Do you know who you are? That may seem like an odd question, but it’s worth pondering. Who are you? Who are you in your deepest core? What is it that makes you who you are?
Often times we form our identity from diverse and meaningless things: what we have accomplished, how we look, who our friends are, how we are perceived by others, etc. But, truth be told, such things matter very little in the eyes of God. What matters is what God thinks. What matters is who He sees when He looks at you.
When God looks at you, He sees two things. First, yes, He sees your sins—all of them. He is fully aware of every weakness and every dysfunction in your life. Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God!
But fear not. He also sees something else. He sees who you are at your core and who He wants you to be. He looks at you and sees an image of Himself. He sees a reflection of His own beauty and splendor. He sees an imago Dei, an image of God.
But not only God sees us. We also see ourselves. And we must also see, within our soul, an image of God. We must see that God loves us so much that He sent His Son, Jesus, to come and dwell with us. And He not only dwells with us, He also dwells within us.
When we discover Christ living within us, we will begin to discover our true dignity and, in that discovery, begin to live as we ought.
The start of the moral life is about discovering who we are, the discovery of Christ living within us. When we allow Christ to live within us, we begin to live the life He wants us to live. We begin to live a morally upright and holy life. In this living, we become who we already are. Jesus reveals who we are, and we embrace that life more fully.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
If we want to discover who we are and who we are called to become, we must understand the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are the pinnacle of the Christian moral life, its ever-rising ceiling. To live the Beatitudes is to live in Christ. But that is easier said than done.
The Beatitudes present us with a challenge of love followed with a glorious reward for our faithful living of that challenge. To be poor in spirit, mourn (over sin), to be meek, to long for righteousness, etc., is a high calling. And to accept persecution joyfully is not an easy thing to do. But the end result is that we obtain Heaven, become fully children of God, and see Him and live in His presence forever! The struggle is worth the reward.
A beatitude is a blessing. It’s the blessing of living fully in God’s grace rather than just living by our own ideas. It’s seeking a higher calling and embracing it in faith rather than full sight. In other words, embracing the Beatitudes requires that God speaks to us in our hearts, reveals His mysterious and profound will to us found in the wisdom of the Beatitudes, and gives us the grace we need to live them. This requires a generous surrender to God and trust in His wisdom. But when a person believes in the wisdom of the Beatitudes and lives in accord with their high calling, there is an outpouring of grace and joy that fills that person. There is a tremendous “blessing” that fills the one who lives in accord with this grace.
We discussed in Book One of this series the desire we all have for happiness. The Beatitudes are the ultimate fulfillment of this desire. By living the Beatitudes, we discover that God, and God alone, satisfies, and that living in communion with Him is well worth any hardship or struggle we must endure in life. But believing this demands abundant grace! It takes the gift of faith and knowledge. It takes a special action of God in our lives.
Much could be said about the Beatitudes, but for now just try to spend some time pondering them and trying to understand that they are the pinnacle of the Christian moral life. Put that truth in the back of your mind and try not to forget it.
The Effects of Freedom
Living a life immersed in the Beatitudes requires a life lived in true freedom. Additionally, living the Beatitudes leads to that true freedom. It’s a sort of cyclical action in our lives. True freedom opens us to the Beatitudes, and the Beatitudes fill us with greater freedom to discover them and live them.
After all, what does it mean to be free? Too often we associate “freedom” with “free will.” We think that we are free when we do whatever we want, whenever we want, because we want to. Many cultures today have a strong focus on human liberty and human rights. But this focus so very easily leads to a false sense of what freedom truly is.
So what is freedom? True freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want; rather, it’s the ability to do what we ought. True freedom is found in the conscious choice to do the will of God and, in embracing that will, to live in accord with our dignity.
It’s true that God gave us free will. We have a mind to know the truth and a will to love the good. We are, then, endowed with the ability to know and to make our own moral choices, unlike even the highest animals. These abilities are sacred gifts that go to the heart of who we are. The mind and will set us apart from all of creation. But this point must be made very clear—it is only in the proper exercise of our intellect and free will that we attain authentic human freedom. And the opposite is also true. When by our free will we embrace sin, we become slaves of sin, and our dignity is greatly compromised.
When we are faced with making a moral decision, many factors come into play when determining the morality of our choice. The Catechism identifies five factors that can either increase, or decrease, the culpability we have for what we do: 1) Ignorance; 2) Duress; 3) Fear; 4) Psychological factors; 5) Social factors. Each one of these factors can potentially confuse us, thus hindering our ability to act properly.
For example, imagine a situation when someone acts out immorally due to some influence upon them beyond their control. Perhaps they are filled with such fear that they react out of that fear and act contrary to the moral law. Fear can easily confuse and mislead a person, leading to poor moral choices. Or take, for example, the person who has never had the benefit of having the will of God clearly explained to them. Instead, their whole life they have been raised in an environment that “preached” some contrary moral value. They were truly ignorant of the moral truth and, therefore, are ignorant of the fact that some of their actions are contrary to the moral law.
In both of these situations, a person may act in a way contrary to the will of God. But, at the same time, because of factors outside of their control, they may not be fully responsible for their poor choices. In the end, God is the only one who knows all the details, and He will sort it out.
If we want to be truly free, and if we want to make good choices in life, we must strive to be free of the pressures and temptations that these factors impose upon us. In other words, we must strive to be fully aware of the moral decisions before us, to be free of ignorance, fear and duress, and to understand and overcome any psychological or social influences that could cloud our decision making.
More will be said on these matters in the coming chapters. For now it’s just important to understand that we are sometimes not fully responsible for the poor decisions we make, even though the poor decision itself retains its moral character of good or bad. We should be fully aware of the factors involved in our moral decision making and then choose the good over the bad. Through our good choices, we experience and increase the true freedom we are called to possess, and we also grow in the dignity we have been given as God’s beloved children.
Making Moral Choices
So what is a moral choice? Perhaps that is an overly philosophical question, but it’s an important one with very real and practical implications. By understanding the basic qualities of a moral choice, we will be more likely to make correct choices in our own lives.
The Catechism teaches that there are three basic sources of the morality of human acts. We’ll look at these three sources carefully because it’s important to understand what the Church is teaching here.
The morality of human acts consists of:
—the object chosen;
—the end in view or the intention;
—the circumstances of the action.
The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the “sources,” or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts. (#1750)
Don’t get lost in the language. Let’s pull apart each of the elements of a moral act so that you can more clearly understand your own actions and the morality involved. This will be especially helpful later in the book when we turn to specific moral questions.
Object Chosen: The “object chosen” refers to the specific “thing” we choose to do. Some objects we choose are always wrong. We call these “intrinsically evil” actions. For example, murder (the intentional taking of an innocent life) is always wrong. Other examples would be things like blasphemy and adultery. There is no moral justification for an act with an intrinsically evil object.
Likewise, some actions could be considered always morally good by their very nature. For example, an act whose object is mercy or forgiveness would always be good.
But not all human actions, of course, are moral actions. For example, throwing a ball is morally neutral unless the circumstances (as we’ll see below) are such that you’re throwing the ball at the neighbor’s window with the intention of breaking the window. But the act itself of throwing a ball is neither good nor bad, which is why we also need to consider the intention and circumstance.
The most important things to consider with and act, then, is that some objects in and of themselves are intrinsically evil and should never be done. Some are intrinsically good, such as acts of faith, hope and charity. And some actions, most actions in fact, are morally neutral.
The Intention: The intention motivating an action plays a significant role in determining the action’s moral goodness or badness. A bad intention can alter what appears to be a good action into an evil one. For example, imagine someone donating money to a children’s home. This would seem to be a good action. But if that donation were given by a politician merely to garner public support and praise, then the apparently good act would, upon moral examination, be altered into a selfish, disordered, and sinful act.
Furthermore, an intrinsically evil object can never be transformed into a good based on a good intention of the one acting. For example, to directly lie is to choose an evil object. One never accomplishes a good end by choosing an evil object. So lying, even if it’s done with an apparently good intention, is still sinful. “The ends do not justify the means.”
Circumstances: The circumstances surrounding a moral act are also important. The circumstances cannot, by themselves, make an act good or evil, but they can affect the moral responsibility of the one acting. For example, if someone lies, this is a wrong action. However, if they are under extreme fear and lie to save their life, they most likely will not be nearly as morally responsible for the lie as someone who lied for no reason. Extreme fear and similar circumstances do not make lying good or even neutral. Circumstances never change the object of the act. But circumstances can affect how responsible one is for an action.
Circumstances not only lessen guilt, though. They also can contribute to the moral goodness of an action. For example, take telling the truth. Say that someone is extremely fearful yet, despite their fear, they tell the truth anyway in a virtuous and courageous way. That act of truthfulness becomes more virtuous precisely due to the difficult circumstances.
Hopefully, this brief reflection upon the three sources of morality helps give insight into moral decision making. If it seems a bit confusing still, do not worry. For now, just try to grasp the basic principles. It should become much clearer as we go through specific and concrete examples later in this book.
Good vs. good
It may be helpful here to distinguish between what we might call “Good” and “good.” That may seem like a strange distinction at first, so let me explain.
First, we can define Good (with a capital “G”) as anything and everything that makes up part of God’s plan for our lives. Good, in this sense, is also what is truly beneficial for us in the mind and will of God.
Second, we can speak in more philosophical language of “good” (with a small “g”), when referring to anything that our mind, will, desires, feelings or passions are drawn to. Sometimes, these goods are not part of God’s plan and, therefore, are not truly Good.
Sound confusing? Not really, it’s just a philosophical distinction that we need in order to understand ourselves and God’s plan for our lives.
Let me offer an example of a “good” that is not “Good” for us. Take the person who deeply desires to get drunk. Why do they desire and choose this? Because they erroneously see it as something that is “good” for them in the moment. We all know it’s not truly “Good” and is not part of God’s plan for them, but, in this case, they choose it anyway because their passions, desires or emotions overwhelm their mind and lead them to choose that which is unhealthy.
Another less clear example may be exercise. Say a person regularly exercises but, over time, becomes obsessed with it. They start to use what normally could be “Good” excessively. In this case, exercise is a “good,” but not “Good.” Got it? If not, don’t worry just yet. Read on and it will hopefully make more sense.
Passions, Feelings and Emotions
In creating us, God gave us passions, feelings and emotions. These parts of our soul are normal and are good in so far as they are part of who we are. But these appetites can lead to either evil or good actions based on what they become attached to.
These spiritual appetites are designed to be drawn to the good and repulsed by evil. However, they are easily deceived. It is very possible for a passion to be drawn to something it perceives as good but which is in fact evil. For example, say someone longs to be rich. In their mind, they have deceptively come to believe that wealth is the answer to their problems. They then come across an opportunity to make a quick fortune, but it involves deception and malice. It’s entirely possible that their passion for wealth will push them to act in a deceptive and malicious way because their natural desire to earn money in exchange for hard work has become distorted into acquiring money no matter the means they use.
Or perhaps a clearer example is the passion of love. Very often the reason a married person has an affair is because they have allowed the natural passion of love to overwhelm their human reason and choose the affair even though it’s sinful.
Passions are powerful forces. But passions can ultimately be used for good when we make God and His will the good we seek. If we do this, the person then “falls in love” with God and His holy will. They then “passionately” choose God, and they desire to please Him and express their love for Him in a passionately holy way.
Feelings and emotions are closely related to the passions and obey similar basic principles. The key to understanding these aspects of our personality is to realize that whatever is first chosen in our minds will then be followed by our passions, desires, feelings and emotions. They may not follow right away, but in time they will. And the perfection of the human person is achieved when one’s entire being (mind, soul, heart and strength) moves in unity toward the true, the good, the one, and the beautiful. Namely, toward God.
The human conscience is a glorious gift of God! It’s our secret core within us, a sacred sanctuary where our innermost being meets God. One of the most quoted passages from the Vatican Council II comes from a document called Gaudium et Spes. It offers a very beautiful description of the conscience:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. (GS 16)
Our conscience is that mysterious inner place within where we make moral decisions. It’s a place that can become deeply confused and distorted but is ideally a place of great peace, clarity and joy. It’s ideally the place where we analyze our moral decisions, clearly understand them clearly, allow God and our human reason to prevail, and then freely choose that which is good and right. When this occurs, the reward is great peace and affirmation of one’s dignity. The conscience is what ultimately takes responsibility for both good and evil actions.
The conscience is also the place within where the law of God makes contact with our practical decision making. It’s the place within where we are able to analyze the actions we are considering as well as the actions we have done in light of the moral law of God.
Regarding those decisions we are considering making, the conscience is the place where the truth hopefully prevails and thus directs our actions toward the good. When it comes to past actions, if the conscience judges our actions to have been sinful, it challenges us to repent and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness. It’s not so much a place where we are filled with guilt and remorse; rather, it’s a place where we clearly see our sins and offer them to the mercy of God with the hope of forgiveness and healing.
As we read in the passage above from Vatican II, the conscience is a sanctuary within. By analogy to a church, we should see it as something similar to the holy sanctuary within the larger body of the church building. In the old days, there was an altar railing marking off the sanctuary. The altar rail indicated that the sanctuary was an especially sacred space where the presence of God dwelled in a uniquely intense way. The sanctuary, with or without an altar rail marking its limits, is still normally the place of reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and where the sacred altar is located. In a similar way, we should understand our conscience as a sacred sanctuary within the larger space of our being or personality. There, in that sacred sanctuary, we meet God in a more intense way than we do in other areas of our self. We hear Him, love Him and freely obey Him. Our conscience is our deepest core, our moral engine room, where we are most “we.”
The conscience must be respected. For example, think about the Sacrament of Confession, where the person invites the priest into the sanctuary of their conscience to see their sin and, in the Person of Christ, to absolve it. The Church imposes upon the priest the grave obligation of the sacred “seal of Confession.” This “seal” means he is forbidden, under any and all circumstances, from revealing the sins he has heard. What does this mean? It means that the conscience of another human being, which the priest has been invited to visit through Confession, is so personal, private and sacred a space that no one else can enter that space through the priest’s divulging of what he saw and heard there during his visit. No one has a right to see another’s conscience through force or manipulation. Instead, we as Christians must recognize the sacredness of that inner sanctuary of each person and treat it with the utmost respect.
The sacredness of conscience must also be respected as a person grows in faith. Growth in faith and conversion must be handled with the greatest of care. For example, when Christians are preaching the Gospel, it’s essential that we make sure we are respecting others’ consciences. One danger that must be avoided is what we call “proselytism.” Proselytism is a sort of pressuring or manipulation of another to convert. It may be done through fear, harshness, intimidation, and the like. For that reason, the preacher of the Gospel must be careful that “conversion” does not happen through some form of force. A classic example would be the extreme “fire and brimstone” homily that causes the weak-minded person to “convert” out of fear of Hell. Sure, we should be afraid of Hell, but grace and salvation must be offered to people, in their conscience, as an invitation of love first and foremost. Only in this way is a conversion truly a conversion of the heart
As Christians and as humans, we have a moral duty to form our conscience in accord with what is true. The formation of our conscience occurs when we are open to human reason and all that God reveals to us in the depths of our hearts. This is not as hard as it may at first sound. If you reflect upon this, you’ll find it is deeply rational, making perfect sense. So read on.
First, human reason discerns what is true and what is false on the most basic of levels. The natural law is a law that God wrote upon our conscience. It is simply there, ready for us to understand and embrace. We know, for example, that stealing, lying, murder and the like are wrong. How do we know? We know because there are some things that you cannot not know. Such moral laws are engraved in our conscience. But how do you know, you ask? You just know! God has made us this way. The natural moral law is as real as the law of gravity. Whether you acknowledge its presence or not, it still affects your behavior. It is omnipresent. It makes sense.
In addition to the natural law implanted in all human beings, there is also the divine law of revelation. This revelation refers to the will of God that can be known by hearing His voice within us, through the reading of Scripture or learning the teachings of the Church, or via the wisdom of the saints. But ultimately, when one of these external sources of God’s Word is presented to us, we must then internalize it by allowing that Word to also speak to our heart. This experience may be a “light-bulb moment” similar to the discovery of the natural law within us. Only this time, the “light bulb” will shine only for those who have the special gift of faith.
The problem is that all too often we can allow various influences to confuse us and mislead our conscience. The most common causes of a confused conscience are disordered passions, fear, irrational arguments, habitual sin and ignorance of the truth. Sometimes we can even be confused by a false understanding of love. The Catechism identifies the following as common sources of an erroneous conscience:
Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct. (#1792)
Nonetheless, when a person strives to have a well-formed conscience, he/she is obliged to follow that conscience and act accordingly.
With that said, it’s also important to point out two ways in which a conscience can be in error. One is an erroneous conscience that is culpable (sinful) and the other is one which is not culpable (not personally sinful even though it’s still misinformed).
Erroneous Conscience: Am I Guilty?
Sometimes, as explained above, people make wrong choices and believe they are making right choices. So are they guilty of sin if they make a wrong choice believing it is the right choice? For example, we know that abortion is intrinsically evil, meaning, it is always wrong to take the innocent life of a child within the womb. But what about a person who honestly believes that abortion is legitimate in some circumstances? Let’s say a woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock and her pregnancy would interfere with a college education. Would it be legitimate, in that situation, to have an abortion?
The answer is clearly “no.” Abortion is never good, and the action in and of itself is always wrong. It’s important to look at the wrong action of abortion by itself, but it’s also important to consider the moral guilt or personal sinfulness (or not) of those committing this act. Read this carefully so that it’s not misunderstood. We can easily fall into what we call “moral relativism” if we are not careful. Moral relativism is a way of saying, for example, that abortion may be wrong for me but it may not be wrong for you. That’s a misunderstanding. It may be true to say that some people are more morally guilty of that sin whereas others, out of honest ignorance, may commit an objectively bad action but not be personally responsible for it. That is, they commit an evil, but not a sin. Again, try to carefully understand this. Here is an example:
First, consider a young woman who was raised in a household that practiced no faith whatsoever. Through no fault of her own, she never heard people say that abortion was wrong. Let’s say that both her parents were physicians who regularly performed abortions, and they spoke freely about their conviction that they were doing good and helping women. This young girl hears this throughout her life and is never exposed to the contrary argument. Again, through no fault of her own she never learns that abortion is wrong.
In this context, let’s say she gets pregnant out of wedlock just before going off to college. Her parents find out, and they smile and tell her all will be well and they will bring her to the clinic on Monday to help her with this problem. She agrees and has the abortion thinking she is doing the right thing.
Now, it’s important to point out clearly here that only God knows her heart and only God knows if she went forward with an abortion truly believing it was good. It must be said that, objectively speaking, she made an erroneous decision. The act of abortion is intrinsically evil and is wrong in every way. But the question here is whether or not she personally sinned in her choice or if she made the wrong choice through no fault of her own. It’s hard to believe, in our day and age, that someone would never be exposed to the truth about the evil of abortion. But, nonetheless, in this example, for the sake of argument, let’s say that she truly did not know it was wrong and that she truly was never exposed to the truth of the baby’s humanity. Furthermore, let’s say, for the sake of this example, that she sincerely believed abortion in this case was good and right. Given these circumstances did she personally sin? She may not have. Did she do a wrong action? Yes she did. Abortion is the wrong action, but she may not be held accountable for it before God in this case.
What this shows us is that it is possible to do the wrong action and not have personal responsibility for that action. Again, this only applies to the case where someone has a misinformed and, therefore, erroneous conscience through no fault of their own.
With that said, if there were negligence on her part in seeking the truth, if she had been presented with the truth and refused to acknowledge it, or if there were other factors that led to her erroneous decision which were her own fault, then she would bear some responsibility for the abortion. Perhaps her guilt would be minimal, or perhaps her guilt would be great. Only God knows the heart. But our purpose here is to try to understand the difference between a wrongful action and personal guilt for that action.
One important point to add to this explanation is that we all have a personal duty to seek the truth and to properly form, and inform, our conscience. Negligence in seeking the truth makes us responsible for a misinformed conscience. But, nonetheless, God knows our particular circumstances and will judge accordingly.
Growth in Virtue and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit
There are four wonderful gifts God gave us to live a good moral life and to achieve holiness. These gifts will help us within our consciences to make good decisions in life and to understand right from wrong. These gifts are as follows: 1) the four human virtues; 2) the three theological virtues; 3) the seven gifts of the Spirit; and 4) the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Four Human Virtues:
We begin with the four human virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. These four virtues, being “human” virtues, “are stable dispositions of the intellect and the will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faith” (CCC #1834). The key distinction between the four “human virtues” and the three “theological virtues” is that human virtues are acquired by our own human effort. We work toward them and have the power in our own intellect and will to cultivate these virtues within us. In contrast, the theological virtues are acquired only by a gift of grace from God and are, therefore, infused by Him. Let’s take a look at each one of these human virtues.
Prudence: The virtue of prudence is the gift we use to take the more general moral principles given us by God and to apply them to concrete, real life situations. Prudence applies the moral law to our daily life. It connects law, in general, to our particular life situations. Prudence is also considered the “Mother of all Virtue” in that it directs all the others. It is a sort of foundational virtue upon which others are constructed, enabling us to make good moral judgments and decisions. Prudence strengthens us to act in accord with God’s will. Prudence is primarily an exercise of our intellect, which enables our consciences to make good practical judgments.
Justice: Our relationship with God and others requires that we render them the proper love and respect they are due. Justice, like prudence, enables us to concretely apply the moral principles of proper respect of God and others to concrete situations. Justice toward God consists of proper reverence and worship. It entails knowing how God wants us to revere and worship Him right here and right now. Similarly, justice toward others manifests itself in treating them according to their rights and dignity. Justice knows what love and respect are due to others in our daily interactions.
Fortitude: This virtue produces strength to ensure “firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good” (CCC #1808). This virtue helps in two ways. First, it helps us to choose what is good even if it requires great strength. Choosing the good is not always easy. At times, it requires great sacrifice and even suffering. Fortitude provides the strength we need to choose the good even when difficult. Second, it also enables one to avoid that which is evil. Just as it can be hard to choose the good, so also it can be hard to avoid evil and temptation. Temptations, at times, can be strong and overwhelming. A person with fortitude is able to face that temptation toward evil and avoid it.
Temperance: There are many things in this world that are desirous and enticing. Some of these things are not part of God’s will for us. Temperance “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (CCC #1809). In other words, it helps with self-control and keeps all our desires and emotions in check. The desires, passions and emotions can be very powerful forces. They draw us in many directions. Ideally, they draw us to embrace the will of God and all that is good. But when they are attached to that which is not God’s will, temperance moderates these human aspects of our body and soul, keeping them in check and in control so that they do not control us.
As mentioned above, these four virtues are acquired by human effort and discipline. However, they can also be drawn up into God’s grace and take on a supernatural character. They can be elevated to a new level and strengthen us beyond what we could ever achieve by our own human effort. This is done by prayer and surrender to God.
Three Theological Virtues:
The four human virtues are not enough to live a full and holy Christian life. We need more. We need supernatural gifts from God called the theological virtues. These virtues are faith, hope and charity. They are “supernatural” in that we cannot obtain them by ourselves. They are infused into our souls directly from God when we are open to them, and they animate and transform the human virtues mentioned above to that new supernatural level. They enable the Christian to live in accord with the mind and will of God in all things. They especially enable us to live the Christian life to a degree that is beyond our own human potential. This is key since there is no way we can live a holy Christian life by our own effort.
Faith: This virtue is “the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief” (CCC #1814). Faith is a very easy virtue to misunderstand. It can be thought that faith is just believing that which we cannot know. Or perhaps even a sort of wishful thinking. But faith is so much more. Faith is KNOWING God and all that God reveals. It’s a sort of sixth sense we have on a spiritual level which enables us to know beyond our natural human capacity. God infuses a certain knowledge of Himself and His will and we ascent to believe it. When this happens, it produces a true certainty within us. In other words, it produces a firm conviction for the truth which we could never arrive at by ourselves. In fact, it ultimately produces a conviction and knowledge so deep that we can come to believe on a level that is beyond any human knowing. For example, no one would disagree that 2+2=4. We know this by our human reason. Faith is a knowledge that goes deeper and provides a conviction that is stronger even than the human knowledge of mathematics or that which we know by our sight, smell, touch, hearing and smelling. With faith we know because God reveals truth to us and He is the one guaranteeing this truth. Therefore, the conviction and certainty is the deepest form of knowledge we can have.
Hope: As reflected upon in the first book, we all desire happiness. It’s in our nature. We cannot shake this desire. Hope is the theological virtue that enables us to fulfill this desire in accord with God’s will. It helps keep our eyes on the Kingdom of Heaven and all that God wills for us. It points us to eternal beatitude and helps our desires to move past the temporary things of this world to the eternal aspects of God’s Kingdom. It enables us to rely upon the power and strength of the Holy Spirit to stay in God’s grace and live by the faith we have been given. In other words, hope is a supernatural gift that enables us to see the potential fulfillment of our lives by seeing the goal of Christian living. We see God’s will, we see the blessings attached to His will, and we know we can obtain them by His help. This supernatural knowledge gives us strength and energy to pursue that which we could never pursue by our own human ability.
Charity: Without Charity, we have nothing (1 Corinthians 13). Charity is the grace we need to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbor. Charity is manifest in our lives when both faith and hope are alive and active. Faith is primarily an act of the intellect, hope is especially an act of the will, and that combination produces the pure and holy love we call charity. Charity is the fulfillment of all laws of God. It’s a supernatural gift by which we are able to overcome all things that keep us from perfection and holiness. In fact, charity and holiness are synonymous. If a person is filled with charity, that person is holy. When charity is perfected, the soul is perfected. This is the greatest of all virtues!
Charity is not just doing kind actions. It is first and foremost an act toward God. The perfection of Charity toward God means our whole being is consumed with love of God. We are set aflame with love of Him and are given a powerful drive to seek Him and love Him above all things. We discover His will in charity and are able to fulfill it because we want to fulfill it.
As we fall deeply in love with God and His divine will, we will also be consumed with a love of others. We will be directed, by the Holy Spirit, toward those whom God wants us to offer a special gift of His grace, love and mercy. We will desire to show mercy and we will find great satisfaction in offering to others all that God wants us to offer. Charity will sustain and fill us beyond anything else in life.
Gifts of the Holy Spirit: The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are gifts from God that we are all called to obtain in their fullness. They help us on our path toward Christian holiness. In fact, they are essential gifts we must strive for in our lives. Each one of these gifts must reside in the Christian soul that desires perfection. They are permanent dispositions within us that enable us to follow the promptings and guidance of the Holy Spirit in our lives. They are seven ways that we are open to and receive the Holy Spirit. The seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are:
Fear of the Lord
For a more detailed explanation of each gift, see Book Two of this series in the chapter on Confirmation.
Fruits of the Spirit: Just as an apple tree produces apples, so the Holy Spirit alive in our hearts produces spiritual fruit. These fruits are traditionally numbered as twelve and are: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity. These fruits are the blessings of living a good moral life in Christ!
Sin: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Perhaps your first question, after reading the title of this section, is, “What could be good about sin?” Sure, we realize it is “bad” and even “ugly,” but how can it be “good?”
The answer is simple. God’s almighty power is just that: ALMIGHTY! As a result, He can take even our sin and transform it. This doesn’t mean that sin itself is good; rather, it means that God can transform sin in our lives. He can bring goodness out of anything, and the primary way He does this is by His mercy.
St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Rom 5:20). God saw our fallenness, He sees our sin, and His response is first and foremost to offer mercy and grace. He desires to forgive us and reconcile with us. And it is this grace, given as a result of our sin, that is “good” beyond what we can ever comprehend.
With this foundational understanding of the good God can bring out of sin, let’s now look at the “bad” and the “ugly” parts.
Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. (CCC #1849)
Sin, as an “offense,” is an action we perform or an omission of what we ought to do. It’s an action that is opposed to “reason, truth and right conscience.” This is a helpful insight because it shows us that when someone commits a sin, they are acting foolishly and in a way that is in opposition to reality. They must deny the truth within their conscience in order to complete any sinful act willfully.
Sin is also the result of “a perverse attachment to certain goods.” This means that sin comes as a result of becoming attached to a “good” in a disordered way. This may, at first, seem like a strange thing to say. How can it be wrong to be attached to something that is “good?”
To understand this properly we have to understand what a “good” is. A good, in this sense, is anything that our mind and will perceive as good. We may see food as good, a new job as good or money as good. In fact, in and of themselves, these things are good. The problem is that it is possible to become attached to these or any goods in a disordered and, therefore, sinful way.
For example, if someone robs a bank, they most likely do so because they are seeing the result of their robbery—money—as something good. Money, in and of itself, is a good. There is nothing wrong with it. But it is possible to desire money in a disordered way. In that case, the disordered attachment to money may lead a person to choose money over the moral truth that we should not steal. They choose to steal because their conscience is confused and erroneously sees the money as the greater good. This is the result of an unhealthy attachment to money.
The same could be said of food. Food is good in and of itself. But when one desires it to a serious and disordered degree, food can lead one to gluttony. Thus, the excessive attachment to food is sinful.
Sin destroys our happiness when it causes us to become attached to goods we desire in a disordered way. But, interestingly, no one chooses to excessively become attached to something so that they can become miserable. Sure, they may realize this fact in the back of their minds, but it would be rarely the case that someone chooses a disordered attachment to something because they know it’s wrong. They choose it because they are deceived and confused and have allowed their will to become weakened and controlled, or even addicted.
Descriptions of Sin: Sin has traditionally been categorized in various ways. Below are some of the most common categories.
Spiritual Sins: These are the worst of sins and do the most damage. They are sins such as pride (self-centeredness), blasphemy (disrespect toward God or His Church) and apostasy (the direct denial of faith).
Carnal Sins: These are sins of the flesh. Galatians 5:19–21 outlines the sins of the flesh: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.”
Sins of Commission vs. Omission: The more serious sins we have are most often the things we actively and intentionally do: sins of commission. We commit an offense against God or our neighbor. But there are also sins of “omission,” meaning that we failed to do something we should. We failed in virtue, mercy, kindness, or the like. This is neglect on our part and is still sin.
Spiritual Imperfections: Related to sins of omission are spiritual imperfections. These are sins that are simply a lack of perfect love. They are still sin but are more in the realm of a lack of perfect love rather than something we actively do. We will always find spiritual imperfections in our life, especially a lack of perfect faith, hope and charity.
Sins Against Virtue: Another distinction we can make regarding sin are those ways we fail to live virtue to perfection. A virtue is usually defined as “the means between the extremes.” Therefore, if we are excessive or lacking in an area of our life, we are most likely lacking in virtue. This lack of virtue is also a form of sin.
Object of Sin: There are traditionally three objects of our sin: God, neighbor or self. We can sin directly against God through disobedience and other spiritual sins. We sin against our neighbor with any lack of charity. But we can also sin against ourselves or with ourselves by sins such as gluttony, masturbation, self-pity, etc. Understanding the three possible objects of sin is of great benefit in overcoming sin.
Mortal vs. Venial: The most common distinction in sin is moral versus venial. More will be said on this below; but, for now, suffice it to say that moral sin refers to sins of the most serious nature, which completely cut off our relationship with God. Venial sins refer to every other type of sin that fails to reach the ultimate level of being mortal.
Thought, Word or Deed: A final traditional distinction is to identify where the sin resides. We can sin simply in our thoughts. Thoughts can then, also, turn into sins in our words or in our actions. Again, it’s helpful to be able to identify which type of sin we have.
Gravity of Sin
The most common distinction we make in sin is that of mortal vs. venial. It’s important to know the difference and the effects that each type of sin has on us. It’s also important to know the difference so that we know how to overcome each form of these sins.
Venial Sin: Venial sin is basically every sin that fails to rise to the grave level of mortal sin. If it is sin and is not mortal, then it’s venial. Venial sins can be sins of commission or sins of omission. They can also be spiritual imperfections. The best way to understand venial sin is to look at it in the light of mortal sin. Again, if our sin is not mortal, then it falls to the level of venial.
Venial sins do not have the power to completely sever our relationship with God. But they do have the effect of harming our relationship with God and doing damage to our own soul. Venial sins can build upon themselves, leading to other venial sins. However, a thousand venial sins can never equal a mortal sin. A mortal sin is of a completely different category. With that said, it’s also important to note that venial sins, especially when they grow in number, can weaken us such that we are more likely to commit a mortal sin.
Venial sins are forgiven in Confession but can also be forgiven through prayer, by receiving Holy Communion and through a good act of contrition. But Confession is the ideal place to receive forgiveness for venial sins since this Sacrament adds a special grace to the area we need it the most.
Mortal Sin: Mortal sin is the most serious sin, and its effect is to be understood by its very name: mortal. Mortal means deadly; therefore, mortal sin completely kills the grace of God in our heart. It leaves us spiritually dead and lacking in charity and hope.
Interestingly, mortal sin does not necessarily destroy faith in our lives. It certainly attacks our faith and confuses it, but faith is still possible while in mortal sin. In fact, it is that enduring ability to have faith that can have the effect of enabling one to repent of mortal sin and return to God.
However, even though faith is not necessarily completely destroyed by mortal sin, hope and charity are. The soul in unrepentant mortal sin is not able to hope in God in any way and is not capable of offering the charity which results from sanctifying grace.
Understanding mortal sin can seem a bit technical and hard to understand on a practical level. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand the nature of mortal sin (as explained above) as well as the conditions of committing a mortal sin. The conditions are as follows:
Grave Matter: For a sin to be mortal, the first condition is that the action done is grave. This can be hard to distinguish at times for some sins, but other sins are clear. Any grave violation of the Ten Commandments should be considered grave matter. Here are some obvious examples: Murder, violence, arson, theft, adultery, fornication, abortion, blasphemy, apostasy, etc. These are some of the most grievous acts one can commit. It’s true that all of these actions can be done to a lesser degree, but for them to be grave we should think of these actions being done to the most serious degree.
Full Knowledge: A second necessary condition of mortal sin is that one performs the grave act with full knowledge that it is gravely wrong. Note that the word “full” is used here to qualify one’s knowledge. It’s not just a matter of suspecting it’s wrong or even being pretty certain; rather, there must be a complete understanding of the seriousness and gravity of the action. “Full” means 100%. God knows if we know the gravity of the sin, and He knows if we are ignorant. Hopefully, if we are honest with ourselves, we will also be able to admit to the depth of our knowledge and admit when we do in fact have full knowledge.
Complete Consent: Again, note here the use of the word “complete” to qualify the type of consent given. It’s not enough to simply do the action; it must also be done in a completely free way by one’s own free will. Complete, once again, means done freely with 100% of your free will. Anything less than 100% does not meet the requirement of mortal sin.
With a basic understanding of these three conditions of mortal sin, we can also see that any lacking in one of these three conditions immediately lessens the personal responsibility one may have; thus, the sin only becomes venial. It doesn’t mean that the sin is any less wrong, it just means we may not be as personally responsible for what we have done; thus, we may not have completely, 100%, cut off our relationship with God.
For now it is sufficient to understand these basic principles of sin. Later in this book, when we look at specific sins, we will use these three conditions to help highlight the more practical difference between mortal and venial sin.
Next Chapter: Chapter 2 – The Law, Society, Grace and Salvation
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