Lesson 12: Happiness and Eternal Life


Lecture 6B

Christian moral theology instructs us to appreciate the reason God allowed sin to gain entrance into the world. Although the notion seems paradoxical to unaided human reason, the words, "O felix culpa!" "O happy fault!", sung at the Easter vigil, explain best the divine permission for sin. From the vantage point of having been redeemed by Christ, the believer can look back at the original sin and recognize that it has become a happy fault. Ancient Christian wisdom avows that it is better for the human race to have been redeemed by Christ than to have persevered in innocence. St Ambrose captures the encouragement that this profound Christian wisdom imparts to the individual Christian, when he writes: "My guilt became for me the cause of redemption, through which Christ came to me" (Jacob and the Happy Life Bk.I, chap. 6, no. 21). The Christian must accept this wisdom, or otherwise learn to deal with depression.

Early Christian literature records the dynamic interplay between sin and forgiveness that shapes the Christian moral life. For example, St Augustine's De doctrina christiana clearly indicates that the Christian life forms a passage from involvement with sin to participation in grace. The Doctor of Grace describes the circle of conversion that begins with the exercise of the moral conscience and leads to "the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph 4:24). In this catechetical summary, he says: " From the law comes knowledge of sin, by faith the reception of grace against sin, by grace the soul is healed of the imperfection of sin; a healthy soul possesses freedom of choice; freedom of choice is ordered to love of righteousness; love of righteousness is the accomplishment of the law" (De doctrina christiana 30, 52). The passage exhibits the dynamics of Christian conversion that unfolds within the context of the Church and her sacraments.

Augustine formulated this synopsis of orthodox teaching as a reply to the position of Pelagius. According to Augustine's account, Pelagius taught that the grace of God means that, from its establishment, our nature receives the possibility of not sinning simply by reason of the fact that it was established with the ability to choose freely (See De gestis Pelagiae 10: 22). Pelagius thought that Adam's sin left in the world only a bad example instead of a wounded nature. This view, however, would have encouraged in the believer a self-reliance that is difficult to reconcile with the Gospel injunction that each one remain united with Christ.

Saint Augustine saw the fatal error in the Pelagian argument. By way of rebuttal, he insisted that human nature by itself remains inefficacious with respect to fulfilling the requirements of the moral law. In an actually existing state of sin, human freedom without the help of divine grace is more likely to fail than to succeed. The Church still stands by Saint Augustine's conviction. The Church has incorporated Saint Augustine's teaching into her official teaching (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 406). And although interpretations of Saint Augustine's texts differ even among Catholic scholars, the basic lines of his account have been incorporated by the Church into her official teaching on the necessity of divine grace.

It is impossible to underestimate how much the human creature requires the gift of divine grace. Even with the help of grace, human freedom remains fragile. Saint Augustine offers sound pastoral advice when he reminds us that,"while he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins." This circumstance provides reason for neither presumption nor despair. Instead, as St Augustine further points out, even the everyday experiences of wounded nature return us to Christ, his Church and the sacraments: "But do not despise these sins which we call 'light': if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession . . . ." (The text comes from his Commentary on John 1, 6 and is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1863). For St Augustine, the moral life leads back to the sacramental life, and conversely the sacraments strengthen the moral life. Were it not for the grace freely given in Christ, the human predicament would become a source of profound discouragement.

The truth of the Catholic religion provides a refreshing alternative both to the claims of a narrow legalism and to the uncertainties of the various kinds of teleogisms that Veritatis splendor describes. The great teachers of the Catholic faith instruct us that the overarching concern of the Christian moral life centers on union with God. In this present life, such godly union finds its highest realization in the personal presence of the Blessed Trinity to the souls of the just. We attribute this transforming presence to the Holy Spirit who unites us in charity to God and gathers us together in the communicatio or fellowship of divine love. In the Church of Christ we listen together to the sacred scriptures. These dispose the believer's mind towards understanding and accepting the mystery of Christ even as they instruct about that authentic "contempt for the world" which attends the exercise of a spiritual life.

Growth in the moral life cannot happen apart from an effective, personal union with Christ in the Church of faith and sacraments. Those who provide good moral teaching recognize this truth, and so refrain from imposing moral obligations without giving a clear explanation about how these demands may be suitably met. The Pelagian mentality neglects the importance that the mystery of personal union with Christ holds for the successful living out of the Christian moral life. Some have observed the historical affinities between Pelagians and Nestorians, whose explanation of the unity in the Incarnation the Church later judged insufficient. To first emphasize determined human willing rather than affective union with the person of Christ only provokes frustration. Whenever the Pelagian mentality prevails, however, the believer confronted by the reality of his or her personal sin faces one of three options: a denial of the sin's objective character, depression based on the perception of one's utter helplessness, or despair born from the fear that God will either not give the means for living a holy life or will not forgive the sins of the past. None of these options is reconcilable with Gospel of Christ. On the contrary, Christ's promises overflow with hope. We can only conclude that Pelagian optimism is doomed to disappoint, and that its spirit will keep people from absorbing the authentic Gospel message.

According to the teaching of Christ, the whole efficacy of the New Law results in the restoration and perfection of the imago Dei. We call this achievement the grace of justification. Some persons suppose that grace is weak and inefficacious. One phenomenon that persuades to such a view is the widespread evidence of sin that continues to exist in the world even millennia after Christ's salvific death. Without a proper understanding of the Gospel message, personal sin--whether our own or that of others--can easily promote what might be called the "devil's blackmail." By insisting on the hopeless state of the sinner, the tactic urges believers to give up on believing in Christ's love and forgiveness. When this blackmail works, these people look for a remedy for their sins that moves them away from the holiness of Christ. But as Jesus himself instructs us, there is no moment in our lives when sin provides a reason for turning away from God. Remember that when one of the criminals who was crucified with Jesus, turned to him and said, "'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' He replied, 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise'" (Lk 23: 42,43). The truth about God's love for the sinner and the transformation that occurs in the lives of all those who seek to do God's will must accompany every instruction about morality. Failure to pay heed to these truths results in a gross perversion of the basic New Testament teaching about the divine love, namely, that God loves us, not because we are good, but because he is goodness itself.

Only the grace of the Holy Spirit given inwardly to those who are united with Christ saves. Nothing else can directly and immediately bring about this sort of divine action in the creature. Whatever forms part of the Christian religion remains instrumental to our justification: the creed, the decalogue, all other truths of divine and Catholic faith. Indeed, these elements in themselves are considered subordinate elements of the New Law. They of course serve an important and irreplaceable purpose in the Christian life, but none of them possess the ability in themselves of transforming the human person into a son or daughter of God. Aquinas even makes the very strong affirmation: "Thus even the Gospel letter kills unless the healing grace of faith is present within." The assertion leaves no room for ambiguity about how to interpret this central point of his moral theology (Summa theologiae, Ia-IIae q. 106, a. 2). But Aquinas is only repeating what he himself learned from divine wisdom. Consider the teaching of the First Letter of John: "And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that God abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us" (I John 3: 23,24). The love of Christ opens up the way for the final perfection of each man and woman created in the image of God. The proper work of the moral theologian and, for that matter, of all who minister in the Church centers on the proper elucidation of this one truth.

Reading Assignments

Virtue, chaps. 4-7.

Introduction to Moral Theology, chaps. 4,5.

Writing Assignment

Write a five-page paper that examines the role that sacramental forgiveness plays in the life of the Church.

Questions

1) Why does growth in the moral life require effective, personal union with Christ in the Church of faith and sacraments?

2) How does the omnipotence of the divine good, and the superabundant efficacy of grace, play a formal role as a motive for a hope which stabilizes the moral life in God and overcomes temptations to presumption or despair?

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