Catholic morality is about life: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10)
Faith & baptism give us new life in Christ. That life involves far more than simply following a set of rules.
This article provides an overview of basic principles of Catholic morality.
It is essential to know these principles: they are the how-to manual for living fully your new life, for obtaining that abundant life Christ has promised you.
The Catholic Catechism starts its section on Catholic morality with St. Leo the Great's beautiful words:
Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God's own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God. (Catechism, #1691)
Morality is a call to recognize our dignity as men and women who have received a free gift of new life in Christ. We must live accordingly.
The Law of Love
Our Lord Jesus himself clearly taught us the first principles of Catholic morality:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." (Mt 22:37-40)
Love, or charity, is the great commandment of the Lord.
Love of God and love of neighbor are the source & summary of Catholic morality. "All the law and the prophets" flow from this starting point.
This means that what love requires is the essence of all moral rules, all of the Ten Commandments, and all aspects of morality spoken of by the prophets and even by Christ himself. The only things needed are those things which love makes necessary.
It is also important to say that love does, indeed, require many things!
In fact, it takes only a few simple steps of logic to deduce the Ten Commandments and most of the rest of Catholic morality from this starting point.
Those moral precepts describe the minimum that love requires.
"What do you mean, the minimum?"
Catholic morality's basic moral code describes the minimum necessary to live in union with Christ. If we fall below that level, then the life of Christ cannot live within us.
That's the meaning of mortal sin: an action which shows God that we refuse his offer to become "children of God" (John 1:12) and "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4).
So if that's the minimum, then what's the maximum that love requires? Again, Jesus provides the answer:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)
The maximum, then, is to completely give ourselves for others, even as Christ did for us.
To put it more simply: there is no maximum! We'll always find that we can give more.
So how do we ever live up to this demand?
Grace to the rescue!
The demand to love without limit is very demanding.
Christ's disciples thought so, too!
They couldn't believe that the demands of discipleship far exceeded human ability: "When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, 'Then who can be saved?'" (Mt 19:25)
Jesus's response to them reveals the key: "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Mt 19:26).
It is not you who will save yourself, it is God who saves you!
If you let him, God will give you the strength and ability to do more than you can believe is possible. And the more you give, the more help God will give you. We call this grace.
It is the Holy Spirit himself who gives us the gift of grace. He not only calls us to holiness, but he sanctifies us (makes us holy) and gives us the grace we need to respond to his own call.
Once you begin to accept grace, you'll find that it changes you in wonderful ways:
- There are seven specific Gifts of the Holy Spirit. For the beginning Catholic, they are particularly important: they help us to make progress with greater ease and stronger love during the challenging early stages of Christian life.
- The Holy Spirit will develop many excellent qualities in your life. These fruits are countless, but following St. Paul, the Church lists twelve specific Fruits of the Spirit.
- Much of the spirit's work within us involves developing the virtues and helping us avoid the vices.
More than anything, though, the Holy Spirit gradually moves us toward the ultimate goal of virtue: to love and act with the heart of Christ himself. This state is described by The Beatitudes, which begin the beautiful "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew's Gospel, chapters 5-7.
They are not just a set of nice ideals: "The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus' preaching" (Catechism, #1716). They are a radical call to live according to a new set of standards.
The Beatitudes are a self-portrait of Christ. If you aspire to live in Christ, you will strive to make the Beatitudes your own.
It's important to understand a few basics about Catholic morality before we look at the actual moral code itself. These basics used to be a part of our culture, but now they're under widespread attack by the culture.
There is a lot of confusion in the Church about these basics right now. You need to know them well yourself, or you're at risk for being steered off the right path. (See the importance of orthodoxy for more.)
These are basic concepts in Catholic moral theology:
- Natural law
There's a lot to say about these, but I'll keep it short. It boils down to this:
- God creates us in the state of freedom. We are at liberty to choose, based on reason and will, whether to act or not in a specific situation. We are responsible for our choices. With these choices, we choose our own ultimate destiny: that of eternal life with God, or that of death.
- We believe that moral truth is objective, and not relative to the subjective whims of culture or taste. It is valid at all times & everywhere. God is the ultimate source of all moral truth.
- People have an innate sense of basic moral truth. Using human reason, we can deduce the principles of this natural law. But because sin clouds our vision of the truth, God has chosen to directly reveal the law to us.
- We use our natural facility called conscience to apply the general principles of the law to specific situations, judging specific actions to be right or wrong in accordance with objective law. (Conscience is not the source of those moral principles!)
Understanding these basic principles of Catholic morality will help you avoid a lot of trouble. (Believe me, it's hard enough to avoid trouble even when you do understand these!)
"But what are the rules?"
Okay, so Catholic morality does have an actual moral code that you need to know!
But just remember: this moral code doesn't represent the summit of Catholic morality. It is a description of the most basic requirements of the command to love God and love neighbor.
Focus on the Beatitudes as your goal, but make sure that you don't fall below the minimum level of Christian living.
Here's the basic content of these "minimum requirements", the moral law:
- The Catholic Ten Commandments describe "the conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin" (Catechism, 2057).
- Each Commandment is simply a summary of a whole category of actions. For example, "bearing false witness against your neighbor" covers any kind of falsehood: perjury, lying, slander, detraction, bragging, rash judgment, etc.
(I address some specific issues in the next section, below.)
- The Commandments must be understood in relation to the "law of love." (That's why we discussed it at length above!)
- The Precepts of the Catholic Church are a small number of things related to the Church that any good Catholic must do at an absolute minimum. They describe things like the necessity to worship at Mass at least each Sunday and on Catholic holy days of obligation, go to Confession at least once a year, etc.
(Also be sure to read the section on Catholic morality in your Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
Willing & knowing violation of one of the above items (the Ten Commandments and Precepts of the Church) is considered a mortal sin: it constitutes rejection of God's law, and of God himself.
Such rejection can be repaired only by true contrition, repentance, and seeking forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation as soon as possible. (A detailed Catholic examination of conscience is essential for preparing for Confession.)
Again, remember that this moral code is only a description of some of the minimum requirements of Catholic morality. True Christian life not only requires much more of us, but...
...it is also incredibly positive in the blessings that it brings!
As Jesus himself said, "theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." (Mt 5:3).
There are certain moral issues that people have a lot of questions about. I've addressed some of these special topics in Catholic morality in separate articles.
There's a special article about Christian sex that takes a detailed look at that important topic of Catholic morality! It describes the basic principles of Catholic sexual morality.
The article Catholic annulment discusses Catholic marriage and annulment in detail.
Onward... to life!
I hope you've found this tour of the basics of Catholic morality to be useful.
These principles are a description of how we live the life of Christ. It is essential for every Catholic to know them!
Remember above all else:
- The law of love is primary.
- The "law and the prophets" are summarized by the command to love God and neighbor.
- The basic moral precepts of Catholic morality are a minimum level below which we must not go.
- This is about life — "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).
In Christ, God is making you the most incredible offer. Will you accept it?
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