Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
The Second Vatican Council issued a call to the renewal of moral theology.
To renew moral theology does not mean setting aside the natural order and the commandments, as if morality in general and Christian morality in particular were arbitrary. Rather it means updating its method, placing greater emphasis on Sacred Scripture, the anthropological perspective, and the role of virtue.
Our beautiful Catholic faith is not a moral doctrine, much less an ideology. It is a relationship of love with somebody who is alive. From it there follows some practical consequences for life. That is why there is a distinct Christian morality.
Sacred Scripture is not a cookbook offering us recipes of morality. It provides a vision of the human person that overcomes the limitations of our cultural context and enables us to avoid the pitfalls of our blind spots and miseries.
Human actions are not good or bad because somebody says so or because of my conscience does not object to them. They are good or bad in themselves, to the extent that they are in keeping with the natural order, Goodness and Truth.
Pope St. John Paul II made a remarkable contribution to that process of renewal with his encyclical Veritatis Splendor. It is precisely the dialogue that appears in this Sunday’s Gospel that he uses as a point of departure for his exposition.
The “Good Teacher” points out to him — and to all of us — that the answer to the question, “What good must I do to have eternal life?” can only be found by turning one’s mind and heart to the “One” who is good: “No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18; cf. Lk 18:19). Only God can answer the question about what is good because he is the Good itself.
To ask about the good, in fact, ultimately means to turn towards God, the fullness of goodness. Jesus shows that the young man’s question is really a religious question, and that the goodness that attracts and at the same time obliges man has its source in God, and indeed is God himself. God alone is worthy of being loved “with all one’s heart, and with all one’s soul, and with all one’s mind”. He is the source of man’s happiness. Jesus brings the question about morally good action back to its religious foundations, to the acknowledgment of God, who alone is goodness, fullness of life, the final end of human activity, and perfect happiness.
The Church, instructed by the Teacher’s words, believes that man, made in the image of the Creator, redeemed by the Blood of Christ and made holy by the presence of the Holy Spirit, has as the ultimate purpose of his life to live “for the praise of God’s glory”, striving to make each of his actions reflect the splendor of that glory. “Know, then, O beautiful soul, that you are the image of God”, writes Saint Ambrose. “Know that you are the glory of God. Hear how you are his glory. The Prophet says: Your knowledge has become too wonderful for me. That is to say, in my work your majesty has become more wonderful; in the counsels of men your wisdom is exalted. When I consider myself, such as I am known to you in my secret thoughts and deepest emotions, the mysteries of your knowledge are disclosed to me. Know then, O man, your greatness, and be vigilant”.
What man is and what he must do becomes clear as soon as God reveals himself. The Decalogue is based on these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”. In the “ten words” of the Covenant with Israel, and in the whole Law, God makes himself known and acknowledged as the One who “alone is good”; the One who despite man’s sin remains the “model” for moral action, in accordance with his command, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy”; as the One who, faithful to his love for man, gives him his Law in order to restore man’s original and peaceful harmony with the Creator and with all creation, and, what is more, to draw him into his divine love: “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people”.
The moral life presents itself as the response due to the many gratuitous initiatives taken by God out of love for man. It is a response of love, according to the statement made in Deuteronomy about the fundamental commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children”. Thus, the moral life, caught up in the gratuitousness of God’s love, is called to reflect his glory: “For the one who loves God it is enough to be pleasing to the One whom he loves: for no greater reward should be sought than that love itself; charity in fact is of God in such a way that God himself is charity”.
The statement that “There is only one who is good” thus brings us back to the “first tablet” of the commandments, which calls us to acknowledge God as the one Lord of all and to worship him alone for his infinite holiness. The good is belonging to God, obeying him, walking humbly with him in doing justice and in loving kindness. Acknowledging the Lord as God is the very core, the heart of the Law, from which the particular precepts flow and towards which they are ordered. In the morality of the commandments the fact that the people of Israel belongs to the Lord is made evident, because God alone is the One who is good. Such is the witness of Sacred Scripture, imbued in every one of its pages with a lively perception of God’s absolute holiness: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”.
But if God alone is the Good, no human effort, not even the most rigorous observance of the commandments, succeeds in “fulfilling” the Law, that is, acknowledging the Lord as God and rendering him the worship due to him alone. This “fulfilment” can come only from a gift of God: the offer of a share in the divine Goodness revealed and communicated in Jesus, the one whom the rich young man addresses with the words “Good Teacher”. What the young man now perhaps only dimly perceives will in the end be fully revealed by Jesus himself in the invitation: “Come, follow me”.”
Fr. Roberto M. Cid