So do you want to obtain a life of beatitude? That is, a life of true blessedness? A life of true happiness? Of course you do! The more important question is, “How do I obtain it?”
The answer is simple. We obtain it through the divine help of Christ. And how does He help us? He helps us: 1) through the law; and 2) through grace.
The Moral Law
The “moral law” is also to be understood as the “divine law.” The divine law is everything that comes from the mind and heart of God as right and good. It is the moral order that God has established to guide us into a life of fulfillment. By analogy, we understand that there are laws of nature. Gravity, for example, cannot be ignored. We may be able to pretend it doesn’t exist, but that does not mean it does not exist. So it is with the moral (divine) law of God. This spiritual law is real and unchanging. Denying it does not make it disappear.
This law should be first understood as something that is rational. It makes sense. This is the case because God made us with an innate ability to comprehend right from wrong. We may not be able to discern every moral law from God through our human reason alone, but we will be able to understand the most basic laws of morality through our reason and common sense. That’s because the moral law is written upon our conscience.
With that said, it’s important to understand that even those laws of the highest order (such as “love your enemies”) do make sense to us when we let God reveal them to us in the ways He chooses. The bottom line is that the moral law makes sense!
When speaking of the moral law (divine law), we define four manifestations of it: natural law, revealed law, ecclesiastical laws and civil laws. We’ll look at each one so as to understand how God has chosen to guide us toward beatitude.
Natural Law: The natural law is a law of morality written upon the conscience of every person. It’s a law of morality that we simply know by nature. This law, acting in accord with human reason, calls us to do good and forbids us to sin. There are two key aspects of the natural law we see in this definition. First, the natural law is “engraved in the soul of each and every man,” and, second, this law calls man “to do good and forbidding him to sin” (CCC #1954).
Think about your knowledge of right and wrong. Where did it come from? Is it purely the result of what you’ve been taught by parents and others throughout your life? Or is there a source that goes beyond that which you were taught? The truth is that there are many things we simply know to be good and other things we know to be wrong. This is because God has written His law upon our human reason.
For example, why do you know it’s wrong to kill someone? Or why do you know it’s wrong to steal a large sum of money from a neighbor? Is it only because you were taught this way? No, there is more to it. It’s true that being taught right from wrong helps us, but deep down we do know certain basic moral principles. We know them because we have to know them. And we have to know them because God has made His law part of our very nature.
The problem is that our human nature is “messed up,” so to speak. We have been greatly affected by Original Sin and what we call “concupiscence.” This means that our very nature is distorted and disordered. As a result, that law of God written upon our conscience is blurred and confused. If we had a perfect human nature, all would be clear, but we don’t. Therefore, the natural law is confused at times. But with that said, if we try to seek the truth within our human reason, we will at very least arrive at the most basic of moral principles and will be able to be guided by them. And, as explained above, ignoring the natural moral law does not make it go away.
Revealed Law: We spoke in Book One of this series about revelation. In that book we primarily dealt with matters of faith. Here, we follow the same understanding but look at revelation regarding matters of morality.
As explained above, the natural law given to us by God and inscribed on our very conscience is somewhat confused as a result of Original Sin and our personal sins. It’s not that the law itself is confused; rather, it’s that our ability to comprehend the law of God is made difficult because of our fallen state. But God did not leave us in our confusion. Instead, He began from the beginning of time to reveal to us the full moral law so as to clarify that with which we struggle.
In the Old Testament, we see that God began to reveal His law as early as Adam and Eve and continued to reveal His law to those who came after. This was done with Noah, Abraham and especially through Moses when God gave him the Ten Commandments. We see the continuing revelation of God regarding morality in the teaching of the prophets, the development of the Old Testament Law and in the many ways in which God interacted with His people.
Ultimately, The Father revealed the fullness of the moral law to us in His Son, Jesus. Jesus, in His teaching and in His very person and actions, reveals the fullness of what it means to be human and to embrace the perfect law of love.
Without this revelation of God, we would remain in darkness and confusion. But with this revelation of God, we are given the ability to see clearly all that God has established as good, holy and morally upright.
This is seen most clearly when we read the Scriptures, especially the Gospels. When we read the words of Jesus, in particular, we may sit back and be convicted in one way or another on how we have been acting poorly or ways in which we need to improve. This is good! When this happens, we are letting the deep revelation of God penetrate our consciences and teach us how to act. We may feel “convicted” in the sense that we suddenly realize we have been less than perfect in some area of our life. And we may find, in the Scriptures, a deep calling to work toward more perfect virtue and love.
What’s interesting is that the law of love may, at first, feel like a burden or challenge to us. Or, it may be hard to accept and embrace. But, in the end, if we are open and sincerely seek the truth, we will come to realize that all Jesus says and does makes sense. It’s like a key opening a locked door to a world we had heard about but could not discover on our own. The revelations Jesus gives us are purifying and freeing to us because they reveal to us what is already hidden within our conscience. They reveal the moral law inscribed within us, and it becomes a joyful discovery.
The law that the Gospels reveal is the law of charity. This law is especially found in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. But we also see this law of charity in the ultimate sacrificial act of love that Jesus offered on the Cross. We read His words and see His free embrace of this sacrifice for us. In the witness of His Cross, we discover our own calling of sacrificial love and, hopefully, embrace it wholeheartedly.
Ecclesiastical Law: When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He promised He would be with us always. The primary way this happens is through the Church. The Church, in the persons of the Apostles and their successors, is entrusted with the “Keys to the Kingdom.” This means that Jesus promises to lead us into all truth throughout time.
It’s the sacred role of the Church, especially the pope and bishops, to teach on matters of faith and morals throughout time. This is especially important as new moral questions arise in each day and age. It may be good to refer to the section on the Magisterium in Book One of this series for a clearer explanation. All that is said there refers, especially, to the way that God guides the Church in the ways of faith. However, the teaching authority of the Magisterium also equally applies to all matters of the moral life. It is the role of the Magisterium to teach and clarify the moral law for us in every day and age.
For example, Jesus never taught us about the morality of cloning or embryonic stem cell research. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of the Church to take the moral clarity given through the teaching of Jesus and apply it to all modern questions. Therefore, we can be certain that Jesus brings clarity to His revelation as new questions arise.
The Church is also given the authority and, therefore, the responsibility, to offer laws to guide our worship and life of faith. For example, the teaching on attending Mass on holy days of obligation is a divine law that is taught through the Church. It is a particular way in which we honor and keep the Third Commandment. Jesus wants us to be obedient to these laws.
Ecclesiastical laws govern the celebration of the Sacraments, the organization of parishes and dioceses; guide the responsibility of bishops and pastors; help those called to religious life, etc. The Church gives us what we call Canon Law to guide most parts of our activities, but there are also many other ways in which Church laws guide us. There are particular laws set up in each local church, diocese and country. There are laws that apply to each religious community and organization. There are more universal liturgical laws. And there are other moral laws taught by the Church. One specific ecclesiastical law given to us is called the Precepts of the Church. These Precepts are as follows:
1) Attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.
2) Confess your sins at least once a year.
3) Receive Holy Communion at least during the Easter season.
4) Keep holy the holy days of obligation.
5) Observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.
Additionally, the faithful have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities.
These precepts are ecclesiastical laws that provide us with what we may call the “minimum requirements” for each person to grow in holiness and the moral life. These ecclesiastical laws are in perfect conformity with the divine law of God but are particular ways in which God manifests His law to us through the Church.
Civil Law: Civil laws are to be followed when they are in union with the mind and will of God. When a civil law is enacted by a legitimate authority for the common good of the people, it is a participation in the Divine Law of God and must be followed. However, if a civil law is in clear contradiction to the Divine Law and, therefore, contrary to our human reason, we are obliged not to follow it.
As a way of understanding how the moral law should work hand-in-hand with civil law and the common good of society, the next section looks more clearly at the way God’s law affects us as a human family.
Who are We? Human Society
Human beings are made for love of one another. We are made to be in communion with each other, especially within our families but also within society as a whole. The social nature of humanity goes to the heart of who we are. We are social beings, and, as a result, our lives must reflect communion and union with each other. Let’s look at the moral obligations of individuals, the family, the State, and all social organizations so as to understand the social nature we have been endowed with by our Creator.
The Trinity as the Basis of Society
There is a certain resemblance between the unity of the divine persons and the fraternity that men ought to establish among themselves. (CCC #1890)
This short line reveals what human society is all about. To understand the nature of the person, family and all of society, we need to first turn to the Trinity. The Trinity is, by its very nature, a family. It’s a communion of divine Persons who live in perfect union and love with each other. So it’s fair to say that community is a part of the essential nature of God. Each Person in the Trinity exists to be in union with others.
Starting with the Trinity, we have insights into our own lives, our own nature, and society as a whole. We are made in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, are made to share in His very life. We are also made for communion not only with the Trinity, but also with one another. And this communion must be made manifest in all of society.
Society is a sort of training ground for each person to become more human, so to speak. Since we are made for communion with each other, the more we engage with family, friends and society as a whole, the more we discover and fulfill our human lives.
Society, on its part, must also respect the dignity of each person and realize that the human person is the central focus of society. Society must never trump the rights of the individual. Rather, the respect for the individual person is what makes society as a whole flourish as a place of human communion.
One basic principle that a society must follow is the principle of subsidiarity. This principle means that what can be handled on a personal level should be handled on that level. What can be handled on a family, local, or State level should be handled there. In other words, society should take care not to interfere and infringe on the individual rights of its people. Big government should not try to micromanage the individual when the individual or local government can take care of the question at hand. Communism and other forms of Socialism are examples of the State taking on “rights” that belong to the individual or local community.
The first thing to understand about the common good has to do with legitimate authority in society. Authority is necessary and is a way for society, as a whole, to be directed by God and God’s law. Those in authority are always required to respect the moral law as well as the dignity and rights of each individual.
The goal of anyone in authority is to enact only those laws which are necessary, are reasonable and are for the good of the individual, and, therefore, are for the good of all. An unjust law is one which is contrary to human reason and, therefore, contrary to God’s law. These laws do not have to be followed, and, at times, they must be disobeyed.
For example, say a government makes a law that every family can only have one child and, if they get pregnant with a second child, that child must be aborted. This is a grave injustice and must be disobeyed regardless of the consequences. Humanity must reasonably and charitably oppose injustice like this. Civil laws that infringe on the rights and dignity of the individual never help the common good.
With that said, legitimate authority can enact laws for the common good which are reasonable. In that case, the Catechism identifies three qualities of the common good that will be taken into consideration:
- As mentioned above, the common good, and all laws that are established in support of the common good, will always respect the rights and dignity of the individual. Of great importance is the respect for each person’s right to act in accord with their moral conscience. Each person, for example, must be free to worship, live their vocation in faith, and enjoy their right to privacy.
- Each individual must be given the freedom to work toward the healthy development of a society and, in the development of society, should be free to pursue those things that are fundamental needs: “food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on” (GS 26 § 2). (CCC #1908)
- It is the duty of civil authority to strive to create a community of peace. Freedom from all oppression and defense of each society are serious responsibilities entrusted to those in authority. Each society must be safeguarded and protected from foreign and domestic oppression, violence and dominance.
There are various ways in which political structures can be set up, but whatever the structure may be, the basic rights of all must be respected. Only by this respect for the person will a society truly thrive and create an environment in which humanity can prosper in the truest sense of the word.
With the above understanding of the moral law and the way in which that moral law is made manifest in various other forms of law, we will now turn to the more supernatural end of all law by looking at the goal of humanity. We are called to live in the grace of God and, in that grace, live lives that are fully human.
Our ultimate goal in the moral life is justification. What is justification? It means two basic things. First, it means that the Holy Spirit draws us into the death and resurrection of Christ, thus freeing us from sin and death. Secondly, it also means that we are inwardly transformed and renewed in Christ. We are converted to a new life in Christ, made holy and live as a new creation. Forgiveness is the first step; new life in Christ by an inward transformation is the ultimate goal.
St. Augustine is quoted in the Catechism as saying, “the justification of the wicked is a greater work than the creation of heaven and earth,” because “heaven and earth will pass away but the salvation and justification of the elect…will not pass away” (St. Augustine, In Jo. ev. 72, 3: PL 35, 1823). (#1994)
Justification is righteousness. We are made righteous in that we are purified from all sin by the blood of Christ. From there we are elevated to a new life of being righteous before the Father. This is not the result of our own merit; rather, it’s the result of the merits of Christ’s sacrifice which makes us true sons and daughters of God.
Grace is the name for every way that God pours forth His gifts of love, mercy, and holiness upon our souls. It leads us to repentance, brings forgiveness, enables us to live a life of holiness and helps us live our calling and vocation in Christ. There are various distinctions we make when speaking of grace.
Actual Grace: An actual grace is the term used for those promptings from God to call us to a life of conversion and holiness. It’s the initial gift God gives to draw us in. These graces are not something we have earned or have a right to; rather, they are free gifts from God given out of love for us.
You may experience an actual grace, for example, when God speaks to your conscience revealing that you have sinned and need to return to Him. It may also come in the form of an inspiration to pray or read the Scriptures. It could be a grace given to encourage you to reconcile with someone or offer mercy and love.
Sanctifying Grace: “Sanctity” means “holiness.” Sanctifying grace is the term we use to refer to the permanent and ongoing presence of God in your life, helping you to remain holy and live according to His will. When one is in a state of sanctifying grace, they are on their way to Heaven. All Christians are called to live habitually in sanctifying grace. To lose sanctifying grace, one must commit a mortal sin. In that case, all sanctifying grace is lost, and one may then be in need of a new actual grace to be called back to Christ.
Sanctifying grace is given in Baptism and remains as long as the person remains faithful to the will of God. This grace, therefore, is what makes us holy and just before God. If you are in a state of sanctifying grace, you are living in a relationship with Christ. He is alive within you, and you are living in Him. Sanctifying grace comes to us in varying degrees. The greatest of saints are consumed by this grace and led by it in all their actions. That person who is one step away from mortal sin is also in sanctifying grace, but to a much lesser degree.
Sacramental Grace: This is a term used to specify the grace given to us through the Sacraments. It’s first given in Baptism and is subsequently given through our participation in every other Sacrament. Sacramental graces have the goal of enabling us to permanently live in sanctifying grace and, in fact, produce sanctifying grace in our lives. The only distinction here is that sacramental grace is sanctifying grace that comes to us through the Sacraments.
Special Graces: These graces are given in various forms of charisms. A charism is a special gift of God given to a person so as to build up the Church and fulfill a mission for the good of others. These charisms could be mysterious in the sense of being an ability to prophesy, speak in tongues, or perform miracles. They can also be special gifts given to enable one to be good administrators within the Church or perform other special functions proper to one’s vocation, such as being a dedicated mom or dad. A charism is given always for the good of others.
In Matthew’s Gospel we read:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. (Mt 6:19–20)
How do we “store up treasures in Heaven?” Truth be told, we cannot do this by ourselves and have no right whatsoever to the treasure or riches in Heaven. This is an important foundational starting point to begin with if we are to understand merit.
Merit can be seen as that which is owed someone first by the community. If we do evil, we merit rebuke and punishment from others. If we do good, we merit their praise and gratitude.
Regarding God, we can do nothing to deserve His gratitude and praise. Why? Because everything good is a gift from God. All is gift! For that reason, we must be careful with the term “merit” lest we think we can earn our salvation or any reward or blessing from God. We cannot.
However, God is so good that He wills to reward us for our cooperation with His divine plan and grace. Therefore, by God’s will, every time we serve Him faithfully and willfully, God sees this and rewards it with His blessings. He freely chooses to bestow eternal blessings on us, treasures in Heaven, because of His love and mercy.
This should especially address for us the importance of getting holy now rather than waiting until our time of death. Sure, a deathbed conversion is honored by God, but what is far better is a life-long commitment to holiness and conversion. In this case, our life of holiness continually invites God to act in a free and gratuitous way in which He bestows eternal treasures upon us. Our God is abundant in His generosity, and He wants to bestow His generous gifts on us so that they last for eternity!
For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified. (Rom 8:29–30)
This passage from St. Paul reveals our calling to holiness. The whole goal of the moral life is to obtain Christian holiness. We are called to become conformed to the image of Christ and, in that, to be justified and glorified.
Sometimes we can think that great holiness is something only for the saints or for priests and religious. But it’s essential to know and believe that every one of us is called to holiness. Moms and dads must become holy parents. Children must be holy. Married, single, religious and priests are called to obtain holiness. Holiness is synonymous with true happiness. It’s easy to forget that. Sometimes we can think that holiness means we live a boring and difficult life. That’s true if the measure of happiness is from a worldly and secular perspective. Worldly happiness is temporary, passing and very superficial. If, however, we understand happiness from the perspective of the truth of who we are and for what we are made, we will realize that happiness is holiness. And holiness means a life filled with the grace of God, calling us to a deeper conversion and enabling us to grow in our interior conversion each and every day. This interior world of grace and holiness is the key to discovering and becoming who we are and what we are made for.
From the Speculative to the Practical
The moral principles outlined in this and the previous chapter must be first understood in a more speculative way. They must be understood as the general guiding foundation of morality. But the purpose of that is so that they can then move to the practical part of our life. We must be able to take the principles we know and apply them to daily life. Without this, the moral principles remain just theoretical principles we can discuss in a theoretical way.
The way they become practical is by applying them to daily life and daily decisions we face. This is best done by looking at the clearest and most practical moral revelation we have been given by God: the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are the clear revelation of God’s law and provide us with the framework for how we are to live. Each Commandment covers a broad spectrum in that they provide us with a bottom line of what not to do but also an upper limit of what holy living is all about.
As we go through each Commandment and, thus, as we reflect upon the entirety of the moral law of God, try to see how the moral principles already discussed are made concrete and practical. And try to use the following reflections on the Commandments as a source of your own moral living.
Next Chapter: Chapter 3 – Loving God
Also Available in eBook & Paperback