What does it mean to be a great basketball player? If you think it means not double dribbling or making too many fouls, you aren’t wrong but that’s only the beginning. Playing great basketball is a lot more than not making mistakes. It is the full flourishing of the game.
The next section of our treatment of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1691-1845) deals with the Christian moral life. Before a series of articles on some specific moral questions, the church outlines what the moral life is about in the first place. Very simply, it is about becoming the kind of person God made us—and redeemed us—to be. Avoiding sin—like avoiding double dribbling—is only the beginning. The Christian moral life is the full flourishing of man’s call to be holy.
The fullness of the Christian moral life can only be understood in Christ. Christ is not so much an extrinsic exemplar to be imitated as much as—by grace—He is the interior principle of our moral actions. In grace, Christ comes to live in us and through us to touch others.
Central to the Christian moral life is the notion of freedom, about which there is enormous confusion in the world today. Freedom is the power to act as we ought not simply the license to do whatever we want. Sin is a misuse of freedom, which should always be connected to the truth about the human person. Man’s free actions are directed towards his final end in beatitude—perfect happiness with God in Heaven. Supernatural beatitude is a gratuitous gift of God and requires the grace of the Sacraments to get there.
Every moral act involves a moral object (the particular type of act that is chosen), an intention or reason for acting, and certain circumstances unique to a particular act. A morally good act requires the goodness of its object, intention, and circumstances together. There are certain acts that are always wrong to choose, for example the intentional killing of the innocent for example; and no good intention can ever justify choosing a moral object which is always wrong.
In addition to the intellect and will, the passions are an indispensible piece of the moral life. They are movements of the sensitive appetites and can be rightly ordered or disordered. The moral life is not simply about correct moral choices but becoming a virtuous person for whom good acts come promptly, easily and joyfully. The temperate man does not struggle to choose the right measure of food at every meal for example. Because he possesses the virtue of temperance (either through repeated concrete choices or infused by God) he knows intuitively, and without much struggle, the right amount to eat.
The key concept in the moral life is virtue—the habitual disposition to do good. The four cardinal virtues are prudence, which directs our reason to the means of achieving the good; justice, which is the constant will to give God and neighbor what is due to them; fortitude, which ensures firmness in difficulties; and temperance, which moderates the pleasures of the senses. As an element of prudence, conscience is the judgment of reason by which one recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.
In baptism, Christians receive the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. They have God as their origin and object. By faith, we believe in God and in all that the church proposes for our belief. By hope we desire—and are oriented toward—eternal life. By charity, we love God above all things which pours out into love of neighbor.
The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They too are given in baptism and strengthened in confirmation. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit provide the capacity to act in a divine mode, on a new level as it were and are required for the full flourishing of the Christian moral life.
The Christian moral life, then, is much more than simply not double dribbling. It is promptly, easily and joyfully fulfilling our vocation in Christ to love like he does.
Father Connors was ordained in June and is currently studying at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where he is pursuing a licentiate in moral theology. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Connors and Father Joseph Upton.