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Moral Theology: Should We Think or Should We Obey? [M1]

Updated: Feb 3


The 13th topic of the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP, “M”, is about moral theology. When it comes to moral questions, it would be tempting for a Catholic to use the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a reference book, to see whether something is forbidden or permitted. Is gambling a sin? Let’s refer to CCC 2413. How about fortune telling? That would be CCC 2116. That the Catechism provides answers means that it takes these questions seriously.


However, it might surprise you that the first words quoted by the Catechism in the section discussing morality (Part 3, “Life in Christ") is not “go and sin no more” but rather “Christian, recognize your dignity”. In other words, the Catechism is not interested in simply telling Christians what they can or cannot do. Rather, what is more foundational is getting Christians to recognize the profound connection between morals and their unimaginable dignity as a child of God who now “share in God’s own nature”.


In this podcast, we will explore a number of key foundational principles in moral theology. At the heart of moral theology is ultimately not the law but a person, Jesus Christ. We are invited to encounter him as we take the moral life seriously.


Let us ponder what the Bible [1], the Church and the Saints teach us about this crucial topic.


Listen to the podcast here:



Opening Prayer – Jesus and the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-22)


“And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.”


Opening Song – I Will Run to You (Hillsong Worship)



1. Introduction

1.1. Theology and Morality

I came across a funny meme with two men having an animated conversation over the role of theology in Christianity. The more “pious” of the two proclaimed theology to be unnecessary. Only Jesus is necessary. Not about to give up so easily, his friend decided to be a “virtuous” troll and asked him “who is Jesus?” When the pious Christian man started to list a number of things Jesus did and who he claimed to be, his friend immediately had him in a “gotcha” moment by exclaiming “You are doing theology!”


This amusing anecdote attempts to remind overly “pious” Christians that theology, defined as the “study of God” (since “theos” in Greek refers to God and “logos” in Greek refers to study/wisdom), is a “brain based” activity which is essential to Christian discipleship. If you want to follow Jesus, you need to accurately understand who he is and what he did. Both intellect (knowing accurately) and will (following wholeheartedly) matters, and work hand in hand.


We can likewise use this anecdote when we add the word “moral” to “theology.” Morality, among other things, is simply about right and wrong. As followers of Jesus it would seem, at least on the surface, that “thinking” about what’s right and wrong is not only not necessary but possibly dangerous. After all, some might argue, the first person who attempted to “think” about whether something was right and wrong was Eve. When God said “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen 2:16), she should have simply obeyed. It is when she was prompted to start “thinking” by the serpent i.e. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1), that disaster struck.


As such, since we have the teaching of the Son of God himself, is “thinking” necessary? Should we not just obey?


1.2. Thinking and Questioning, and the Motivation behind Them

Thankfully, when we turn to the scriptures, we can find the answer by studying the example of Jesus’ interactions with people when they ask him about moral questions. We will note very quickly that whether they were asked by people of good will or a hostile crowd, Jesus does not shut down questions. Instead, he often: (1) gives an answer which provokes even more questions (Matthew 19:8), (2) asks questions of his own to help the questioner clarify his own thinking (Matthew 19:17), and (3) finally often provides what we would say today as “mike drop” moments where his answers were so unexpected and yet make so much sense that the audience is silenced (Matthew 22:22, Luke 20:40).


In other words, yes, thinking is necessary. But so is asking the right questions. And the motivation behind both questioning and thinking are foundational.


What follows for the rest of this podcast is a close study of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. Pope St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor teaches that:


“In the young man, whom Matthew’s Gospel does not name, we can recognize every person who, consciously or not, approaches Christ the Redeemer of man and questions him about morality. For the young man, the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 7).


In other words, in this encounter, we see Jesus as a patient and sensitive teacher, answering the young man by taking him, as it were, by the hand, and leading him step by step to the full truth (Veritatis Splendor, no. 8), at once provoking in the young man more questions, getting him to clarify his own question, and also providing an answer which will shake his own prior foundations.


From this encounter, we will discover 5 foundational principles of moral theology, namely that:

  1. There is a connection between right actions and eternity.

  2. The question of right and wrong is ultimately a religious question.

  3. The ten commandments remain sure norms for right action.

  4. If striving to keep the commandments does not lead to the desire to imitate Christ, it would be a tragedy.

  5. The imitation of Christ can only happen through the grace of God and not our own efforts.


2. The Rich Young Man and Jesus

2.1. “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16):
The connection between right actions and eternity.

In Matthew’s Gospel, a rich young man felt a stirring in his heart to put this question to Jesus. He must have found Jesus attractive as a person and asks Jesus, not to trap him, but in expectation of a wise answer. He has intuited that there is a connection between right moral actions and the enjoyment of eternal life. But he desires clarification on what exactly constitutes “the good.”


St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that “the good is what perfects something” [2]. By seeking “the good”, the young man seeks perfection. And perfection means “eternal life”. It is important to understand that the term “eternal life” does not simply mean “immortality”. Rather, it should be understood as desiring “the blessed life”, without which, mere immortality is actually torture. Pope Benedict XVI explains it masterfully in Spe Salvi when he teaches that:


“… eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality… It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time… no longer exists… [and where] we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John's Gospel: ‘I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ (16:22)” [3].


2.2. “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good.” (Matthew 19:17): The question of right and wrong is ultimately a religious question.

Jesus the good teacher does not immediately give his answer. But attempts to get the young man to realize the enormity of his question. As Pope St. John Paul II teaches, “the ‘Good Teacher’ points out to him – and to all of us – that the answer to the question… can only be found by turning one’s mind and heart to the “One” who is good… Only God can answer the question about what is good, because he is the Good himself” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 9).


In other words, every question about the good, regardless of whether the person is a believer or not, and whether they know it or not, is ultimately 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.” Thus Jesus “brings the question about morally good action back to its religious foundations” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 9).


2.3. “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17): The ten commandments remain sure norms for experiencing eternal life.

If the question of morality has religious foundations, then for the Christian, the ten commandments would certainly be the foundation stones for right action. Jesus himself then gives the answer and links eternal life to the keeping of the commandments, confirming their permanent validity. It would be however necessary to clarify misconceptions people may have over the commandments.


Some years back, I recalled listening to the following joke about the commandments. Moses was up on Mount Sinai negotiating with God for a long time. Finally, he descended from Mount Sinai and declared to the Israelites, “I’ve got good news and bad news! The good news is that I have got him down from 15 commandments to 10!” The Israelites cheered. “The bad news is that adultery is still in.”

"Moses Descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments", by Ferdinand Bol (1616–1680)

In the joke, the commandments are clearly burdens, coming from the will of God who seems out to be a killjoy. Moses in this joke is the hero. He has made the terms and conditions less onerous, getting God to drop some of his demands. But the one which the Israelites really are concerned about and would dearly want dropped is the commandment against adultery. Unfortunately, Moses was not able to change God’s mind on that. And thus, the Israelites would have to live with that particular burden, a price to pay for being God’s people.


Pope St. John Paul II emphatically rejects this characterization when he teaches that “the commandments… are meant to safeguard the good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods.” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 13). In other words, the commandments are not simply ad hoc requirements made obligatory because God wills it. Rather, it is the way of life of a free man, who, created in the image and likeness of God, are no longer slaves of Pharaoh but God’s own people. Elsewhere, John Paul II teaches that the keeping of the commandments, when properly understood, is the “participation in the very life of God” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 12). In other words, when the Lord declares in the book of Leviticus, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am Holy” (Lev 19:2), the way to do so, and thus participate in the holiness of God, is precisely the commandments.


Indeed, the Catechism sums up how the commandments are meant to demonstrate how harmony with God and neighbor should look like. Quoting St. Irenaeus of Lyon, the Catechism teaches that:


“The Lord prescribed love towards God and taught justice towards neighbor, so that man would be neither unjust, nor unworthy of God. Thus, through the Decalogue, God prepared man to become his friend and to live in harmony with his neighbor. . . . The words of the Decalogue remain likewise for us Christians. Far from being abolished, they have received amplification and development from the fact of the coming of the Lord in the flesh.” (CCC 2063)


2.4.1. “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20): Keeping the commandments is necessary but by themselves, will leave a person still feeling that he is missing something.

The young man receives Jesus’ answer but it provokes in himself further questions. It is clear that he is pondering what Jesus says seriously. On the one hand he is happy that he seems to be moving in the right direction. After all, in Mark’s version of the encounter, he says “all these I have observed from my youth” (Mark 10:20).


Indeed, Pope St. John Paul II teaches that the negative precepts of the commandments are “universally valid” and “oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance… without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 52). So the young man does well in observing them scrupulously.


However, it:


“… does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments. The reason is this: the commandment of love of God and neighbour does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 52).


Hence the young man intuits that not doing what the commandments prohibits, is one thing, but it is not enough. Hence his very forthright admission but “what do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:17).


What then should he do?


2.4.2. “If you would be perfect… come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21): If striving to keep the commandments does not lead to the desire to imitate and follow Christ, it would be a tragedy.

Jesus now gives the young man the “mike drop” answer. He does it because he sees that the young man is sincere. Mark’s version of this encounter says that “Jesus looking upon him loved him” (Mark 10:21). He now gives the young man the answer to the thing he is still lacking, i.e., “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)


At this the young man was reported to have “went away sorrowful” (Matthew 19:22). Notice he does not dispute the correctness of Jesus’ answer. He does not attempt to justify himself or begin an argument with Jesus. Rather, he recognizes that Jesus is right. As a Jew, he would have known that only God is perfect. And that to be perfect is to walk in the way of God. Jesus now offers him that way to perfect joy. To give up everything to follow him. But the young man finds himself humanly powerless to obey.


The tragedy is not in the realization. That is in fact the beginning of wisdom. The tragedy is in the young man going “away sorrowful” and not asking Jesus for help in moving along that path. He was more than willing to follow the commandments. But he was not willing to follow Christ.

"The Vows of Saint Aloysius of Gonzaga" by Theodoor Boeyermans (1620–1678). St. Aloysius was born in wealth and luxury, and stood to inherit his father's powerful marquisate. At the age of seven he desired to devote himself to God, and finally fulfilled it by joining the Jesuits at fifteen. Pictured here is an allegory of him pronouncing the vows. The evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience exemplify the "going beyond" towards perfection without "a higher limit", becoming an icon of Christ himself.

2.5. “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26): The imitation of Christ is what we simultaneously desire and simultaneously recognize as something beyond our abilities.

The disciples who were observing this conversation were reported to have been “astonished” by Jesus’ reply. However, the difference is that they stuck around to ask further questions. “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25). Jesus gives the reply, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).


We are thus faced with a paradox. The moral life is an indispensable means to eternal life. However, because the Lord has planted eternity in the human heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11), what the heart desires for its fulfillment is beyond man’s abilities. “They are possible only as a result of a gift of God who heals, restores and transforms the human heart by his grace: ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’” (John 1:17) (Veritatis Splendor, no. 23).


4. Conclusion & Closing Prayer

At the beginning of this podcast, we asked which is more important in moral theology, i.e. thinking or obedience?


The answer is both. It is in thinking where we are led to the threshold of obedience. But when we are at that threshold, we realize that it is humanly impossible to obey.


Upon this realization, we should not walk away in sorrow, but rather fix our eyes on Christ who will open up the obedience enabled “exclusively by grace, by the gift of God, by his love” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 24). In the words of St. Cyprian (and we will read this prayerfully as our closing prayer):


“How great is the Lord’s indulgence! How kindly he bends down to us, how he overflows with goodness towards us! For he wishes us to pray in the sight of God in such a way as to call God Father and to call ourselves sons of God, just as Christ is the Son of God. No one would have dared to claim such a name in prayer, unless he himself had given us permission to pray this. And so, beloved brethren, we should know and remember that when we call God our Father, we must behave as children of God, so that whatever pleasure we take in having God for our Father, he may take the same pleasure in us." (From the Office of Readings, Tuesday Week 11 Ordinary Time).


Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.


* Is there anything in this session which struck you or any thoughts, experiences or ideas which come to your mind? Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.


** Thank you for joining us on the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP. We look forward to having you with us again next month, as we study the letter “N”, for New Evangelization.


Recommended Closing Song


This Korean version is upbeat although the lyrics itself are ominous, which captures the paradox of the commandments as imitation of Christ [4]


Recommended Reading / Resources

  1. Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor.

  2. William E. May “Introduction to Moral Theology” (Huntington: OSV 2007)

  3. Peter Kreeft “Making Choices, Practical Wisdom for everyday Moral Decisions” (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1990)

  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church “Life in Christ” 1691-2517

Reflection and Sharing Questions


This month’s podcast considers “Moral Theology”, in particular, the central idea that we should both think (and ask the right questions with the right motivation, namely, that morality is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life) as well as to obey, and that a close study of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man reveals the following 5 foundational principles of moral theology:

  1. There is a connection between right actions and eternity;

  2. The question of right and wrong is ultimately a religious question;

  3. The ten commandments remain sure norms for right action;

  4. If striving to keep the commandments does not lead to the desire to imitate Christ, it would be a tragedy;

  5. The imitation of Christ can only happen through the grace of God and not our own efforts.

Questions:

  1. When you were a child, you may have heard adults saying “you better behave, if not Mata (the Police) will arrest you”. Now that you are a bit older, what did you think of that statement at that time? And what did you think of it now?

  2. Has your experience of being taught “right and wrong” been a source of wisdom for you? Or did it seem like right and wrong have been decided by those who have more power and are simply getting you to obey?

  3. Was your experience of Jesus/Church something like the Moses joke? i.e. a constant preoccupation with “how far” can I go? Or was your expereince of Jesus/Church something different?

  4. Do you see your own experience of the moral life in that of the rich young man? Why or why not?

  5. After this podcast, how will you speak/teach about morality differently? What would remain the same? Why?


Download the slides here:

M1 Moral Theology - Slides
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© Presented by the Catholic Theology Network (writers / contributors / sound): Nick Chui (MTS, JPII Institute for Marriage and Family, AU), Dominic Chan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Keenan Tan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Debra Dass (Diploma in Theology, CTIS), Marcia Vanderstraaten (Diploma in Theology, CTIS); publicity & design: Chandra Nugraha.


Footnotes


1. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references are taken from the RSV 2nd CE.


2. Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P., “Good and Evil” (Aquinas 101).


3. Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi no. 12.


4. See e.g. this part of the song’s English translation of the Korean lyrics:


“Under any circumstances

Against all temptation

I'll hold the promise of faithful Lord Jesus


“Even though the world laughs at us

without understanding

I'll hold only the promise of faithful Lord Jesus


“I will never turn back


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