules clearly are dependent, for an authentic Catholic morality, on a vibrant spiritual life. Hence there remains an essential connection between the celebration of the sacraments and moral behavior.
It seems obvious that there is a clear attempt by the Church to recover our Traditional morality, and that in this recovery each of us is being asked to move our moral focus from one of "obligation" to one of happiness.
Vincentian Father Richard Benson is academic dean and professor of moral theology at St. John's Seminary, Camarillo. His column appears monthly in The Tidings.
This looks pretty orthodox and well-written, but I can't help feeling that anything from The Tidings (the Los Angeles archdiocesan paper) should come with a "caution: possible heterodoxy inside" warning.
The Dominican Servais Pinckaers has written on this topic with great insight. George Weigel summarizes at A Better Concept of Freedom.
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