Many influential theologies of the past half-century are misleading, sterile abstractions because they effectively disconnect morality from our participation in Christ’s life. Until that breach is healed, the life, witness, and unity of the Church and her members will continue to suffer. Recovery begins by returning to reality: Jesus.
Jesus, the Word Incarnate, revealed the mysteries of who God is and what it means to be authentically human. Those mysteries are the realities that ground His existence and identity. He gave full expression to them in His earthly life through human words and deeds.
The Good News announced by Jesus is that God is love and that human nature can be transformed by communion with God in order to participate in His love. That’s the meaning of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection. There is absolutely nothing abstract or idealistic about this. It’s the nitty-gritty reality of the life of the son of Mary who is also God the Son.
Jesus did not, however, merely reveal God and the call to communion with God. From the Cross, He drew us to Himself, inviting us to share His divine and human life and to become one with Him in heart, mind, body, and soul as members of His bride, the Church. This participatory union arises from His dwelling within us and our dwelling in Him, a gift he bestowed by sending the Holy Spirit.
United to Jesus, we are one with God and all the members of the Church. The Christian life, therefore, is inherently Trinitarian, Christological, and ecclesial. It is communal, not individualistic.
Jesus’ mission is to establish the mutual indwelling of the Trinity and the human race. With that indwelling comes all the gifts (or “graces”) we need to remain one body, one Spirit in Christ. Chief among these gifts are Faith, Hope, and Charity, which enable us to know God, to look to Him for aid in every circumstance, and to love Him.
Christian morality, then, arises from our union with God in Christ. It is simply the faithful living of the Love of God according to the heart and mind of Jesus who dwells in us. Like Faith, which is a participation in Jesus’ knowledge of God, our sharing in His Love is incomplete during our pilgrimage on earth. Nevertheless, this imperfect participation really enables our thoughts, words, and deeds to flow from God through and in Jesus.
It follows that a Christian’s knowledge of moral duty and culpability (i.e., his conscience) is a participation in Christ’s knowledge and love. Hence con-science is a self-knowledge that is simultaneously a “knowing with” Jesus, the Trinity, and the Church. This means God and the Church are internal to our conscience.
As a participation in Jesus’ life, conscience is a particular witness to Hope. Hope strengthens conscience to direct us to actions that foster the indwelling both in ourselves and in others despite the evils that threaten or befall us and them. Hope assures us that in Christ right action is achievable whatever the cost. When we sin, it makes conscience’s rebuke a call to conversion rather than a cause for despair.
It is clear from the above that moral theology is properly concerned with words and norms understood not as abstractions, but in relation to the concrete reality of Christ and, through Him, to the reality of who God is and who we are. It should not be surprising that such profound realities can (despite the deniers) be adequately expressed in words. After all, God revealed Himself and his saving work through human words and the Incarnate Word. Moreover, God willed that the Church should proclaim His words and His Word to the world. Jesus shared this mission in a unique way with the Apostles and their successors so that through them He continues to teach and shepherd his people.
Tragically, the participatory understanding of Christian life, faith, morality, conscience, and the Church has been attenuated or eclipsed in much of Western Christianity in recent centuries. Instead, focus shifted to individual believers conforming their thoughts and actions to Christ’s teaching and example as handed down through the Church or, more narrowly, through the Bible. Submission to these external words and norms tended to replace participation as central to Christian identity.
Increasingly, statements of faith and morals have come to be treated as mere linguistic propositions and are considered apart from Christ as expressions of abstract ideas or of historical beliefs and practices. As such, they lack any intimate relation to God, us, or the realities of contemporary life. Thus, to be relevant they must be adapted to personal experience and circumstance. That is why private judgment, first of Scripture and then of conscience, emerged as the key to applying Christian faith and morals. The witness of the Church, while perhaps retaining some value, is not considered to have an internal or normative role in these judgments.
Moral theologies based on this approach claim to uphold Church teaching because they acknowledge that her pronouncements are abstractly true – even infallible. However, by labeling those teachings “abstract ideals,” and failing to consider the crucial role of the Church within conscience, conscience itself is permitted to apply those teachings to concrete situations in a manner that actually violates the alleged “ideal.”
For example, it’s said that conscience can affirm marital fidelity in theory while, in practice, justifying a second sexual relationship out of fear of damaging the wellbeing of children in a remarriage. The unreality of the entire approach is thereby exposed, since this amounts to saying: “Jesus is faithful, unless that entails extreme suffering.”
These false theologies forget that whoever acts wrongly due to ignorance or to fear of following moral norms nevertheless suffers harm and, in reality, is ignorant or fearful of sharing Christ’s life. “Gospel ideals” cannot help them. They need the Church’s proclamation of a Gospel that reaches into the realities of daily life, unites us to Christ, and sets us free to love as he loves – whatever the cost.