“Put on the new man, created after the
likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:24)
The call of Jesus to be His disciples is a mandate to live the fullness of the kerygma. This kerygma is not abstract thoughts or ideologies, but a way of life that originates in the Living Word – a divine person- Jesus Christ. Moral Theology is part of this dynamic organism that transforms the very heart and life of the disciple beyond just mere human potential. For the Christian person is transfigured in Christ and truly made a new creature as he or she grows closer in personal holiness and their ultimate goal of eternal life and happiness.
Understanding this fundamental key to living a life in Christ is central to understanding Fr. Pinckaer’s distinction between fragmented and total approaches to Scripture. How can a moral person live and imitate Christ if they are not fully infused with the Living Word? Moral Theology is not an island that can stand alone from the rest of the kerygma, it must be soaked in the whole truth to be authentically lived.
For years modern ethicists have been picking apart the Living Word to prove certain norms for the moral life. This view of reducing the Word into human understanding at the most nominalist level can not but help to lead to a moral theology of obligation. Obligation only leads a person down the road of least resistance to living the moral life. Moral obligation does not challenge the believer to live fully in Christ which bears more abundant fruit beyond all human capacity.
This fragmented approach has many within the ecclesia concerned for its ramifications of the properly forming of the conscience of Christians. “In his apostolic exhortation Evandelii nuntiandi (1975), Pope Paul VI mentioned the split between the gospel and culture as “a drama of our time.” (Dulles 2004) Through the minimalist approach to moral theology there has been a wide gap formed between abstract ideologies and the reality of living a true moral life in a postmodern world.
As Monsignor Melina said, “Fragmentation means having a very deep interest in particular issues without having a vision of the whole reality… Church’s moral theology must focus on the integral liberation of the human person, not just on norms, in order to respond to the crisis of modernity.” (Melina 2004) Most recently our Holy Father spoke about this major issue facing all theology when addressing Catholic Educators he stated, “Intellectual charity upholds the essential unity of knowledge against fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth.” (B. XVI 2008)
An ethicist that only uses the fragmented approach to scripture to explain moral theology greatly reduces the capacity for humans to truly live freely in the Truth. The ethicist using the fragmented approach to scripture seeks just the bits and pieces of the Word that are removed from any other religious or ethical traditions, thereby divorcing the Living Word from Himself. Anyone with common sense would know that fragmentation takes scripture completely out of context, which only brings moral confusion. Morality is much more complex in the fullness expressed through the Gospels and St. Paul’s teachings on the moral life. The fragmented approach has great limitations in shedding light on moral truths, because it only has part of the whole package. The truth is lost in the fragmented approach to scripture for its translations only offer shallow insights that lead to basic obligations and a nominalist approach to morality.
Fr. Picknaer explains that the Church Fathers and St. Paul had a much deeper, picture of the Scriptures and how it relates to the moral life. Their approach did not separate the deep truths to the practicalities of living a moral life in Christ.
“St. Paul’s moral teaching united dogma and morality closely and made no distinction between morality and spirituality, or even exhortation. Nor did it endorse the separation of transcendent and categorical levels. Those distinctions, as we know them, stem from a concept of morality focusing on obligation- a concept that had never occurred to St. Paul.” (Pinckaer, 133)
For these deep truths united with dogma and morality “are not simply dogmatic abstract statements; for St. Paul they are directly operative and effect profound change in the personality and life of the Christian.” (Pinckaer, 117) As our Catechism says, “Truth becomes visible in the mirror of God’s essence, because man can be rightly understood only in relation to God.” (CCC, 2052-82) Only by infusing itself with the Living Word can moral theology begin to grasp how the Truth relates to man and his actions.
“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.” (Giertych 2003)
St. Paul had a deep understanding of the power of Christ to transform the very lives and personalities of the Christian person, for he had experienced it first hand. This reality poses an important question for ourselves. Do we as modern people truly experience the transformation of Christ in our lives if we are only concerned with moral obligation?
Repeatedly St. Paul taught that we are made into new creatures in Christ. Through this transformation the human virtues we naturally have are divinely altered. As Picknaer explains love “deepens and strengthens [human virtues], even enhancing them with a divine dimension.” (Pinckaer, 123) This leads to a person whose interiority is divinely informed with a Christ-like morality that is active in love and charity. Because of this transformation when a Christian is empowered by Christ to be the best, they are led to a total approach of understanding the scriptures where their moral lives and spirituality are united in the Living Word.
That is why St. Paul taught morality as he went, because the Gospel is for all peoples and all times. The scriptures have something new to say to us even today, for when the Word comes in contact with the reality of modern life, it has something to say in the now. This doesn’t mean that the divine truths behind those scriptures are changed but that they are the Living Word, that breaths and lives within us. As Fr. Picknaer states best, “St. Paul’s moral theory [is a] theory of action-with-Christ, or again, action-in-Christ.” (Pinckaer, 128)
Under just obligation moral life will fail for “no rules can be made that will apply perfectly to all situations, and in any case people can be remarkably cunning in complying with the letter of the law while undermining its spirit.” (Anderson, 92) The Patristic Tradition has the full truth that we all need the divine infusion of scripture into our moral fiber to lead truly Christian Moral lives. For only in a faith infused by the Living Word can the moral life “lead the Christian to see life as a service to Christ and devotion to neighbor” (Pinckaer, 122) thereby leading them to their ultimate end of happiness fully united in Christ in the kingdom to come.
Anderson, Carl. A Civilization of Love: What Every Catholic Can Do to Transform the World. New York: Harper One, 2008.
Dulles, Cardinal Avery S.J. "Challenges to Moral and Cultural Renewal." Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. September 28, 2004. http://ethicscenter.nd.edu/archives/dulles.shtml (accessed November 24, 2008).
Giertych, Fr. Wojciech, OP. "Fundamental Moral Theology." Catholic Books Online Library. 2003. http://www.cfpeople.org/Boks/Moral/moral.htm (accessed November 24, 2008).
II, John Paul. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.
Melina, Monsignor Livio. "A Look at Catholic Higher Education and the Future of Moral Theology." EWTN Online Library. March 18, 2004. http://www.ewtn.com/library/Theology/ZEDUMOR.HTM (accessed November 24, 2008).
Pinckaer, Servais. The Sources of Christian Ethics. 3rd. Washinton, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995.
XVI, Benedict. "Meeting with Catholic Educators." Libreria Editrice Vaticana. April 17, 2008. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_XVI/speaches/2008/april/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spec_20080417_cath-univ-washington_en.htm/ (accessed November 24, 2008).
Copyrighted December 2008 by Janelle M Wingert