The sources of Christian ethics

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

This liturgical year we are reading the Gospel according to St. Matthew. During Ordinary Time, we will read it sequentially. For the most part every Sunday we will pick up where we had left the week before and will continue reading another fragment and so on and so forth.

Beginning this Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time and for the next couple of weeks, until we get to Lent, we will be hearing the Sermon on the Mount which is found in chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Of course, the opening passage of the Sermon on the Mount, the beginning of chapter 5, the Beatitudes, is the fragment we heard proclaimed at Mass this Sunday.

The Sermon on the Mount has been called the Charter for Christian living. In it we find detailed instructions from the Lord as to how to live our lives to find the elusive happiness that we all seek and to realize in our lives our most fundamental vocation, the reason why we exist, communion with God.

Interestingly, the Lord offers us no illusion of an easy life. The last Beatitude addressed directly to his disciples announces persecution and suffering to them. Indeed, his disciples, those who try to live by the logic of the Beatitudes, will be the object of slander, scorn and persecution and yet they are declared blessed by the Lord himself. To follow Him to imitate His life, even if it may bring the wrath of worldly powers and the ensuing suffering they may inflict on the disciples, will ultimately lead to eternal bliss.

During my years of seminary formation just like every other seminarian in the world, I had to take several courses in Moral Theology, a discipline that endeavors to better understand how our faith informs our actions and moral choices, whether it be social ethics, medical ethics or human sexuality, from the most public roles that we may play in society to the most intimate decisions affecting our lives and the way we relate to our own bodies.

The professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach at the time, Fr. Steven O’Hala, who is currently the pastor of St. David in Davie, introduced us to the writings of a great moral theologian of our times, Fr. Servais Pinckaers O.P., a Dominican priest from Belgium who taught in Switzerland and died a few years ago.  He wrote a very influential book, certainly one that I found very enlightening and that was used as a textbook for our Fundamental Moral Theology class. It has become a classic of Moral Theology. The book is entitled “The sources of Christian Ethics.” In it Fr. Pinckaers explains in detail the importance of the Sermon on the Mount for our Christian living drawing on the insights found in St. Augustine’s Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount and the theological developments due to St. Thomas Aquinas. I strongly recommend that those interested in questions of morality read this masterpiece, which together with St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor provide the foundation for a renewal of Moral Theology.

Fr. Pinckaers draws five insights from Augustine’s Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that will be the subject of our weekly Lenten meditations. This year, unlike years past we will not have a parish mission in Lent. Instead, every Wednesday we will have a holy hour preceded by a brief meditation based on these five insights, namely: The Sermon on the Mount is the charter of Christian living, the Beatitudes outline seven stages in the Christian life, the Sermon on the Mount ought to be interpreted in light of the Beatitudes, the Beatitudes relate to the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven petitions of the Our Father relate to the Beatitudes. We will do this because Lent is a time for conversion and the Sermon on the Mount lays out a path for all of us to follow as we endeavor to enter into deeper communion with Christ.

“The Sermon on the Mount proposed by St. Matthew is a summary of Jesus’ teaching on justice and the moral precepts appropriate to his disciples. We have in this a clearly defined catechesis, which has been called a charter of Christian life. This Sermon is unique in its authority; it enjoys the authority of the Lord himself, expressed in the clearest terms: “I have come not to abolish but to complete… It was said… but I say this to you…” His teaching made a deep impression on the people because he taught them with authority. Clearly in the mind of the apostolic community this was a primary source of moral teaching. It would have to be included in any theology fully faithful to the Gospel.

We should note that the Sermon, like the entire Gospel is addressed to all, beginning with the poor and the humble. St. John Chrysostom and St Augustine knew this well and said it to the people. It can hardly be viewed therefore simply as a counsel reserved for the chosen few. The teaching is unequivocal: if you wish to enter the Kingdom of heaven, you must practice Gospel “justice.” If you do this you are building on rock; if not, on sand.

The Sermon of the Lord is a model of moral teaching of the primitive Church. It begins with the gift of the Beatitudes, which fulfill the promises of the Old Testament. With St. Thomas, we see them as Christ’s answer to the search for happiness. This teaching deepens the precepts of the Decalogue, penetrating to the “heart,” where actions are conceived in the depths of a person and where virtues are formed, ranging from humility and gentleness to love for enemies.

The style of the Sermon is typical of a catechesis with its short sentence summing up the doctrine and its carefully worked-out composition, easily memorized and passed on to others.”

May the Sermon on the Mount inform and transform our lives so that we may live out the Beatitudes in the ordinary affairs of our daily life!


Fr. Roberto M. Cid