Many people—even active members of the Church—tend to think of morality merely as “rules.” They fail to see that morality has to do with our human dignity and happiness.
We are made in God’s image and likeness; more than complex animals, we are endowed not only with a body, but also with an immortal soul, as well as intelligence and free will (Compendium: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 358). What is more, we are called by God to be formed and shaped by his truth and love so that we may one day share his life forever in heaven.
The Freedom to Love
Sad to say, many people look for happiness in the wrong places, such as in the quest for money, power, or illicit pleasures. The Church, on the other hand, urges us to look for happiness in an unlikely place: the eight Beatitudes. To be sure, Jesus’ teachings on being poor in spirit, pure of heart, and meek and humble do not sound like a recipe for fun—but they are the path to peace and joy. The Beatitudes are the self-portrait of Jesus, who demonstrates what it means to be fully human (Gaudium et Spes, 22). They do not represent an impossible ideal or an extra set of commandments but show us the kind of people we can become if we live the teachings of Christ. This way of life enlarges our capacity to receive God’s love so that we can love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves (Compendium, 362). By embracing the truth, receiving the graces offered by the sacraments, and acting in charity, we grow in intimacy with God.
It is in choosing what is good in daily life that we respond to God’s love for us and, at the same time, shape and determine what sort of people we will become (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor [The Splendor of Truth], 65). Christian morality is a way of life in which we are transformed into unique living images of Jesus and vital members of his body, the Church. Our human dignity is linked to God’s utterly generous call to share in his life and love, a supernatural calling that exceeds our human capacities. Embedded in each of our moral choices is an implicit decision for or against God and his love (Compendium, 362).
Freedom is an essential part of human dignity. We cannot really love God and neighbor unless we do so freely. Human freedom is God-given; it is not granted by any earthly authority. It enables us to make choices and to take responsibility. We can easily choose the wrong path, but this actually diminishes our freedom and leads us into moral slavery. Think, for example, of those enslaved by drugs, alcohol, or sex. On the contrary, the more we choose what is good, the freer we become to love (Compendium, 363).
Choosing Good or Evil
Although contemporary culture touts freedom, it is less enthusiastic in speaking about responsibility. Yet freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. To the extent that an action is truly voluntary, we are responsible for it. Sometimes our responsibility is diminished by factors beyond our control, such as ignorance or deeply ingrained habits (Compendium, 364). Though flawed and limited, freedom is essential to human dignity. Civil authority must respect human freedom, “especially in moral and religious matters,” with due regard for “the common good and a just public order” (365).
Human freedom, the Church teaches, was gravely damaged because of original sin but not totally destroyed. It has been further weakened by countless personal sins. Christ came to free us from sin so that, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we can freely choose the good and become his disciples in building up the Church and contributing to a just and peaceful society. But what makes an action morally good? Today people often think that it is up to them to decide what is right or wrong. By contrast, the Compendium teaches that the morality of a human act has three sources. First, the object of a moral choice may be truly good or something that is objectively evil. Some things, such as the killing of an innocent person, must never be chosen because they are evil in and of themselves. Second, the intention of the one who acts must be taken into account. A person may choose the good for either a good or a bad reason. Conversely, a good intention does not make a bad choice good; the ends do not justify the means. Often our moral choices have more than one intention; it is important to prudently sort them out in accord with the Church’s time-tested wisdom so that we may choose what is right and good even in life’s complex situations. Third, the circumstances surrounding an action (including its consequences) increase or diminish one’s moral responsibility—but again, this cannot make an objectively bad choice good. For a human act to be morally good, all three things must be aligned: something objectively good must be chosen for good reasons given the circumstances (Compendium, 367–369).
Let us rejoice that the risen Lord, through his Spirit, has set us free to choose what is truly good and life-giving!
This is a selection from The Joy of Believing: A Practical Guide to the Catholic Faith by Most Reverend William E. Lori, Archbishop of Baltimore (The Word Among Us Press, 2015). Available at wau.org/books