“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” St. Augustine’s words from his Confessions echo throughout the core of human existence.
Every human being longs for an unending communion of love, which, whether it is recognized or not, can only be satisfied by God. The heart desires nothing more than to find deep happiness, yet this world of transient pleasures has seemed to have lost sight of the path towards such happiness. The desire for happiness is not one that humans choose, but rather one that has intrinsically been inscribed into the heart.
Thus, humans do not determine their end, which is inherently happiness, but they can determine the means they take towards that end. Both Christian and many non-Christian philosophers throughout history have concluded that happiness consists of, as Aristotle stated, “activity of the human soul in accordance with excellence and virtue.”
Catholic teaching takes a further step in this view by claiming that virtues find their ultimate fulfillment in the Good News of God’s love for us and Christ’s revelation of Himself. The study of the virtues and Christian living in moral theology is related to the Good News insofar as it has as its end goal eternal communion with God.
In beginning a discussion on the relationship between the Good News and moral theology, one must first define the Good News, which is that God created, through reason and order, a harmonious world, and redeemed it through His loving, trustworthy Son when it fell to a broken state. This same wise, loving God created humans with natural abilities and desires that, when exercised with reason and order, lead to the fulfillment of human capacities, which would ultimately lead to the fullest depths of happiness. The newness of the Good News comes from Christ’s new work of redeeming fallen man and revealing to him the origin and epitome of his being, as exemplified by Christ. Christ reveals man’s ultimate end, which is life in Him and communion with God and others. Through His life, death, and resurrection, Christ demonstrates the path man must take to fulfill his human capacities and desires.
Rooted in the Good News
In order to be properly understood, moral theology must be rooted in a clear foundation of the Good News. Servais Pinckaers, in his book The Sources of Christian Ethics, defines moral theology, or Christian ethics, as “…the branch of theology that studies human acts so as to direct them to a loving vision of God seen as our true, complete happiness and our final end. This vision is attained by means of grace, the virtues, and the gifts, in the light of revelation and reason” (8). Christian ethics is inextricably tied to Christ and the Trinity, who reveal the end goal of the moral life and the path towards its attainment. The human acts that such theology seeks to examine not only consist of the external actions in the realm of morality, but also the interior actions of the person, such as his intentions and desires.
The “loving vision of God” in Pinckaers’ definition refers to a vision that leads to a love that strives to know and understand. This loving vision, in turn, unveils happiness worthy of a lifetime of pursuit, perfect fulfillment of man’s deepest yearnings. Yet the final end to which this loving vision leads does not result in a halt of activity, but rather “perfect[s] our actions and bring[s] our capacities to full performance” (Pinckaers 12). Moral theology is primarily concerned with the interior disposition of the heart, which leads to lasting principles of action-oriented towards the final end. Thus, rather than beginning with external laws that become obligations, moral theology begins with the heart’s attitude and openness to God.
Reason and Revelation
Finally, reason is used alongside revelation. The two are not in competition with one another in Christian ethics, but rather, reason is “the power of a human intelligence simultaneously open to spiritual enlightenment and faithful to the rigorous discipline of thought” (Pinckaers 13). Moral theology has as its foundation the Good News that in Christ man’s capacities to love and grow in virtue can be filled resulting in the lasting happiness that only communion with God can bring.
Two Extreme Views
When the Good News is separated from moral theology, two extreme views arise. On the one hand, Christ is seen solely as a moral teacher and on the other, the knowledge that Jesus is God does not affect one’s actions since God’s love is unconditional anyways. The view that Jesus is just a moral teacher often leads to legalism, scrupulosity, and pride in succeeding to keep the commandments or discouragement at failing to follow them. This is a denial of the Good News of Christ’s love. Yet the view that too strongly emphasizes God’s love to the denial of any necessity to pursue morality, traps man in a state of frustrated confusion as to who he is and how he can fulfill his seemingly unquenchable desires. Man is left grasping at fleeting pleasures and settling for mediocrity, rather than striving for the alignment of reason, will, and emotions towards his true good of which he was created.
The truth of the relationship between the Good News and moral theology falls in the middle of these extremes. God at once overwhelms man with love by sending Christ down to die in his place, offering man a path to God that, if man so chooses to take it, can lead to his perfect fulfillment and utmost happiness. This path is that of obedience motivated by love, which is life in Christ. This is the path with which moral theology concerns itself. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “The end of the life of virtue is to become like God.”
God’s commandments are not restrictive measures meant to make man reach perfection on his own efforts, but rather, they guide the formation of man’s habits of disposition to more consistently being open to the Holy Spirit’s work.
Who We Are
The Good News makes man aware of who he is, a son of God created in His image yet in need of salvation and fills man’s heart with hope and trust in becoming what he was created to be, a holy being in perfect harmony with God, himself, and others. Moral theology, grounded in the Good News, shows man the path to the interior transformation that leads to both internal and external obedience. In gaining control over himself, man is freer to give of himself.
The question arises of why, if the virtuous life is truly man’s happiest life, does man often not feel happy when he is acting virtuously. To this, the example of learning to play an instrument can be of use. When at first one is learning to play the piano, one must practice scales and tedious note-reading exercises, which invariably lack excitement.
Yet if one perseveres in discipline through these exercises, one will eventually reach a level of skill with which one can freely and joyfully play music. In the same way, the more one practices choosing the good in the virtuous life, the more freely and joyfully will one be able to live the virtuous life.
Another question that may arise is why man must strive to perfect his interior thoughts and emotions when these are simply unintended reactions. While it may be true that the emotions are instinctual reactions, God created man that man would know, will, and desire the good and thus live the virtuous life harmoniously rather than struggling against himself and his own desires. As with the piano example, man must trust that over time, as he uses his reason to willfully choose the good, his desires and emotions will eventually follow.
The Good News promises that through Christ’s death and resurrection, man is offered a sure path towards happiness and the ultimate fulfillment of his desires. As long as he perseveres, using his will and reason to take a step forward each day, God ensures that he will experience the depths of harmony of his interior being that he was created for.
The more aligned man’s reason, will, and emotions become, the more joyful he will be in following God’s commandments and living virtuously. The struggle to pursue a virtuous life is worthy of giving our lives for, as it brings us closer to seeing God face-to-face, the ultimate source of his happiness. In the words of St. Paul, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). Moral theology guides man’s journey towards God, and the Good News infuses him with hope and confidence in the success of his journey.