Christ and the Moral Life

A friend reports that, as a young girl in Latin America, she and a roomful of eager fourteen-year old girls were addressed at their confirmation by the bishop, who spent forty minutes regaling them with a disquisition on social justice. Nothing about Jesus, his sacrificial death on the cross, his glorious resurrection from the dead and sending of the Holy Spirit, made present to them in the sacrament they were about to receive. Just a lot of warmed-over partisan politics and second-rate liberation theology:  “No wonder so many Latin Americans, especially the poor, were going over to the evangelical churches. . . .At least there they heard about Jesus.” As for the promises of political “liberation,” she said, “we’d heard it all before.”

Actually, I’m sympathetic with this bishop. I teach theology, and I understand the temptation to lose sight of the forest for the trees. We can get ourselves earnestly and seriously involved in teaching the (to us) fascinating details about the sacraments or the liturgy or ethics and forget that all of this talk is meant to point us back to Jesus Christ. Enthralled in this way, it’s easy to forget that what distinguishes is that, as St. Paul says: “we preach Christ crucified.” So important is this central datum of the faith, insists Paul, that “if Christ is not risen, then is our preaching vain,” as is the faith of the Church. Indeed, when the Corinthians write to Paul imploring him to resolve their differences, he tells them simply: “While I was with you, I resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

The great nineteenth-century British evangelical preacher Charles Spurgeon once wrote (in the spirit of St. Paul) that, “The motto of all true servants of God must be, ‘We preach Christ; and him crucified.’” “No Christ in your sermon, sir?” he tells young, aspiring preachers,  “then go home, and never preach again.” “If a man can preach one sermon without mentioning Christ’s name in it,” he declares elsewhere, “it ought to be his last – certainly the last that any Christian ought to go hear him preach.”

I have been arguing in this space over the past several months that the Churchs moral teaching is based on the “good news” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his incarnate revelation of God’s love, his sacrificial death on the cross that redeems us from our sins, and the promise revealed by His glorious resurrection from the dead and sending of the Holy Spirit. Our goal is to “have life and have it to the fullest.” Many people mistakenly think that money, power, fame, or pleasure are the means to human flourishing. The Church offers something better, something more.

           Saint Paul by El Greco, c. 1612

The Church’s negative prohibitions must always been seen in the context of the Church’s positive teachings about human flourishing and our ultimate beatitude in communion with the Triune God. We need to keep repeating this positive view of human flourishing so as not to support the media’s characterization of Christians as nothing but nay-sayers. Our job is to preach the Gospel as “Good News,” not “Bad News.”

When we lose sight of the “Good News” of Jesus Christ, we become just another partisan political group. We preach “social justice,” for example, but nothing distinguishes us from other liberals because we shy away from the “life issues.” Or we preach “family values,” but nothing distinguishes us from laissez-faire capitalists because we shy away from the Church’s very clear affirmations about the primacy of labor and the dignity human person.

Catholic moral teachings should be understood in context – that is to say, in the Christian context. Catholics are exhorted to exercise a “preferential option for the poor,” but not because we believe in the struggle to establish the rule of the proletariat, but because we believe in the infinite dignity of every human person. Catholics are exerted to work hard and obey the legitimate laws of the state, not because “that’s what will make America great,” but because we believe in the dignity and value of human work as a communal act for the common good.

John Paul II repeated in every one of his encyclicals this line from Gaudium et Spes:  “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. . . .Christ, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.” And it was Pope Benedict who wrote that “every tradition is infected with the forces of the anti-human, which hamper man in his efforts to become himself,” and that therefore “the Church knows only one saving tradition: the tradition of Jesus.”

Thus when we’re teaching or setting forth rules, we have to find some way of communicating more effectively to our interlocutors that all these rules are intended for our benefit, for our ultimate flourishing and happiness as full and complete human beings – not merely in the next life, but in this one as well. Sin, on this view, is life-destroying; Christ is life-restoring. So, like Paul, we must first preach Christ and let everything else (much of it absolutely crucial) follow from that.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.