In this year of Matthew’s Gospel at Sunday Mass, we begin a period of six weeks listening to Our Lord’s teaching on the moral life of the Christian disciple.
It is the famous Sermon on the Mount and begins with eight beatitudes or blessings. So, this Sunday we might benefit from a short introduction to the Catholic tradition of reflection on what it means to live a good life as a follower of Jesus. In other words, a peek at moral theology down through the years!
One thing we are familiar with is the close link between morality and law. After all, these two value systems share a similar terminology, mainly to do with commandments, principles, and rules. As well as the law of the land, we must obey God’s Law, the one given to Moses in the Ten Commandments.
As well as legal rights and obligations we have moral or ethical ones. But, although there is a certain overlap between the systems, they are significantly different. Why, for instance, is there both a moral and a legal rule forbidding killing, but usually only a moral rule against adultery?
In the case of Jesus, he doesn’t appear to emphasise rules and obligations very much. In fact, he is heavily critical of the legalism of the Pharisees, getting quite animated when they say there is a law forbidding healing a person on the Sabbath Day. When a rich young asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus directs him to the Commandments, but immediately qualifies this, saying “If you wish to be perfect, leave everything and follow me.”
But this is an invitation, not a command! When the man rejects the offer, Jesus is sad, but he doesn’t call down punishment from heaven on this sad creature.
Much of the Catholic moral tradition applied a legal model for morality, a good example being the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession. Recall the great focus on listing the sins committed but without much attention to the root cause of sins that lie in the heart of the person, especially the attitudes expressed in those very actions. A focus on external actions may be good law, but it is poor morality! It is like a doctor addressing the symptoms of an ill patient, while ignoring the main issue, e.g., a cancer growing within.
So, we see that there is another way of looking at morality, which is closer to the way Jesus summarised in the Sermon on the Mount. He doesn’t begin the sermon calling on people to be obedient to laws; he begins with blessings, a reference to the aim of morality which is human flourishing and happiness. Traditionally we call this a virtue approach to the moral life.
One way of looking at virtue is to examine our attitudes towards others and towards life in general.
An attitude is a combination of a belief and taking up a stance or position regarding that belief. Attitudes are rarely neutral. You either approve of, or reject, something, are attracted, or repelled, look positively or negatively on some reality. You can hold a belief that asylum seekers are sleeping rough on the streets of your town, but your attitude is to do with whether you look on those persons with sympathy or hostility.
Our attitudes will colour how we act or fail to act.
So, Jesus begins his moral teaching with his Be-Attitudes or attitudes for being his follower. He doesn’t work on us from without, like a lawgiver imposing his will, but from within, from the heart and that special part of heart and mind we call conscience.
The Spirit of Jesus lives within us, inspiring us, sweetly suggesting that something must be done if we are to be true to our identity as God’s children, sisters, and brothers of Jesus. An overly legal approach to morality misses out on this core issue. And Jesus insists, it is not that which goes into a person that corrupts them but what comes from inside, the heart. “Blessed are the Pure of Heart for they shall see God.”
The quality of our actions stems from the quality of our attitudes. Positive attitudes make us virtuous, negative ones make us literally vicious. This is why, in a real sense, that how we do things may be more important than what we do.
“God loveth adverbs” was a saying that comes from Bishop Hall, an Anglican moralist of the 17th century. Adverbs tell us how an action is done – slowly or quickly, patiently, or impatiently, willingly or grudgingly.
These distinctions do not matter to lawyers and judges so long as you do the right thing, but they are essential for us to judge properly moral character.
The Beatitudes are like a moral and spiritual autobiography of Jesus. They are the very attitudes that caused him to act as the Son of God, the Saviour. He went around healing people lovingly, compassionately. He forgave sinners mercifully. He fed the crowds and changed water into wine oh so generously. All those “ly” adverbs speak of a morality as a quality, not a quantity.
It lies in the heart above all. And this is why in coming weeks, when we hear Our Lord speak about particular kinds of action we need to perform, e.g., not judging, turning the other cheek, praying, fasting and almsgiving, we need to return to the Beatitudes to see how these external actions must come from the relevant attitudes of mind and heart, for without the proper attitude much of our so-called morality is bogus.
Jesus is called the “Sacred Heart” and no wonder! Was there ever such a loving, caring, virtuous heart dwelling in a human being, perhaps with the exception of Our Lady? And Jesus wants us to have a heart like his by practising these Be-Attitudes. To have these Christ-like attitudes can put the needed “heart” into a morality based on law.
So, dear friends, “Have a heart” but make it a Jesus one!