The Gospel Sources of Catholic Morality – Servais Pinckaers, O.P.March 7, 2012
Ancient Moral Catechesis
The New Testament contains numerous moral texts, both in the words of the Lord as reported by the evangelists and in the apostolic preaching. This teaching has its roots in the Old Testament, but deepens its doctrine and imparts a new dimension by placing it in relation to the person and life of Jesus.
The apostles and the first Christian communities took particular care to compile and transmit a precise moral catechesis faithful to the teaching of their Lord. The most representative example is the Sermon on the Mount. It gathers together in one great discourse, after the manner of the historians of antiquity, the teachings of Christ that present the rules of life, rules that will enable his disciples to attain a “justice surpassing that of the scribes and Pharisees.”
In order, however, to appreciate adequately the ethical character of these texts, we must remove from our minds certain modern notions that inhibit our ability to interpret them correctly. Moral theology has become the domain of obligations and legal imperatives and has set aside the question of happiness or perfection. Hence, it especially separates itself from spirituality and from parenesis, which is a form of exhortation.
Such divisions were unknown in antiquity; one cannot apply them to the writings of the New Testament without being anachronistic. These divisions have led many interpreters, theologians, and exegetes to view the scriptural texts that go beyond the level of strict obligations as not properly belonging to moral theology; this explains why these texts generally attract so little attention. This mindset is a major intellectual obstacle inhibiting our return to the ancient sources of the Christian life.
The Gospel texts presuppose a different conception of the moral life. Their moral teaching is a response to the question of happiness and of salvation. It offers a description of the ways of wisdom that lead to holiness and perfection through living the virtues and the precepts.
From this perspective, moral theology encompasses a larger domain. It recovers the sapiential and spiritual dimensions essential to it. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, responds directly to the moral question understood in this way. It begins by announcing the Beatitudes; it then extends the moral pathways traced in the Ten Commandments to the precept: “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The Sermon on the Mount
Let us review rapidly the principal passages of the New Testament that offer moral catechesis, focusing above all on two characteristic texts. The Sermon on the Mount stands out at once. It is the first of five discourses that are the linchpins of Matthew’s Gospel. It assembles the essential elements of Jesus’ teaching on justice and the moral rules offered to his disciples. It is an explanation of the call to conversion: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4.17).
This discourse, which draws together into an ordered whole words that might well have been spoken on different occasions, is a model of the ancient moral catechesis. It can justly be called a “charter of the Christian life.” The Sermon enjoys the authority of the Lord, expressed in categorical formulas: “Unless your justice surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven”; “you have heard it said…. But I say to you….”
The text has undergone a work of redaction that has not been sufficiently recognized. It is composed of short phrases, often arranged together to form compact units such as the Beatitudes. They are bundles of condensed doctrine fashioned for oral transmission as well as for meditation. Assembled together they form a body of doctrine inspired by a single guiding wisdom.
The Sermon is not a mosaic of disparate sayings. Although it does not follow the logic of abstract reason, it does exhibit an underlying unity. It conforms to the often contrasting movements of the deep intelligence of the human heart revealed in human experience. As John Chrysostom and Augustine well understood and explained to their people, the Sermon is addressed to all, beginning with the poor and the afflicted. Thus, contrary to what will too often be claimed later, it is not reserved to a religious elite.
The structure of the Sermon in its broad outline is relatively simple.
The Beatitudes take up the promises made to the Chosen People since the time of Abraham. These are the numerous blessings scattered throughout the Scriptures, as for example in the first verses of the Psalter. The Beatitudes focus the hope of the disciples upon the kingdom of heaven, paradoxically directed to the poor and those persecuted for Jesus’ sake, a message that expresses the experience of the first Christian generations. The Fathers saw in the Beatitudes the response of Christ to the question of happiness. When they present Jesus as addressing the philosophers’ central question, the question of happiness, they are portraying him as the true sage.
After the description of the disciples as the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world,” there is the description of the `justice” of the moral law according to Christ. This description develops five of the precepts of the Ten Commandments by means of contrast: “You have heard it said…. But I say to you….” Justice is henceforth placed at the level of the human heart, at the roots of action. It is there that the love of God and neighbor is formed and attains its summit in the forgiveness of one’s enemies, imitating the mercy and perfection of the heavenly Father.
Next there is the reordering of three primary acts of a pious life: almsgiving (the archetypical form of mutual assistance), prayer, and fasting (the principal form of asceticism). Instead of doing these acts to be seen by one’s fellows, one should engage in them for love of the Father who sees in secret. We return once again to the level of the heart’s intention, which places us by faith and love in communion with the Father. It is here at this central point in the Sermon that Matthew inserts the Our Father.
The last section is more diverse and brings together sayings that invite us to seek our true treasure in heaven. We are to guard against the attraction of wealth and to be benevolent in our judgments. We are also called to persevere confidently in our prayer.
The conclusion of the Sermon summarizes the teaching of the Law: It presents the Golden Rule as a practical criterion of discernment; it offers us a choice between the narrow way that leads to life and the broad way that leads to perdition; it distinguishes false prophets from true disciples by noting whether they practice the Word and exhibit the fruits and perseverance that the Word produces.
The evangelist notes in conclusion the admiration of the crowd before the authority of Jesus, an authority that he will subsequently reveal through a series of healings. The modern interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount has principally addressed the issue of whether one can put this teaching into practice. The difficulty of interpreting the Sermon has been increased by the habit of viewing the Law as a code of obligations.
In reality, the Sermon describes the ways of the kingdom of heaven toward which the Holy Spirit wishes to lead the disciples by faith in Jesus, a faith that operates through charity. Thus, the Sermon is integrated into a Gospel that both announces “Jesus Christ the Son of God,” and calls us to believe in him. This response of faith is impossible for those who count only on their own strength. The Sermon on the Mount, however, describes itself as accessible to the humblest who know how to receive the gift of grace and love. This, at least, is how the Fathers interpret the Sermon.