A Journey through RCIA – Catholic Morality
This week’s class was on the many facets that make up the Catholic moral life. The following is a brief description of morality based on a talk given by a guest speaker this last week.
In modern times, it can be tough to discern what a moral choice looks like. My own journey to the Catholic faith started by asking the tough questions on morality and the original authority on living a Christian life. Living in America can put one at odds with one’s own conscience simply by listening to the radio, turning on the TV, or trying to join in a conversation around the office. On almost a daily basis there are choices that each of us makes that either moves us towards Christ and His church or moves us away. More often than not, I find myself skipping radio stations or TV stations searching for something that I can say is virtuous or at least not directly attacking my faith. I’m sure that the heightened awareness I have on the content of my entertainment is a mix of my journey through RCIA and the recent maturing of my son who is now fourteen and growing hair on his upper lip. Nothing is quite as sobering as hearing your special needs son recite words from a song that you once loved, but never really paid attention to the lyrics and hearing words that make you wonder if he knows just what he said.
The basic outline of the Catholic moral life starts with a look at Christ’s life, divinity, and the person of Christ which is the second person of the trinity known as Christology. Followed by the four sources of Catholic understanding in the Bible, the Church, Prayer and Human Experience. These sources then focus our understanding and allow us to see our own failings and the effects of sin in our lives and in the world at large. The next step is to then realize that sin and failings can be overcome with virtues and grace which are given freely by the Holy Spirit. Finally, because of these gifts we are able to live right lives with the proper attitudes and behaviors in alignment with God and true fellowship with our fellow man as a response out of gratitude for the gifts given.
Next, any honest talk about morality will include the topic of sin. The gospels tell us that sin is in our entire being and that it is in everything from our body, to our thoughts, to what we do, to what we fail to do. The gospels also point out that sin mostly from our own free will; and not from any inherent weakness. They go on to show that most of us, myself included, tend to under play how much we sin. Also they tell us that we will be surprised when confronted with how sinful we truly are. Sin is a state our souls can be in; as well as offending God; and failing to love God and neighbor. All sin falls into two categories of commission or those things I do directly and omission the things I fail to do.
To keep from sinning, or rather to know when one has sinned, we attempt to align our actions to the ten commandments. It is said in the gospels that the greatest commandment is to “love your God with all your heart, mind, body, and soul” and that the second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Knowing how that looks in a practical way is what the commandments are all about. Two ways of thinking about them are they represent how we relate to God (1-3) and how we relate to each other (4-10). The key to understanding the ten commandments is to do what the Church does with everything; which is to understand them in the context of the time in which they were given and then to learn what the Church tradition says is how best to apply them in today’s world.
Without going through all the top ten commandments, I want to list a couple and their original understood meaning along side the current meaning. The fist commandment; which was “I am the Lord your God…you shall not have strange Gods before me!”. Originally, this was understood by the Hebrews that while there were “other gods” Jehovah was the God to be above all. It was understood in a concept known as henotheism; which is not monotheism. If you think about it, it makes the most sense for a people who have lived in bondage in Egypt where everyone worshipped many gods for 400 years. (which would be like all your ancestors since 1615) The hebrew nation would not be ready for an instant conversion to a idea of one and only one god; which they managed to prove several times through their desert exile. As time has gone by, over two thousand years, the Church has gained a expanded meaning through various revelations that the first commandment includes things like idolatry, divination, atheism, agnosticism and others. Which does not mean that the definition was added to; but rather that the understanding has been refined over the millennia in the same way that the human race has expanded its understanding of such universal forces like gravity. The hebrew nation was not, at first, ready so God met them where they were; just as he does today with us.
The second of the original ten commandments to have been clarified over the years that I found fascinating is the fourth commandment of “Honor your father and your mother.” The meaning to the hebrew people of the old-testament had nothing to do with little children. Because in those days, the most important people were the elders of the tribe who were the grandparents. All the tribe’s knowledge and repository of history were in the oral traditions given by the elders to their adult children. Thus the meaning to the original audience was that the adult children should listen to their parents and this would keep the tribe safest and most secure as well as preserve any traditions. Our modern understanding now includes the obedience of children to parents; but that also extends to authorities and duty of parents and children to take care of the prior generation. The churches understanding is one of obedience until one has fully left the home and can self-sustain; then the honor shifts to giving deference to one’s parents while maintaining one’s own household. Again, our modern understanding may at first glance appear to be different than that of the original audience; but as with other things, God was meeting them at the level they could most easily absorb His will for their lives.
The Catholic moral life can be summed up in the following vision. Find God in everyday living, in helping strangers, in the sunshine or the rain, and in the quite simple things of life. Have a vision of life that sees the physical creation as a door to the sacred and that sacraments assist in opening that door. Know that God reveals Himself gradually; and no Christian is an island unto themselves, but made for fellowship in a church body to be both a individual and part of a whole. God will meet you at what ever level you can receive him at. All scripture and tradition must be viewed in its proper context; both historically and in modern times. The Body of Christ is about a community not the individual and that it is made up of individuals who exist for the whole. Lastly, Catholics approach the world with a both/and mentality; not a either/or, for example Christ is both God and man equally.
– A Brother in Christ