Defending the Faith of our Fathers!
Christ's Faithful People

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Class 1

This course will provide an overview of the principles of morals and an introduction to the prima secundae. Fr. Giertych hopes to follow the vision of Saint Thomas in morals. There will be an oral final, and a short written test on Tuesday, December 19.

What is the nature of New Testament morality?

Fr. Chenu wrote that the history of moral theology is one of failures. How does Christ come into our moral actions? How can we describe the novelty of Christ’s coming in our morality? Can we describe this in a scientific way? What is the place of faith and revelation in a Christian reflection on morals? We can describe the fact of morality without revelation — even pagans experience the same problems and discover many of the same principles. We don’t need dogmatic appendages to talk about morality. These questions are not easy, and hence some say it is a history of failures. Manuals were written after the Council of Trent (when seminary formation became necessary), and in this aspect the study of morals was considered theological with a pastoral aspect, focusing on sin and on the moral obligations found in revelation and the moral law, and how the penitent could discern sin from what wasn’t sin. In this post-Tridentine period, these three items have characterized it: study of moral law, of sin, and of complicated issues.

Saint Paul’s moral thought: Christocentrism

What happened in the 1500 years prior to Trent? Wouldn’t an earlier perspective have something valuable to offer? Should we not return to a strictly Biblical perspective? Since the 18th century there has been a dissatisfaction with Tridentine moral theology, and this push has received a great impetus with Vatican II. Now we are trying to find new avenues and ways to deal with moral theology, some heading in good directions, some not.

How do the authors of the New Testament present Christian morality? What is specific about Christian morality? We cannot answer solely by moral commands unique to the Bible, because we are applying our modern questions and limitations to revelation. We cannot search solely for commandments in the New Testament, because they’re all there in the Old Testament. If we’re looking for moral obligations, this perspective becomes Old Testamentarian. Most old books on morality were written with the Decalogue. But what is the novelty of the New Testament? Saint Paul’s basic moral emphasis is not obligation, but happiness and salvation. Saint Paul reflects on the virtues leading to God, but he doesn’t give us a systematic lecture on morals. He’s referring to moral problems as they arise in his moral work. If the teaching of morals consists in moral imperatives, we will search for them in the Bible exclusive of faith, etc. To read Saint Paul, we should set aside modern moral categories. We also won’t discover New Testament morality by divorcing it from what is common with the Old Testament and what is obvious in Greek thought.

Saint Paul encountered the Jewish conception of morality, based on the revealed law, and Greek wisdom, with its emphasis on wisdom and virtue. The Jew aimed at being just before God, who is true to his promise. The covenant, the history of salvation, the law, and the question of sin and conversion were important to him. The Greek morality, based on Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, presented wisdom and intellectual and moral virtues, leading toward Happiness. Rome added an emphasis on integrity, justice, order, and courage. Saint Paul, seeing these two perspectives, realized that the wisdom of the Greeks led to stupidity, idolatry, whereas the justice of the Jews led to hypocrisy and pride. Both perspectives were inadequate. The evangelical solution of Paul is to preach the crucified Christ, "the power and the wisdom of God."[1] Christ is the center of Christian morality. Christ has become our wisdom, holiness, virtues, and freedom[2], and Paul didn’t philosophize but demonstrated the spirit, so that our faith might depend not on human philosophy but on the power of God.[3] Elsewhere [4] he says that God’s justice has been revealed outside of the law, the same justice that comes through faith for everyone believing in Christ. Not our efforts, but transformation by God, is the essential element.

So against the Jews’ justice and the Greek’s wisdom, Paul places faith in Christ. Paul doesn’t deny justice or wisdom, but gives them a new source, the power of Christ. Both the Greeks’ and the Jews’ systems of morality led to pride. Faith, on the other hand, is a humble placing of oneself before the Cross in matters that matter most (e.g., happiness, morality). Faith is a transfer of the burden of sanctification from our shoulders to Christ’s. If we are men of faith, we transfer our hope to Jesus. Paul, hence, places a person, not a teaching, and not just an example, like Socrates, but a living person, the living Christ, at the center. Through faith in Christ, each act of the believer is modified within by Christ. Reception of Christ in faith frees us from despair, and shows us divine mercy, which totally permeates and transforms us. The Holy Spirit elicits in our works the power of Christ.

The Holy Spirit and the Theological Virtues in Pauline Morality

A theory of morality cannot be Christian if it doesn’t ascribe the primary role to the Holy Spirit. Charity is not just a sentiment, but a reality. Rom 5:5 says that a divine love given to us changes us.[5] This love is incarnated in our actions, thoughts, etc., when we live the life of faith. In a Christian reflection of morals, we must be open to this divine mystery. This makes it totally different from a purely human reflection on morals. Paul mentions the catalogue of virtues known to the Stoics, but this reference to pagan ethics is secondary. The undertaking of the practice of virtue as a consequence of Christ isn’t the same as the practice of virtues as a point of departure. Paul’s foundation is faith and love in Christ and then integrates the Greek and Jewish morality on that foundation.

To understand this, we mustn’t perceive virtues as independent entities, but they are always centered on a primary ideal of life. We cannot compare justice among Plato, Saint Paul, Kant, and Marx without reference to their entire perspectives. Paul takes up the Greek wisdom, but transforms it essentially. The Greek virtues receive a Christian head of faith, hope, and charity. That’s why in Christian morality the most important thing in upbringing is the personal relationship with Jesus in faith, hope, and charity. We must begin here. The theological virtues, moreover, are of an entirely different nature thanthe moral virtues; they’re entirely a result of grace. There’s no transfer from human wisdom to faith. Faith is given by God. They redirect the ethos of the Christian in its entirety.

The Pauline vision of morality is action in Christ. Paul uses this to resolve important moral crises, meat, women, slaves, adultery. His response is not a merely rational consideration, but a consideration in Christ. In Eph 5:22-23 and the question of the runaway slave,[6] there is a reference to Christ. Paul’s not just adding Christ for authority; rather, there’s an internal change based on this relationship with Jesus. Paul introduces the virtue of humility, which the pagan authors considered absurd. Humility is a part of faith, that disposition which opens us to God. He introduces chastity, because Christ makes our body a temple of the Holy Spirit, united in the Mystical Body to Christ. This understanding is disappearing in our world.

The ultimate criterion is the relationship to Christ[7] who is the image of the invisible Father, and the return is through the Holy Spirit. So his teaching is Trinitarian. There’s no distinction for Saint Paul into dogmatic and moral theology, or into moral and spiritual theology. There’s no ethical system. The basic theme is faith in the risen Lord, and his is not an ethical reflection based on ethics and human morality. The essential thing he has to tell the world isn’t a code of moral behavior. The fundamental teaching is an annunciation of the Son of God who redeemed us. Therefore, our moral teaching must be Christocentric — not just do’s and don’ts. For Paul, moral considerations are secondary; primary is the preaching of the risen Lord. Nevertheless a system can be constructed, based on revelation. The history of Christian thought presents such attempts.

Morality in the Fathers: The Sermon on the Mount

Paul’s pastoral approach is found in the fathers of the Church. Within Saint Augustine, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Gregory the Great, they handle the problems of the day. A good presentation of the principles of morality is found in Saint Augustine’s "About the Sermon on the Mount," written (and edited) shortly after his ordination for a retreat. This work had an enormous influence on medieval theology. Saint Thomas built the second part of his Summa on Augustine’s work.

The Sermon on the Mount is fundamental for Christian morality, but isn’t it too difficult? Aren’t its requirements too demanding or impossible? Is it not requiring ordinary people to be heroes? It certainly contains imperatives more difficult than in the old dispensation. In olden days, there was a separation between the moral commandments of the Decalogue and the special theological discipline of spiritual (mystical or ascetical) theology. The beatitudes were understood to be only for the chosen few, not for the ordinary people, who could not keep up. Though this was never taught as doctrine, it was the general attitude. The Sermon on the Mount, it was concluded, therefore, was not addressed to all the people, to all the disciples, because it has counsels and not commandments. This approach banished the Sermon of the Mount from modern Catholic theology and we need to bring it back.

Saint Augustine, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Cyril all keep the Sermon in the forefront, unlike the modern period which focused more on the Decalogue. The modern period calls the Sermon elitist, though beautiful. Martin Luther said that to fulfil the demands of the Sermon was impossible, but that the impossibility was intended by God so that we would discover our sinfulness, and convert to Jesus. Only Jesus, according to Luther, fulfilled the requirements of the sermon, and did it for us all. Christ covered us with his extrinsic justice, and we remain corrupt. Catholics know that grace transforms us from within. For Luther, those Christians who seek to fulfill the sermon would be seeking for justice through works. The Sermon’s functionfor him was that of an accuser; and, in showing us our sinfulness, it does so better than the Decalogue. So Lutheran and Post-Tridentine moral theology dismissed the Sermon on the Mount.

Saint Augustine’s Homily on the Sermon on the Mount

Saint Augustine has an entirely different approach. He was convinced that the Sermon on the Mount was the supreme moral text for forming his congregation. Saint Augustine developed five intuitions:

(1) The Sermon is the Magna Carta of the Christian life, a condensation and model of the Christian life. He treats it as a special unity, apart from the commentary of the Gospel as a whole (a unique approach among the fathers). He saw in the Sermon the presentation of the perfect way of living the Christian life. It contains everything that pertains to the formation of the Christian life. It’s the summit to which all the revealed moral exhortations lead.

(2) The Beatitudes denote seven steps of Christian living, leading from humility to beatitude.[8] The eighth beatitude, for Saint Augustine, leads back to the first, pointing everything to God. So happiness, promised in the beatitudes, accompanies the Christian from the first moment of conversion to the final vision of God.

(3) The interpretation of the sermon as a whole must be done in the light of the Beatitudes, which are not a short introduction to the sermon but a cornerstone to the entire construction. They throw light on the totality of the sermon. Happiness governs the entire sermon, giving us Jesus’ answer to the pursuit of happiness. Saint Thomas also begins with the question of happiness as does the Catechism (rather than focusing on suffering in this life, and happiness only in the next).

(4) The relationship between the beatitudes and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Saint Augustine joined the seven beatitudes with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.[9] The Greek fathers applied Isaiah uniquely to the Christ, but Augustine was the first to apply them to every Christian. Receiving the seven gifts is not just for Jesus but for all Christians. Augustine knew that he was being innovative here ("it seems to me that..."). The Christian cannot live the beatitudes without being led by the Spirit; he cannot be happy without the Spirit. Saint Paul says that the Christian life is the life of the Spirit. Saint Augustine often quoted Romans 8 and Galatians 5, the two strongest texts in Saint Paul discussing the action of the Holy Spirit. So for Augustine, there wasn’t a split between spiritual and moral theology. He probably would have condemned as heretical the texts of the past two centuries which try to maintain such a split. Christian life always requires the help of the Holy Spirit and his grace. How does Augustine describe this work? He linked the two groups of seven. We see the same in Saint Thomas.

(5) Saint Augustine joins the beatitudes and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the seven petitions of the Our Father. His point is that we must constantly pray to keep the beatitudes, and the prayer Jesus taught us is the model of how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer, which is Trinitarian, addressed to the Father, given by the Son, leads us into relationship with the Trinity.

Saint Augustine’s commentary greatly marked Catholic moral theology until the 14th century, which was a moment of revolution. It showed how to live by grace, and the consequences of living with grace. With the rise of Nominalism, moral theology was reduce to a list of obligations.

We ought to preach the Sermon on the Mount

The question of happiness generates a discussion of what is happiness itself, corresponding to the beatitudes and the Gospel. Happiness transforms us from within, giving some fulfillment to our aspirations. Our aspirations are purified by reading the Sermon of the Mount. The Sermon of the Mount teaches us what the Holy Spirit wants to do within us, when he meets with our humble cooperation described in the beatitudes. So the Sermon first gifts us with promises, with hope, and then issues guidance. This guidance meets with the interior response, urged by love. So it should be the major source of moral theology, superior to, but not denying the Decalogue (as Jesus does in the Sermon). Likewise, we’re not denying the natural law.

We need to have faith in the value of the evangelical word, which is capable of giving clear guidance for the moral life. More than a return to Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas, we need to return to the living word of God and to the revelation recorded in Scripture. We shouldn’t be afraid of presenting the Sermon of the Mount to non-believers. We don’t have to discuss on the basis of the natural law if there’s no common agreement on the natural law. The Sermon shows a deeper perspective. It touches people at a deeper level than the intellectual constructions of a purely rational reflection. The Sermon together with the context of Scripture as a whole should be the central text. We can explain why artificial contraception is wrong on the basis of natural law. Humanae Vitae does, but Pope Paul VI also points to the divine law. However, if we point to the love the Sermon calls us to, the egoism of contraception is apparent. The Sermon elicits an openness in people to something more. The French theologians refer more to the Spirit than the Americans.

The History of Moral Theology

The moral teachings of the fathers haven’t been studied much, unlike their dogma has. The modern confusion over morals might be helped by such a study. The Catechetical texts of the fathers and the mystics (desert fathers) give us an abundant source concerning how to live the Christian life.

In this course, we have no room for the history of moral theology, other than to list. Between the fathers and the scholastics, there was not very much on morals. There were the penitential books, the books of sentences, and finally the summaries of theology. The penitential books were written by the Celtic monks, who introduced the practice of auricular confession. They brought their pastoral methods and books in their missions. They listed appropriate penances for specific sins; these were practical books with no development of the principles of Christian morality. This type of pastoral literature was continued until the high middle ages., and was the ideal type. In the high middle ages there were the Summae Confessiorum, which too were devoid of a comprehensive moral theology. One of the reasons Saint Thomas wrote his Summa was because of the problems these books had in dealing with moral theology. The Books of Sentences supplemented Biblical Commentaries, full of aphorisms. In this way, the heritage of the fathers was retained. These collections began to be reorganized by some theological scheme, of which the summae of the 13th century were born. The Sentences of Peter Lombard (d. 1164) became most famous and was used in all the schools until the Summa displaced it in the late 13th century.

With the establishment of universities by the 13th century, new didactic and research methods were available. There could be a precise formulation of problems in a precise language. Because of this, disputations were possible and the "disputed questions" became common, on precise topics by precise questions. Is the conscience an act or a habit? The students would form several responses. The master would list them, then give a sed contra or several of them, and then present the corpus of the article, and finally end with the responses to objections. This method of studies led to a development of theological knowledge. The summae gave a clear and well-ordered summary of all theology.

Just as the essential truths of the faith (dogmatics) were discussed and clarified in the ancient church, so in the medieval Church with moral theology. The question arises, however, whether Saint Thomas’ moral theology was Christian. The Franciscans in the 13th Century doubted that it was, and Luther called it pagan, for Aristotle appears everywhere — n the treatise on Grace, etc. Is not this a pagan cancer on the body of Christian reflection? Is Christ not lacking therein? Isn’t it too Aristotelian and too little Christian? Rahner and others claim that reflections on the Trinity aren’t covered in other courses, like moral theology, built on rational reflection with appeals to Scripture only for authority. Can we blame Saint Thomas for a pagan "transformation" of Christian moral reflection? But do these criticisms flow from a faulty reading of Saint Thomas? Fr. Pinckaers says there are two methodological errors in such a reading of Saint Thomas?

(1) Most look only to one question, without asking how that question functions in the Summa as a whole. Each question has a place within the whole. Is it possible to take it out of context? Really no, because of the way the Summa is written.We should treat the Catechism in the same way, not referring to it like an encyclopedia. With this short-sightedness, it might be said that the secunda pars is not very Trinitarian. But we cannot discuss charity without referring to the Holy Spirit in the prima pars, or without reference to Christ, in the tertia pars. To accuse it as pagan, they haven’t seen the connections to the other parts of the Summa, which are discussed elsewhere;

(2) There’s a "schizoscopia" at work, a double-vision, with many of these critics, who impute our own contents of the meaning of words and expressions to the medieval concepts. The further development of philosophy and theology has tainted moral theology (at least by changing the contents of the terms used) and has led us often to read into Saint Thomas through tainted lenses. We must try to understand what Saint Thomas means by "moral law", not what we understand by those terms today. We must correct our meanings.


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