Jesus began his enlightening Sermon of the Mount with: “Blessed [or Happy] the person who…” This great Sermon, and all his teachings, is really about being happy. It is particularly attractive because this is something we all seek… we all want to be happy.
So if Christian morality and holiness is about being happy and we all seek that, then why do so few people embrace Christian morality—even among Christians? Why do so few seek holiness?
One reason—perhaps the predominant reason—is that people confuse happiness with pleasure. We say to ourselves, if I have just one more cookie… one more drink… a true romantic or sexual experience… or I really let this person a full piece of my mind (or my fist)… then the pleasure and satisfaction that it will give me will make me happy. But pleasure never does. It may give us a temporary “high,” but not permanent happiness.
A few years ago a priest shared his experience. He had done a lot of work with young addicts, and would go around to Catholic and public schools to dissuade young people from drugs. On one occasion when visiting a school this priest had just given a talk to the 7th and 8th graders and was waiting to speak to the younger grades. The principal gave him an office to work while he waited. At one point the priest got a little antsy and approached the principal: “I would like to do a little experiment with the first-graders, to see if they can tell the difference between pleasure and happiness.” The principal replied, “But they are just first-graders… they are not old enough to know that.” The visiting priest replied, “That’s why I want to do this experiment, to see if it is really true or not.” So the principal took the visiting priest to the first-grade classroom.
The first-grade teacher had a similar objection but let the priest hold forth. The priest ask the children to get out a blank piece of paper and NOT write their names on it—this was novel as they we taught that you always write you name on your paper…
Next, he asked the children to write down three things they got from their parents recently. After they finished that, he asked the children to write down the letter “P” next to the word if it gave them pleasure or the letter “H” if it made them happy. Next he asked the children to an “N” next to the word if it was something they needed and a “W” if it was something they wanted. Finally he collected the papers and thanked the children and the teacher.
The principal and the priest went back to the office to review what the children had written. Some of the things the children had received from their parents were objects: “jewelry,” a “Play-Station game,” a certain toy or doll… They all had “P” for giving them pleasure, and “W” for being something they wanted. The principal and priest noted other things on the papers too: I got a “hug” or “kiss” or “smile”… with an “H” to say it made them happy, and an “N” for being something they needed. One child even wrote: I got a “spanking” with an “N” next to it, saying “I needed that!”
So, first-graders really can tell the difference between happiness and pleasure, between needs and wants. It is us adults (and adolescents) who so often confuse the difference. And is this not why so many find it difficult to live Christian morality—it gets in the way of our pursuit of pleasure. Yet our Lord tells us that Christian morality is about what will make us truly happy, both in this life and the happiness that awaits us in heaven. Ultimate happiness will come with our love and union with God… which is what we Need.
Fr. John R. Waiss
When a child gets into his teen years, he doesn’t want a list of rules. Teenagers see rules as arbitrary directives instituted by people in power in order to control our lives. If something is good or bad, moral or immoral, somehow it has to be so because of something intrinsic, beyond rules.
St. Augustine came up with an adage that has been repeated over and over again: “Love and do what you want.” In other words, if you truly love then you don’t need rules or commandments, love itself will suffice.
Think about it: does a newlywed bride need rules to do what is right? Suppose a newlywed friend asked you for advice—how far can I go with my boss before I would be unfaithful to my beloved husband? Can I let my boss take me out to lunch, would that be unfaithful? Can I let him hold my hand or give me a kiss? … If your newlywed friend were to ask you such questions, would you think she would be truly in love? Of course not! Someone truly in love doesn’t need rules to avoid infidelity because they are so focused on pleasing their beloved. They would never even come close to offending the other.
Rules and commandments exist to help us see when our love falls short. If we lust over another or lie or steal then obviously we do not love as we should, perhaps because we don’t see how our action affects our relationship of love or perhaps because our love does not reach as far as it should: from God to all his children that he love.
The Beatitudes and the Commandments
Christ gave us the Beatitudes as way to paint a picture of true love: Blessed are the poor in spirit… who put all their material goods at the service of their loving relationships; Blessed are the meek… who don’t let disappointments and personal hurts damage their loving relationships, etc.
Both the Beatitudes and the Commandments reflect right relationships with God and with others based on true love. The Commandments tell us what actions we must avoid so as to not violate our loving relationships; the Beatitudes tell us what we must do affirm our loving relationships. The Beatitudes and Commandments complement each other.
The Commandments reflect a kind of parental pedagogy toward children, teaching those children what behavior is bad for loving relationships. The Beatitudes reflect how “love and do what you want” really means, especially between spouses: an unselfish love, pure love, forgiving and understanding love… a self-sacrificing love.
Traditionally, the Commandments were divided in two, according to the two tablets of the Law. The first “tablet” held those Commandments that deal with our relationship with God while the second held the Commandments dealing with our relationship with others.
The Ten Commandments
God explicitly revealed the Ten Commandments to us through Moses (see Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:5-21). These Commandments reflect the Natural Law, and thus could be discovered by each of us on our own. But because sometimes we are slow learners—especially when it involves doing something we don’t want to do—and because it involves something so key to our ultimate happiness, God reveals them to us like a loving father teaching his child to do difficult things that will make the child happier and more successful.
The first three Commandments explain the duties of our love for God. The fourth Commandment explains how to love God through those who communicate his parental love to us. The other Commandments explain our duties of love toward God’s other children.
Learning to love is the goal of Christian morality which can be summarized in the Commandments and Beatitudes.
Fr. John R. Waiss
Good parents not only teach their children the house rules and laws, they teach them the reason behind the rules. God does the same with us.
The Natural Law is based on the great dignity of the human person, as made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). The web of relationships and interdependence into which we are born images the Blessed Trinity itself, with its eternal web of relationships: paternity, filiation, and the communion of love.
“All men are called to the same end: God himself. There is a certain resemblance between the union of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love” (CCC 1878)
Eternal life consists in our entering that web of divine relationships through Christ who reveals them to us: “no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). God grants us freedom and the ability to know and love him and others, giving us the capacity to fulfill our dignity.
While our great dignity of imaging the Holy Trinity and entering life with God—through divine filiation, intimacy with Christ, and the new life of the Spirit dwelling in us—original and personal sin has tainted and obscured it. Sin makes it very difficult for us to discern what is good for our being and happiness, as well as what is good and just in our relationships with others. For this reason God, in his loving mercy for his children, chose to reveal the essential aspects of the Natural Law in the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, which help us rediscover our great dignity. By his passion, death, and resurrection Christ reveals how much God loves us—how great our dignity is—offering us a life with him again through faith and love.
The first Commandments teach us that our great dignity consists in an exclusive relationship with God, which we express and maintain through our respect for his sacred name and the day of our covenant with him. The rest of the Ten Commandments protect the dignity of each person and helps each respect the dignity and rights of another from conception to natural death. The human body shares in the dignity of the human person because it is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Our dignity includes God’s call for us to live in human society by living fraternity—we are all brothers and sisters of every human being. This is key to God’s image and likeness in us. Through our different gifts, talents, and needs God calls us to self-giving: “On coming into the world, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life. He needs others” (CCC 1936). Our particular needs correspond to someone else’s gifts and talents; our particular gifts or talents correspond to another’s needs. This is part of God’s plan for us to get us out of ourselves so as to enter into a relationship with others:
“These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular ‘talents’ share the benefits with those who need them. These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods; they foster the mutual enrichment” (CCC 1937).
Christ reveals the fullness of man’s dignity—“Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (Gaudium et Spes 22). Since God has entrusted the Church with safeguarding this revelation, he makes the Church the proper interpreter of the Natural Law as revealed in the Son of Man.
Fr. John R. Waiss
Forming our conscience is key to live in the love of Christ, a “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith,” as St. Paul states (1 Timothy 1:5). This is why we should “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:18-19).
How do we form our conscience well so we can act responsibly and out of love? Reflecting on God’s Word and his Creation, the Catholic Church has built up a body of moral teachings. There is a pedagogical progression in this formation that advances from parental admonishment to the meaning of spousal love.
One of the first moral principles that parents usually teach a child is the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets,” in other words, treat others as you want them to treat you (Matthew 7:12; cf. Luke 6:31; CCC 1789). This rule is about fairness that children intuit, although they often need reminding.
The Golden Rule is common sense and we could discover it—like most moral principles—without God revealing it to us. But like little children need parents to put words to their emotions and intuitions, we need God to reaffirm what is obvious, especially when we are just starting on the road of moral decision-making.
Parents often teach their children by giving them consequences for their actions, both of reward and punishment. God does the same throughout the Old Testament, rewarding good behavior and punishing evil. God reveals that our ultimate goal is heaven, which we will reach if we follow God’s great commandments:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Hell (eternal damnation) is the consequence for refusing to love God, fleeing the light that reveals the morality of our deeds (see John 3:16-21). Heaven is the reward promised those who love God with all their heart.
Objective Moral Norms: God’s Eternal Law
Parents often set rules for their children, setting clear limits on what is right and what is wrong. God does the same thing for us in the Ten Commandments, which put into words what is already written in our hearts, as St. Paul says:
“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires… They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse” (Romans 2:14-16).
God’s revealed law is the objective, firm, stable, enduring, and universal precepts that express in words what he established in the nature of the universe he created. Inert objects follow the laws of nature that are discovered and expressed in the objective, firm, stable, enduring, and universal laws of physics, such as the law of gravity. Living plants and animals follow the laws of biology, which describes the behavior of living entities.
God established all these laws when he made creation. They are universal because they apply to all material beings; they are firm, stable, and enduring because there is no time or place in the created universe in which they do not apply to the beings they describe—no material being is exempt from God’s Eternal Law; they are objective because they do not depend on the outside observer describing them.
What we call the Natural Law is that portion of God’s Eternal Law that applies to free human persons. The Natural Law is another way of saying human nature, expressing it in firm, stable, enduring, and universal precepts for human behavior. The Natural Law directs the conscience of persons who remain free; the rest of the Eternal Law bind all material beings to follow out of necessity the law of gravity and the other laws of nature in the Eternal Law.
Man is free (CCC 1731) and God’s Natural Law for us gives the conscience the freedom and dignity enabling us to know and love… to know, love, and serve God and others.
Fr. John R. Waiss
Forming our conscience responsibly includes developing the virtue of prudence, the habit of properly forming and exercising the conscience, knowing when we can trust its formation and act on its judgments. A prudent conscience is like well-exercised muscles that enable us to perform well on the sports field. We become prudent by regularly listening to God’s gentile voice we need moments of silence to pray and meditate, especially meditating on God’s Holy Word.
A lax conscience arises when we act without first forming our conscience, acting on convenience and desire, rather than on the judgment of how our action would impact our relationship with God and others. A boy’s stomach may move him to dig into the birthday cake before his sister is allowed to blow out the candles. A well-formed conscience would direct the boy to wait and enjoy the cake in thanksgiving for the life of his sister instead of hurting his relationship with his sister and with his parents.
A scrupulous conscience is one paralyzed by doubt, dreading that every decision may be a mortal sin deserving eternal punishment. Often this is rooted in self-conscious pride, trusting in oneself and not in God and in a trustworthy, well-formed spiritual guide or confessor. The scrupulous person often finds him/herself trapped in legalistic rules that are impossible to fulfill, rather than learning to give him/herself with the full freedom of love in the service of God and others.
Sometimes we have a childlike doubt and our conscience cannot decide whether an act is objectively good or bad. If the decision is important, then we need to get the formation to resolve the doubt or seek advice from someone with reliable formation. Often we can do this when going to confession, asking the priest to help us resolve our moral dilemma. We can also get clarity by reading God’s Word, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, its Compendium, or some other good moral guide. In resolving doubt,
“Some rules apply in every case:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- the Golden Rule: ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’
- charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience: ‘Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience… you sin against Christ’ (1Cor 8:12). Therefore ‘it is right not to… do anything that makes your brother stumble’” (CCC 1789).
A daily examination of conscience is also recommended with frequent confession. This will give us an opportunity to consult our doubts in spiritual direction. Yet we can never surrender our personal responsibility for the formation of our conscience and for decisions we make, as St. Josemaría says:
“The advice of another Christian and especially a priests advice, in questions of faith or morals, is a powerful help for knowing what God wants of us in our particular circumstances. Advice, however, does not eliminate personal responsibility. In the end, it is we ourselves, each one of us on our own, who have to decide for ourselves and personally to account to God for our decisions.
“Over and above any private advice stands Gods law, which is contained in sacred Scripture, guarded and taught by the Magisterium of the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. When a particular piece of advice contradicts Gods word as taught by the Magisterium, we have to reject it decisively. God will give His grace to those who act with an upright intention. He will inspire them as to what to do and, when necessary, He will enable them to find a priest who knows how to lead their souls along pure and right paths even though at times they may be difficult ones” (Conversations, 93).
Fr. John R. Waiss