The Church & our lives

Teaching on ethics that is certain

Judas betraying Jesus. A fresco painting in the chapel of Calvary where Jesus was crucified

The Church points to two main sources of moral teaching, one is that found in human nature itself (the natural law), the other is that revealed by God (divine law). God has given the Church the gift to teach the truth about right living as well as correct believing.

One of the unique abilities of a human being is to be a master of his or her own acts. This enables us to be creative and to choose from among many possible good actions. Unfortunately, this freedom also enables us to choose things that are evil, that is, contrary to what is good for us and to what God commands. God greatly desires us to choose only what is good for us. God does not, however, force us to do good. As long as we are alive here, we remain free to choose between good and evil actions. The effects of both kinds of choice are evident in human society.

The Ten Commandments contain God’s specific codification of the main principles of the natural law. God revealed these commandments (Ex 20:2-17; Deut 5:6-21) because Original Sin made it hard for human beings to discern good from evil (ccc. 2071). Jesus confirmed the necessity of the Ten Commandments. Many people feel uncomfortable that Christianity involves moral teaching. It is important to keep in mind that the things mandated by just moral laws, especially the Ten Commandments, are practical expressions of God’s love for us, since they articulate what is compatible with our happiness. Furthermore, those who grow in the friendship of God have a stronger desire to keep God’s commandments, even when their observance involves some sacrifice, since they have come to love with God what God loves, as St Thomas Aquinas observes (ST 2a2ae, q.29, a.3). To claim that getting to heaven is simply a matter of keeping the commandments, is like saying that the secret of a successful marriage is not to commit adultery. Clearly, unrepented adultery is incompatible with a good marriage, yet one could carefully avoid adultery throughout one’s whole life while having no love for one’s spouse whatsoever. In a similar way, breaking God’s commandments is incompatible with loving God. Yet it does not follow that anyone who keeps God’s commandments actually loves God. One might, for example, be motivated to be moral by the desire to earn salvation from God in the manner of a business transaction, or even be motivated out of pride in one’s own perfection. Given, however, that heaven is the eternal dwelling place of those who love God, a person who keeps the commandments but is lacking in divine love cannot enter heaven.

One of the consequences of Original Sin is that it is not easy for us to do what is good. We tend to desire sinful things, a condition called disordered concupiscence.

Catholic ethical teaching is founded upon the pursuit of what is good. When the Church speaks out against something it does so to protect that which is good. So for instance, in areas of great pertinence today, the Church values every human person as made in the image of God, from conception until natural death. It is to protect the inviolable dignity and infinite value of each person that the Church stands against abortion, euthanasia, and any deliberate practices which lead to the destruction of embryos. Similarly, the Church has an exalted vision of human sexuality, believing that life-long marriage between a man and a woman has a God-given essential purpose for society. Marriage is intended as the stable, natural and loving context in which new human life is introduced and nurtured in the world. Sexual gifts and powers which speak of love and new life therefore find their rightful context here. In defence of this key principle the Church opposes any using of sexual activity outside of the bond of marriage or any practices which remove sexual behaviour from its intended procreative logic. For the good of individuals and society as whole the Church cannot fail to address these matters which touch upon the foundations of life and love itself. Catholics are aware that many find these teachings hard to understand and see that many suffer deep wounds arising from a loss of these values in our present culture. The Church seeks to offer a clear way forward with patience, forgiveness, healing, and compassion.

As well as the Ten Commandments, Christians also follow the new ‘law of grace’. The essence of the law of grace is to follow Jesus Christ in his Church, putting our possessions and lives at the service of God and others in charity. The law of grace guides us to heaven. Jesus taught, ‘“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mt 19:21 NRSV)

A good conscience, formed through study of the moral law and good example, helps us to judge what is right. Establishing good habits in a well-ordered life and avoiding temptations also help. However, it is only with God’s grace, through the sacraments and prayer, that we can achieve final victory over sin.

Ex 20:2-17; Deut 5:6-21

I am the Lord your God,
you shall not have strange gods before me.
God, as our creator, wants us to love him above all else.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
God’s name and all things dedicated to him should not be misused or treated lightly.
Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day.
God wants us to dedicate specific periods of time to him since worship is of the greatest importance.
Honour your father and your mother.
The family is the basis of society. Respect and obedience is due to parents and other lawful authorities.
You shall not kill
To destroy or harm human life, made in God’s image, is a rejection of God’s gift, the person and society.
You shall not commit adultery.
Marriage is the only legitimate context for sexual acts. Adultery violates this sacred bond and destabilises families.
You shall not steal.
Personal property is needed for human well-being. Stealing is an attack on personal and civic life.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
To lie or attack a person’s reputation is an attack on human dignity. It is an injustice in itself and leads to further wrongs.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
To desire what is evil is itself evil. Impure thoughts corrupt our minds and can lead to immoral actions.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s goods.
God wants us to make full use of the gifts he has given us, not to crave possession of the gifts of others instead.

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