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Chapter 28: The Practicability of Christian Morality

Question D: Why is growth toward Christian perfection often stunted?

1. Christian moral norms specify the common norms of morality. Those who are aware of them and could fulfill them but fail to do so are guilty of moral evil. Any morally evil act or omission is a sin. Failures in respect to the Christian modes of response—in respect to humility, dedication, detachment, faithfulness, mercy, devotion, conciliatoriness, and self-oblation—are thus sins.

2. Of course, not all sins are mortal sins. But failures in Christian modes of response are not mere shortcomings, imperfections, less than ideal yet nonetheless good ways of acting. These sinful failures block growth toward perfection. Many will be inclined to consider this view too strict—rigoristic. To see why it is not, we need to consider in the remainder of this question how people do organize their lives. We shall go on in question E to consider how Christians should organize their lives. Then in question F the issue about rigorism will be resolved.

3. Many people probably do not organize their lives beyond the structuring which is based on spontaneous willing—a structure comprised of likes and dislikes, definite goals and objectives, and choices strictly within this limited framework. People can live their entire lives in the context of a conventional morality without reflecting on life’s meaning, taking a personal stand with respect to basic human goods, and so establishing a personal identity by commitments. Even free choices, which always presuppose a framework of existing likes and dislikes and a set of accepted goals, can largely be understood in terms of these prior factors. Hence, without commitments, the radical character of the capacity for free choice does not become apparent. This helps explain why free choice is fully appreciated only in the Jewish and Christian tradition (see chapter two, appendix four).

Even before a child makes any free choice, his or her life has a certain degree of intelligible order. The intelligible goods are willed by simple volition, and possible actions understood as conducive to these goods are willed by spontaneous willing. Moreover, having acted and experienced a participation in an intelligible good, children can spontaneously will to have and enjoy experiences of that sort. Thus, children come to have likes and dislikes, and tend to do what they like and avoid what they dislike.

A child of four or five can plan and carry out a project of some complexity to try to obtain something he or she wants. For example, a child can try to obtain several items in order to have a party. Such a scheme involves ordering a number of actions to definite goals, all of which are subordinated to a complex act in which the desired satisfaction will be attained. Children of this age also are able to do and refrain from doing a variety of things out of obedience. Obedience is accepted as a means to attaining or retaining the conditions necessary for satisfying many likes and dislikes.

This development of children prior to their first choices is not without moral significance for later life (9‑B). The likes and dislikes children develop, their patterns of scheming, their relations to those who make demands, and thus the whole organization of their lives will be the framework within which choices will be made. Children will not choose anything they cannot think of as a live option. They will find difficulty in choosing anything which runs too heavily against their established identity.

The patterning of the child’s life continues after he or she has begun to make choices. To the extent that these choices are morally good ones, the developing likes and dislikes, the increasingly large projects, and the general organization of a child’s whole life will remain open to integral human fulfillment. But to the extent that these choices are morally bad ones, the child will develop likes and dislikes, adopt objectives, relate to authority, and thus organize a life which is more or less nonrationally limited and indisposed to wholehearted love of intelligible goods.

4. Some people, however, take more control of their lives and cause themselves in a more radical sense by making commitments. These are free choices of a special sort (see 9‑E). In making commitments, people do more than assert likes or adopt well-defined goals to be achieved by projects (however large and complex). They take a stand with respect to an aspect of one or more of the existential goods and also in relation to one or more other persons. When it is made, the commitment may demand very little by way of outward performance, perhaps no more than a symbolic gesture; but the commitment remains to shape many later choices.

5. People form and join genuine communities by commitments. They also establish their own identities by commitments, deciding, for example, to undertake some special way of life through dedication to a good: to be a scholar or a priest, for instance. Commitments obviously introduce a new dimension of organization into life. True, the possibilities for commitments are more or less limited by what one already has become. But commitments can come into conflict with many existing likes and dislikes, can demand the abandonment of old projects and the development of new ones, can lead to the recognition of genuine authorities.

6. Moreover, because of their open-ended involvement with intelligible human goods, commitments provide a principle for living creatively. A person whose life is shaped by commitments has far greater scope—and a different sort of scope—for creativity than one who lacks commitments. He or she tries to think of ways to serve goods and thus, confronted with particular situations, thinks of possibilities which do not occur to people who view the same situations merely in terms of their likes and dislikes and projects.

7. Christian faith is a commitment. It is the acceptance of participation in the redemptive act of Jesus (see 23‑A). As a commitment with potential significance for every interest and relationship, the act of living faith should organize life and generate continuous growth toward Christian perfection. Yet for a number of different reasons no growth may be apparent. What follows outlines a common situation which at least partly accounts for this lack of growth in the lives of many Christians.

Children are—or should be—instructed in the faith as a covenant which has moral implications. One who believes must keep the commandments. However, the commandments are not easy to keep, especially if the intrinsic connections between faith and these moral requirements are not made clear and if there is no vital community to support the efforts of its members.

The specifically Christian modes of response are preached, especially and universally in the liturgical readings. The faithful know that some demand is being made by this teaching, yet to a great extent they remain unclear about what is required. Occasional gestures toward fulfillment seem sufficient. Thus, humility is served by an occasional self-deprecating remark when one is tempted to brag, mercy by occasional donations to charities, and conciliatoriness by trying to get along with an especially obnoxious associate at work. In practical terms, what else exactly can one make of these rather frightening sayings one hears on Sundays?

Meanwhile, one has developed—as every child does develop—a whole set of likes and dislikes, and a variety of projects. These make their own demands. Whatever specifically Christian moral teaching might mean, it is only a set of nonabsolute norms, and these are in practice limited by one’s existing plan of life.

8. The life of a person reaching the end of adolescence is likely to be organized more or less as follows. Strong likes and dislikes control a great part of action. Among these are the liking for pleasure in experiences and for personal gratification in accomplishments, especially in relations with other people: gratification in helping them, in winning their admiration, receiving their praise, defeating them in competition, and so on. Some of these likes and dislikes lead to the selection of very long-term projects: typically, the setting of a career objective, understood as a state of affairs in which it will be possible to obtain maximum gratification.

9. There may also be genuine commitments apart from faith which open up areas for personal, creative development yet also render it more or less likely that tensions will arise between the resulting loyalties and loyalty to the Church. That happens if these commitments which are not integrated with faith sometimes make demands inconsistent with the Church’s teaching.

10. Faith itself may very well remain an overarching commitment, and the Christian life of such a young person is by no means necessarily insignificant. There can be a real effort to live within the framework of the Church’s essential moral teaching. Yet faith is insulated from much of life. Religion is a concern, but only one concern among many. Most of the time, specifically Christian teaching simply has no relevance. What does self-oblation have to do with successfully completing the program of training which is required for a career one will enjoy? What has mercy to do with football weekends?

Under these conditions, even choices which unquestionably have the character of commitment can be colored by mixed motives to such an extent that they do little to organize life in accord with faith. Thus, a young couple might marry, yet regard marriage more as a project of mutual gratification than as a way of living their Christian lives together. Similarly, some men enter the priesthood as a project for self-fulfillment rather than as a way of service.

11. Wholly or in part, a life organized along these lines lacks the structure of personal vocation. The commitment of faith is more or less isolated and in competition with many other cares and interests. The possibility of mortal sin, at least from time to time, is considerable, and there is also a real possibility of determined refusal to repent, which can lead to loss of faith. Even where this does not happen, however, and even in a life with few or no mortal sins, the lack of affirmative and thorough organization by faith blocks any significant growth in holiness. Living faith hardly touches most everyday activities, which at best coexist with faith in a more or less peaceful relationship.