There is a huge dividing line between those that look on moral theology and morals in general as the pursuit of human happiness or merely the duty of obligation. It is a difference of understanding our human nature and its end, or of merely following the arbitrary rules of a God who is simply “in charge.”
Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and the Catholic faith have always emphasized the former, without neglecting the obligation it entails. Thus human happiness is brought about by the perfecting of the specifically human powers, in which the passions play an important role. These passions, being morally neutral, are rightly to be brought under human reason, as they are the third power of human beings (the others being will and intellect).
All this leads to the question of why the virtues are so important for Pope John Paul II, and that moral instruction is more than just an examination of sin. “There are two interior sources of moral formation and one exterior one. The internal sources are virtue and sin; the other exterior source is grace.”1 Here we will examine the internal sources, especially virtue.
“The Beatitudes are not specifically concerned with certain particular rules of behaviour. Rather, they speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life and therefore they do not coincide exactly with the commandments… there is no separation or opposition between the Beatitudes and the commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life… In their originality and profundity they are a sort of self- portrait of Christ, and for this very reason are invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ.”2
There is no opposition between the beatitudes and the commandments. There is, we see, no opposition between the disposition we should obtain in our soul and rules we must follow. The commandments are not arbitrary rules of an arbitrary God, but invitations to communion of life with Christ.
The Catholic tradition has always been one of a freedom for excellence. The relationship between freedom and divine law will manifest itself in our virtues, for it is they that will allow us “to live our moral life in a way worthy of our sublime vocation as ‘sons in the Son’.”3 Human beings enjoy freedom of action, unlike rocks and even animals. With this freedom comes a responsibility to act in conformity to our end. Virtue is this quality of mind by which we live rightly, and cooperate in the seeking of our end.
We are not free to decide what our end is; that was done at our creation. But we are given the freedom to seek it an cooperate in obtaining it. Here, we recognize the eternal law and our status as both a servant and free. We do not make the law, but in freely following it we obtain our happiness. “The follower of Christ knows that his vocation is to freedom.”4
Following Christ is thus the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality… it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father.5 This is the central point then; sharing in His “free and loving” obedience. It is not just obedience, but “free and loving” obedience. The virtues are “a permanent quality which enables us to act in a way that is not only prompt and skillful, but full of zest and pleasure as well.”6
Our virtues are formed by way of habit, in that we do what is right and, in time, we are conformed to this way of acting. At first, it is often a struggle, but these habits conform us more and more to the Son, that we may “[share] in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father.” Our late Holy Father very much emphasized this loving obedience, not in contradiction to the obligation to obey, but because it is the peak of love, which acts not from being the slave, but the son.
In emphasizing the virtues, the Holy Father in no way neglected that grace is necessary. These habits are not formed from human effort alone, for if they were, they would never be obtained. “As universal and daily experience demonstrates, man is tempted to break that harmony: ‘I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want.’” 7 However, “Man always has before him the spiritual horizon of hope, thanks to the help of divine grace and with the cooperation of human freedom.”8
Certainly it is our duties to know what is sin and to avoid it. But loving God, which is both our obligation and our path to happiness, is not a mere meeting the minimum standard, but a life of freedom for excellence. It is loving God with all our mind, heart, and strength. The virtues are emphasized by John Paul II because they are what conforms us interiorly, not just exteriorly, to the beatific vision. After all, the beatitudes show us that it is our interior hearts that conform us to God. We are called, not to be Pharisees, who “are inside full of dead men’s bones,” but disciples, called “to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ.”9
- Mullady, Both a Servant and Free (pg. 187)
- Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 16
- Ibid, 18
- Ibid, 17
- Ibid, 19
- Brennan, Image (pg. 232)
- VS, 102
- Ibid, 103
- Ibid, 16