Ideals or Commandments? by Monsignor Ferrarese

There is a tension in moral theology between two tendencies: On one side are those who see living the moral life to be a following of the Commandments, whether they are easy or hard. Just like a West Point Cadet, the response to failure in this regard is the terse response: No excuse!

In this way of thinking and believing, God never asks us to do something that is beyond our strength. Hence, when there is weakness, God’s strength supplies what is needed.

In contrast to this way of looking at the moral life, there are those who consider the Church’s teaching to be a set of ideals or guidelines that we are asked to try to fulfill. In this approach, one is not judged so much on the accomplishment of the Commandment, but on the effort used to try to do it. In contrast to the no excuses response, people with this understanding have a gradual approach to fulfilling the moral law. “Do the best you can” is their mantra.

This second approach to moral living was expressly rejected by Saint John Paul II in his encyclical entitled “Veritatis Splendor” or the “Splendor of Truth”. He called this approach ‘gradualism’. The moral life as displayed in that encyclical was under the guidance of God Himself who gives to each person the wisdom and strength to accomplish what was called for. This Papal teaching seeks to portray moral reservations of a teaching’s do-ability as part of the struggle of being a good Christian. But the following of the difficult commandment, says Saint John Paul II, should never be put outside the realm of possibility.

This teaching has many consequences for the day-to-day life of the average Catholic. Often, when an individual is at variance with the moral law, they express the hope that maybe the law will change in the future.

But true change is not possible with issues that have been consistently taught over many centuries. To question these teachings and to ascertain they will change is a misunderstanding of the binding force of tradition. Would the Holy Spirit be leading the Church wrongly all these years?

This, of course, brings up the whole area of the development of doctrine.

It is clear that one can grow in the understanding of a particular teaching without having to throw it out because it was superseded by modern development. I believe it was the great medieval theologian St. Vincent of Lerins who used the paradigmatic image of the growth of a human being as being analogous to the development of dogma: As someone grows from childhood to adulthood to old age, one surely changes in ways of seeing the world and expressing one’s essence. But, says St. Vincent, it is still the same person who has grown and developed over many years. So it is with Church teaching: it can develop, but it is always the same teaching. It cannot so change that it is a contradiction to the initial teaching. A baby zebra can become an old zebra, but never a kangaroo!

So we are left with a teaching that says what it means; and the responsibility of us all is in following it as best as we are able, without watering it down or making it an ideal. That some of the moral teaching of the Church seems difficult to do may be accurate, but one must also admit that one can have a very inadequate idea of the power of God’s grace and its ability to forge new possibilities in the soul of the Christian.

Often, there is an underlying false assumption that the Church is merely an antiquated institution that will eventually catch up with modern life. A more vainly human way of putting it is: “Sooner or later the Church will come to see that I am right and it will find ways to show that it is ok to believe what I now see as the truth.” Stated this boldly, we can see the inadequate way it is formulated. A humbler understanding would be: “Perhaps the Church in her wisdom sees something that the modern world and I do not see?” However, it has become, unfortunately, a rule to see the person and their wisdom as infallible and the Church as a plodding old institution that refuses to change. This, to put it mildly, is highly inaccurate.

We need to get beyond the false dichotomy of ideal and real to the truer division between truth and falsehood. We also should understand that God’s power is limitless and only awaits an open and courageous heart.

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