Many people mistakenly think that Catholic morality is about a list of things not to do, but that is missing the point. The true Christian life is not about the list of thou shall not. It is about thou shall. Catholic morality begins on the other side of the Commandments, just as Jesus said: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (Jn 10:10).
In Baptism, the Christian is reborn in Christ and takes on a share in the Divine life of God. A new life that is about more than simply following the rules. It is a life in the Spirit, open to blessings from God to grow in virtue.
Catholic morality is essentially a call to recognize our inherent dignity as baptized Christians and act accordingly. This article will provide you with some of the fundamentals of Catholic morality to provide you with a guidebook for living the Christian life to the full.
The Basis of Catholic Morality: The Law of Love
Everyone is familiar with the story in the Gospel of Matthew about the scholar of the law who asks Jesus a question. He inquires: teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Our Lord replies: you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Mt 22:36-40). He summarizes the meaning of the entire Old Covenant in two short rules, both squarely focused on love.
There is no denying that the law of the New Testament and the basis for Catholic morality is the Law of Love. According to Jesus himself, it is the greatest commandment and our highest calling. Love, or, better said, charity (love of God and love of neighbor born from the love of God), is the foundation stone for Catholic morality.
Catholic Morality: If It Is All About Love, Where Do The Commandments Fit
If the greatest of all commandments is charity, where do the others fit? Well, the Decalogue is the definitive starting point. It is the bare minimum required by the law of love. The Commandments essentially sketch the basics necessary to live in union with Jesus Christ. If you fall below that level, you risk cutting yourself off from the Life of Grace.
Christian life operates on the positive side of the Ten Commandments. Our Lord said: a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this, all men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another (Jn 13:34-35). The New Law is not about thou shall not kill, but thou shall foster the life of thy brother.
For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter [the Ten Commandments and Precepts of the Church] and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.
Definition of a Mortal Sin (C.C.C. 1857)
At this point, one may ask: if the commandments are the minimum to futile the Law of Love, what is the maximum. Again, Jesus gives us the answer and the example, par excellence. He says: no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you (Jn 15:13-14). That is a high bar!
Catholic Morality: With Such A High Standard, How Can Anyone Succeed
How could anyone live up to the high demands of the Law of Love? Some things are impossible for men. For God, all things are possible (Mt 19:26). The disciples thought the same thing when they heard it too. They were greatly astounded and said, Then who can be saved (Mt 19:25)?
God does not call us to the unachievable. No, he gives us His grace to make it attainable. Jesus does not simply demand holiness. Instead, he provides every assistance needed to live it.
In Baptism and Confirmation, we received the presence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who accompanies us on this journey to holiness with His seven gifts: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord. Once we have allowed the grace of the Holy Spirit to take root in our lives, we begin to see evidence of the twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit: charity, generosity, joy, gentleness, peace, faithfulness, patience, modesty, kindness, self-control, goodness, and chastity.
Remember, it is not man who saves man, but God who saves him. The Holy Spirit slowly moves us toward perfection – the state of loving and acting with the heart of Christ as found in the Beatitudes. They are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching (C.C.C. 1716), and a self-portrait of Christ, himself. Catholic morality, at its core, is a call to live a life according to this new standard.
Catholic Morality: The Basics
Almost everything in the modern world seems up for debate, and there is little agreement on anything. The world of Catholic morality, however, has certain concepts as standard. Those basics used to be part of our Catholic cultural world until the smoke of modernity entered and promoted widespread confusion among the faithful. You should be familiar with them to give you have a solid basis upon which to build [Consult the article on orthodoxy for more]:
- Freedom: God created man in a State of Freedom with the liberty to choose whether or not to act in any given situation. He must learn to reject the bad and choose the good by training his intellect and will to advance upon the road to Heaven.
- Natural law: God created man with an internal sense of moral truth, and, using his faculty of reason, he can deduce the principles of the Natural Law.
- Law: since man chose to disobey God, he revealed to our ancestors the Law and the Prophets to guide us back into the way of truth.
- Truth: It is rooted in God, who is the truth itself. Possessing an objective nature and is immutable, it is not subject to personal opinion, nor must it be received by anyone to be valid.
- Conscience: the natural faculty to apply the basic principles of the law to specific moral situations, judging, in accord with objective law, an action as morally right or wrong. Importantly, conscience is not the source but the judge of moral principles.
Catholic Morality: Tell Me The Rules
For those who like specifics, Catholic morality will not disappoint you. It does have a code based on the Ten Commandments and the precepts of the Church. Remember, though, these rules represent the bare minimum, and the Christian must strive for the upper limits of the new Law of Love – to love God and love neighbor.
The Decalogue is a path of life: If you love the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply (C.C.C. 2057). Each of these commandments lays out the worst transgression in a given category and, by doing so, marks out for us the way to walk in the world. Thou shall not bear false witness, for example, cover a host of sins: perjury, slander, and rash judgment to name a few.
On the other hand, the precepts of the Church are few and cover the basics of being a good Catholic. They include:
- Attendance at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation
- Confession of grave sin at least once a year
- Reception of Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season
- Observance of the days of fast and abstinence
- Providing for the needs of the Church
Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion.
Confession (C.C.C. 1422)
Catholic Morality: Specifics
Today, many specific issues present problems for the Catholic moral life, and there is not a shortage of opinions that disagree with some of the teachings of the Church. In the future, A Catholic’s Perspective plans to release articles covering these topics, such as sexuality, abortion, and euthanasia.
This article provided you with a basic outline of how to approach the moral life and live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Remember, the basics and the Decalogue are the minima. True life is found on the positive side of the Ten Commandments and in the Beatitudes. Above all, follow the new Law of Love.
That should do it for now. Please check out our other great articles.