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William E. May

At the extraordinary synod of Bishops in January, 1985, called to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican Council II, the synod Fathers expressed the desire that a catechism or compendium of Catholic doctrine on faith and morals be prepared according to the mind of the Council. This desire was wholeheartedly endorsed by Pope John Paul II, who appointed a committee of bishops to draft the catechism. On October 11, 1992, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic constitution Fidei depositum, authorizing publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1992, the text of the Catechism, which had been written in French, was formally presented to the public by the Holy Father.

The French text was soon translated into the major modern languages, with the English-language text appearing in 1994 after serious debate over the first draft of the translation and correction and emendation of it. In 1997 the official Latin text of the new Catechism, containing minor corrections and revisions of the original French text, was made public, and these corrections and revisions were subsequently incorporated into the various vernacular editions.

The Catechism contains four principal parts. Part One, entitled “The Profession of Faith,” offers an extensive synthesis of the truths of the Catholic faith as set forth in the Creed. Part Two, entitled “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery,” presents the liturgy and sacraments of the Church. Part Three, called “Life in Christ,” is concerned with the Christian moral life. Part Four, with the title “Christian Prayer,” sets forth the indispensable role of prayer in the life of the Christian and focuses on the petitions of the “Lord’s Prayer.” Each part is subdivided into sections, chapters, and articles, and each paragraph of the entire catechism is numbered, for a total of 2,865 numbered paragraphs. Helpful summary sections, called “In Brief,” are given at the conclusion of each article into which the various parts, sections, and chapters are divided.

As noted already, Part Three of the catechism is devoted to a consideration of the Christian moral life. In the introduction to his encyclical Veritatis splendor (1995) Pope John Paul II stated that one of the reasons delaying the final preparation and promulgation of this encyclical was that “it seemed fitting for it to be preceded by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains a complete and systematic exposition of Christian moral teaching” (Veritatis splendor, no. 5). Thus in his encyclical, which deals with “certain fundamental questions regarding the Church’s moral teaching, taking the form of a necessary discernment about issues being debated by ethicists and moral theologians,” the Holy Father refers frequently to “the Catechism ‘as a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine” (ibid., no. 5, with an internal citation from his apostolic constitution Fidei depositum, no. 4).

A Synopsis of the Catechism’s Teaching on the Christian Moral Life

One can gain a synoptic view of the Catechism’s teaching on the Christian moral life simply by glancing at its contents. This part of the Catechism contains two main sections. Section One is called “Man’s Vocation: Life in the Spirit” (nos. 1699-2051). This section includes a short introduction (no. 1699) and three chapters, namely, “The Dignity of the Human Person” (nos. 1700-1876), “The Human Community” (nos. 1877-1948), and “God’s Salvation: Law and Grace” (nos. 1949-2051). The chapter on the dignity of the human person contains a brief introduction (no. 1700) and eight articles: (1) “Man: The Image of God” (nos. 1701-1715); (2) “Our Vocation to Beatitude” (nos. 1716-1729); (3) “Man’s Freedom” (nos. 1730-1748); (4) “The Morality of Human Acts” (nos. 1749-1761); (5) “The Morality of the Passions” (nos. 1762-1775); (6) “Moral Conscience” (nos. 1776-1802); (7) “The Virtues” (nos. 1803-1845); and (8) “Sin” (nos. 1846-1876). The chapter on the human community embraces a brief introduction (no. 1877) and three articles: (1) The Person and Society” (nos. 1878-1896); (2) Participation in Social Life” (nos. 1897-1927); and (3) “Social Justice” (nos. 1928-1948). The chapter on God’s salvation through law and grace is broken up into a short introduction (no. 1949) and three articles: (1) “The Moral Law” (nos.1950-1986); (2) “Grace and Justification” (nos. 1987-2029); andd (3) “The Church: Mother and Teacher” (nos. 2030-2051).

The second section of Part Three, on the Ten Commandments, begins with a lengthy introduction (nos. 2052-2082), and is then divided into two chapters. Of these, the first, entitled “You Shall Love the Lord Your God with All Your Heart and with All Your Soul, and with All Your Mind” (nos. 2083-2195), contains three articles, dealing, respectively, with the first commandment (nos. 2084-2141), the second commandment (nos. 2142-2167), and the third commandment (nos. 2168-2195). Its second chapter, called “You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” (nos. 2196-2557), is naturally subdivided into seven articles, dealing, respectively, with the fourth commandment (nos. 2197-2257), the fifth commandment (nos. 2258-2330), the sixth commandment (nos. 2331-2400), the seventh commandment (nos. 2401-2463), the eighth commandment (nos. 2464-2513), the ninth commandment (nos. 2514-2533), and the tenth commandment (nos. 2534-2557).

From the above we can grasp the scope of the Catechism’s  presentation of the Christian moral life. But a listing of its contents does not help us to understand its spirit and its way of conceiving the Christian moral life. An initial insight into the spirit of the Catechism’s understanding of the Christian moral life is afforded, I believe, by two bishops who were members of the committee charged with drafting the document. One of them, Jean Honoré, Archbishop of Tours in France, commenting on Section One of Part Three of the Catechism—“Man’s Vocation: Life in the Spirit”—observed that the bishops were aware “of the pitfall to be avoided in presenting and describing Christian life in terms of a code of morality, as a treatise of good behavior….The ultimate sense could only be the one radiating from the Beatitudes, and the motivation none other than that of the sequela Christi (following Christ), a sequela Christi seen not only as the imitation of a model viewed from the outside, but as a true identification with Christ’s inner being, consisting entirely in a relationship and submission to the Father, and in the perfection of witnessing by a life belonging entirely to him….This is the heart of the insight that was to introduce and give unity to the chapter on morality: the faith of the disciple, expressed in the Creed, celebrated in the sacraments, is revealed in the witness of life and the response given to the Gospel’s call to perfection.”[1] .The second, David Everyman Konstant, Bishop of Leeds in England, commenting on section two of Part Three—“The Ten Commandments”—and anticipating the objection that by giving the commandments such prominence there is the danger that Christian morality will be perceived asss a set of negative injunctions, stressed that “the purpose of the commandments in general, as they come to us [through the living Catholic tradition], is not to restrict freedom but to open the way to a truly liberated life. To do this it is necessary to mark off those ways which lead by the route of illusory satisfactions, to falsity and to death.” Continuing, he cited the text of The Didache (I, 1) wherein it is affirmed that “there are two ways, the one leading to life, the other to death, and between the two there is a  great difference.” He then went on to point out that “the commandments do not stand in splendid isolation….[Rather], as a framework for moral catechesis they provide the structure into which other themes [those of grace, of the Beatitudes, of the virtues, of sin and forgiveness, of life in the Spirit and in the community of the Church] are woven.” [2]

Further insights into the meaning of the Christian moral life as set forth in the Catechism are provided by Dionigi Tettamanzi, for long one of the most outstanding moral theologians in Italy and now Cardinal Archbishop of Genoa. Cardinal Tettamanzi has written, perceptively, that “the Catechism immediately places us within the context of life, of the new life given by faith and by the sacraments and that requires the free and generous response of Christians. We read at the very beginning of Part Three, dedicated to the Christian moral life, the following: ‘Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1.27). They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer’ (no. 1692).”  Continuing, Tettamanzi says, “there is no separation between Christ and the Christian moral life because for the believer morality is not, above all, the effort of a person to constitute himself, but it is a gift of grace, a gift of imitating and following Jesus Christ, his sentiments, his virtues, his life. The ‘come, follow me,’ signifies the invitation to believe in Christ and to live by following him, acquiring in particular his new commandment, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 15.12). The point of departure for the Christian moral life is to recognize who man is, his vocation, his dignity and destiny.”[3]

I will now attempt to present more fully and comment on the essential core of the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church relevant to an introduction to moral theology.

The Essential Meaning of Christian Morality According to the Catechism

We can best grasp the essential understanding of Christian morality as set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church by focusing attention on the following issues: (1) the moral life as a dynamic endeavor on the part of human persons to become fully the beings  God wills them to be; (2) our absolute dependence upon God to enable us to become fully the beings he wills us to be; (3) the God-given authority of the Church as Mother and Teacher; and (4) what we must do in cooperation with God’s grace in order to become fully the beings God wills us to be.

1. The Moral Life as an Endeavor on the Part of Human Persons to Become Fully the Beings God Wills Them to Be

The first chapter of the first section of Part Three of the Catechism focuses on the dignity of the human person and in its first article takes up the theme that man is indeed the image of the all-holy God. The very first paragraph of the first article (no. 1701) of this chapter begins with a beautiful citation from Vatican Council II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Gaudium et spes (no. 22), one constantly on the lips of Pope John Paul II, namely, that “Christ….makes man fully manifest to man himself and brings to light his exalted vocation” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1710).

This chapter then develops the truths that human persons, created in the image and likeness of God, are gifted with intelligence, whereby they can come to know the truth, and with free choice, whereby they can determine their own lives by their own choices (nos. 1704-1706, 1711-1712, 1730-1748). In addition, it reminds us that, because of original sin, we are inclined toward evil and subject to error (nos. 1707, 1714), but that God, in his great mercy, has sent us his only begotten Son to redeem us from sin and to enable us, dead to sin through baptism and made new creatures in Christ, to live worthily as children of God, called to be members of the divine family and to life eternal in union with him (nos. 170801709, 1715). Indeed, the Catechism centers attention on the beatitudes, the “blessings,” spoken by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3-12), emphasizing that these great promises of our Lord make clear to us the actions and the attitudes that should characterize Christian moral life (nos. 1716-1717, 1725-1726). Along with the Decalogue, the “ten words” of God himself so central to salvation history and to the apostolic catechesis, the beatitudes of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount describe for us the path leading to God’s kingdom (no., 1724; cf. nos. 1728-1729). Indeed, as Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, who was responsible for the final drafting of the Catechism, has said: “Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the great guidebook to living happily. The eight Beatitudes address ways that make man ‘blessed,’ bring him a happiness that is more than being cheerful….The life experience of so many Christians, saints both known and unknown, testifies that a life led according to the Sermon on the Mount means even now—in the midst of many sorrows and sufferings—incomparable happiness, an anticipation of eternal joy (cf. Catechism, no. 1723).” [4]

The first three articles of the first chapter of section one of Part Three, in short, portray the Christian moral life as a dynamic endeavor on the part of human persons to become fully the beings God wills them to be: his own children, brothers and sisters of Jesus, the one who was obedient to death and whose only will was to carry out the wise and loving plan of his heavenly Father for human existence.

2. Our Absolute Dependence Upon God to Enable Us to Become Fully the Beings He Wills Us to Be

As already noted, the initial articles of the first chapter of section one of Part Three remind us of the truths that, as beings made in God’s image, we are endowed with intelligence, whereby we can discover the truth, including moral truth, and with freedom of choice, whereby we determine our own lives and selves. They likewise remind us that, because of sin, we are prone to evil and to error and that it is only by participating in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus that we are enabled to live worthily as God’s children and in this way become fully the beings he wills us to be. These great truths are developed in greater detail in the second article of chapter three of this section, the arricle devoted to justification and grace. There it is made clear to us that we do not justify ourselves, but that it is God in his goodness who reconciles sinful men and women to himself by the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured into the hearts of all those who, through baptism, participate in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. nos. 1987ff). It is only through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Christ merited for us by his life of obedience and his self-sacrificing death on the cross, that we are able to share in his redemptive act, to be converted from sin to accept—freely—God’s gift of justification (nos. 1968-1993).

By the power of the Holy Spirit sanctifying grace—a sharing in God’s divine nature—is poured into our hearts so that we are made holy and enabled to live worthily as God’s very own children (nos. 1996-2000; cf. nos. 2017-2027). Precisely because we are now truly God’s children, who share in the divine nature just as his Son shares fully our human nature, we are called to a life of perfection, of holiness (nos. 2012-2016; cf. nos. 2028-2029).

Our responsibility is to cooperate with the grace freely given us by the most merciful God. We can do nothing of our own to merit eternal life, to merit membership in the divine family. But God made us to be the kind of beings we are, intelligent and free, precisely because he willed that there be beings to whom he could give his own life. He freely offers us this life in Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and inwardly moves us freely to accept his offer, but he will not force himself upon us. We are free to sin, to choose death rather than life, but as our best and wisest friend God is always with us with his never-failing offer of grace, to enable us to become, freely, the beings he wills us to be. This is the core message of the second article, “Grace and Justification,” of the third chapter of section one of Part Three.

3. The God-given Authority of the Church as Mother and Teacher

This matter is taken up in the third article of chapter three of the first section of Part Three. The Catechism first notes that it is in the Church, the communion of all the baptized, that Christians fulfill their vocation, one that requires them, as St. Paul says (cf. Rom 12.1), to offer their bodies as holy and acceptable sacrifices to God (nos. 2030-2031).

The Catechism, following the teaching of Vatican Council II, emphasizes that the magisterium of the Church, invested in the college of bishops under the headship of the Roman Pontiff, has the God-given authority and responsibility to teach in Christ’s name the saving truths of faith and morals (nos. 2033-2034). Moreover, it affirms that the charism of infallibility extends to those elements of Catholic doctrine, including those concerning the moral life, without which the saving truths of the gospel cannot be safeguarded, faithfully presented, and observed (no. 2035). In fact, the Catechism insists, the authority of the magisterium extends to specific precepts of the natural law insofar as the observance of these precepts is required by our Creator and is necessary for our salvation. In proclaiming these truths of natural law the magisterium exercises a truly prophetic role for humankind (no. 2036). The faithful, the Catechism teaches, have the right to be instructed according to the mind of the magisterium, and they have the duty to shape their lives in accordance with its authoritative teaching (no. 2037). All the faithful should have an attitude of filial love for the Church, their Mother and Teacher (no. 2040).

4. What We Must Do in Order to Become Fully the Beings God Wills Us to Be

The Catechism insists that human persons, precisely because they are endowed with freedom of choice, are, as it were, the mothers and fathers of their own acts (cf. no. 1749). They are obliged to choose in accordance with the truth if they are to be fully the beings God wills them to be.

Article one, “The Moral Law” (nos. 1950-1986) of the third chapter of Part Three, is devoted to an articulation of the great truths of the moral order in accordance with which good moral choice can be made. Here the Catechism, following Vatican Council II (and St. Thomas and the Catholic tradition), insists that God’s divine and eternal law, his wise and loving plan for human existence, is the highest norm of human life and action (no. 1950; cf. no. 1975). But God has enabled his rational creatures, men and women, to participate actively in this wise and loving plan through the natural law (no. 1954; cf. no. 1978). The natural law is universal and immutable (nos. 1956, 1958). Although the application of the natural law can vary according to circumstances (no. 1957), this law is nonetheless one that unites human persons and imposes upon them common principles and norms that always retain their substantive value (no. 1958). Moreover, it is no easy task to grasp the precepts of the natural law in a clear and immediate way; in our actual condition, as persons wounded by sin, God’s grace and revelation are necessary for sinful human persons to come to know rightly the religious and moral truths needed for an upright moral life (cf. no. 1960).

The natural law is fulfilled and perfected by the new law or evangelical law (no. 1965). In essence this law consists in the grace of the Holy Spirit poured into the hearts of the faithful through faith in Christ (no. 1966). The faithful, who are called to develop within themselves (with the help of God’s never-failing grace) the dispositions marked out by the beatitudes of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (no. 1967), must likewise keep God’s commandments (no. 1968). By reason of their union with Christ, Christians are summoned to love even as they have been and are loved by God in Christ, with a healing, redemptive, sacrificial love (nos. 1970-1972).

In discussing the morality of human acts in the fourth article of chapter three of the first section of Part Three, the Catechism makes it clear that the sources for the morality of a human act are the object chosen (what one is doing here and now), the end for whose sake the object is chosen, and the circumstances in which the action takes place (no. 1750)—and that all of these elements must be morally good, i.e., in accordance with moral truth, if the whole human act is to be morally good (no. 1755). The Catechism clearly identifies the object as the subject matter of the human act as willed and chosen by the agent (e.g., freely chosen intercourse with one’s wife [the marital act], freely chosen intercourse with one’s daughter [incest]) (no. 1751). It insists that a good intention, in the sense of the intention of the end for whose sake an object is chosen (and intended as an object of one’s free choice) cannot justify the means chosen if this means is evil (immoral) by reason of its object (no. 1753). It likewise clearly affirms that there are specific kinds of acts, specified by their freely chosen objects, that are always wrong for one to choose, e.g., fornication, precisely because the willingness to choose an object of this kind displays a disordered will, i.e., moral evil (no. 1755). In other words, the Catechism clearly teaches that there are some kind of human acts, specified by the object of choice, that are intrinsically evil and that, corresponding to such acts, there are absolute moral norms, admitting of no exceptions.

In the second section of the Third Part of the Catechism, devoted to a consideration of the Ten Commandments, various kinds of intrinsically evil acts, proscribed by absolute moral norms, are clearly identified: the intentional killing of innocent human persons (cf. no. 2273), as in infanticide (no. 2268), abortion (no. 2281), mercy killing or euthanasia (no. 2277), and suicide (no. 2281); masturbation (no. 2352); fornication (no. 2353); rape (no. 2356); homosexual acts (no. 2357); adultery (no. 2380-2381). The Catechism clearly proclaims, along with Pope Paul VI, that contraception, described as every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, during its accomplishment, or in the development of its consequences, proposes either as end or means to impede procreation, “is intrinsically evil” (no. 2370)

There can be no doubt that the Catechism firmly upholds the Catholic tradition that there are some kinds of human acts, specified by the objects freely chosen, that are intrinsically evil and proscribed by absolute moral norms. A willingness to do acts of these kinds is utterly incompatible with Christian life, with the life of God’s very  own children.

More positively, Christians are called, as we have seen already, to love with the redemptive, healing, and reconciling love of Jesus, a love utterly at odds with a willingness to do evil so that good may come about, and to shape their whole lives in accordance not only with the Ten Commandments but also with the internal dispositions marked out by the beatitudes. To choose in accordance with the truth and to be unwilling freely to do evil is what we must do if we are to become fully the beings God wills us to be and enables us to be through the grace of the Holy Spirit, won for us by his Son’s life of obedience to the Father’s holy will.



* This paper is a revised version of  Chapter Seven, “Christian Moral Life and the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” of my book  An Introduction to Moral Theology (rev. ed. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1994), pp.249-258.

[1] Jean Honoré, “Catechism Presents Morality as a Lived Experience of Faith in Christ,” Reflections on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, compiled by Rev. James P. Socias (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1993), pp. 139-140.

[2] David Everyman Konstant, “The Ten Commandments Provide a Positive Framework for Life in Christ,” in Reflections on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 146.

[3] Dionigi Cardinal Tettamanzi, Viaggio nel Nuovo Catechismo (Casale Monferrato: Edizioni Piemme, 1993), p. 38.

[4] Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vol. 3. Life in Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), pp. 17-18..

Copyright ©; William E. May 2002

Version: 18th March 2002

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