Monday, March 2, 2015

Believing and Doing

First in a Series on Catholic Morals

Fr. John H. Stapleton

Morals pertain to right living, to the things we do, in relation to God and His law, as opposed to right thinking, to what we believe, to dogma. Dogma directs our faith or belief; morals shape our lives. By faith we know God, by moral living we serve Him; and this double homage, of our mind and our works, is the worship we owe our Creator and Master and the necessary condition of our salvation.

Faith alone will save no man. It may be convenient for the easy-going to deny this, and take an opposite view of the matter; but convenience is not always a safe counselor. It may be that the just man liveth by faith; but he lives not by faith alone. Or, if he does, it is faith of a different sort from what we define here as faith, viz., a firm assent of the mind to truths revealed. We have the testimony of Holy Writ, again and again reiterated, that faith, even were it capable of moving mountains, without good works is of no avail. The Catholic Church is convinced that this doctrine is genuine and reliable enough to make it her own; and sensible enough, too. For faith does not make a man impeccable; he may believe rightly, and live badly. His knowledge of what God expects of him will not prevent him from doing just the contrary; sin is as easy to a believer as to an unbeliever. And he who pretends to have found religion, holiness, the Holy Ghost, or whatever else he may call it, and can therefore no longer prevaricate against the law, is, to common-sense people, nothing but a sanctified humbug or a pious idiot.

Nor are good works alone sufficient. Men of emancipated intelligence and becoming breadth of mind, are often heard to proclaim with a greater flourish of verbosity than of reason and argument, that the golden rule is religion enough for them, without the trappings of creeds and dogmas; they respect themselves and respect their neighbors, at least they say they do, and this, according to them, is the fulfillment of the law. We submit that this sort of worship was in vogue a good many centuries before the God-Man came down upon earth; and if it fills the bill now, as it did in those days, it is difficult to see the utility of Christ's coming, of His giving of a law of belief and of His founding of a Church. It is beyond human comprehension that He should have come for naught, labored for naught and died for naught. And such must be the case, if the observance of the natural law is a sufficient worship of the Creator. What reasons Christ may have had for imposing this or that truth upon our belief is beside the question; it is enough that He did reveal truths, the acceptance of which glorifies Him in the mind of the believer, in order that the mere keeping of the commandments appear forthwith an insufficient mode of worship.

Besides, morals are based on dogma, or they have no basis at all; knowledge of the manner of serving God can only proceed from knowledge of who and what He is; right living is the fruit of right thinking. Not that all who believe rightly are righteous and walk in the path of salvation: losing themselves, these are lost in spite of the truths they know and profess; nor that they who cling to an erroneous belief and a false creed can perform no deed of true moral worth and are doomed; they may be righteous in spite of the errors they profess, thanks alone to the truths in their creeds that are not wholly corrupted. But the natural order of things demands that our works partake of the nature of our convictions, that truth or error in mind beget truth or error correspondingly in deed and that no amount of self-confidence in a man can make a course right when it is wrong, can make a man's actions good when they are materially bad. This is the principle of the tree and its fruit and it is too old-fashioned to be easily denied. True morals spring from true faith and true dogma; a false creed cannot teach correct morality, unless accidentally, as the result of a sprinkling of truth through the mass of false teaching. The only accredited moral instructor is the true Church. Where there is no dogma, there can logically be no morals, save such as human instinct and reason devise; but this is an absurd morality, since there is no recognition of an authority, of a legislator, to make the moral law binding and to give it a sanction. He who says he is a law unto himself chooses thus to veil his proclaiming freedom from all law. His golden rule is a thing too easily twistable to be of any assured benefit to others than himself; his moral sense, that is, his sense of right and wrong, is very likely where his faith is - nowhere.

It goes without saying that the requirements of good morals are a heavy burden for the natural man, that is, for man left, in the midst of seductions and allurements, to the purely human resources of his own unaided wit and strength; so heavy a burden is this, in fact, that according to Catholic doctrine, it cannot be borne without assistance from on high, the which assistance we call grace. This supernatural aid we believe essential to the shaping of a good moral life; for man, being destined, in preference to all the rest of animal creation, to a supernatural end, is thereby raised from the natural to a supernatural order. The requirements of this order are therefore above and beyond his native powers and can only be met with the help of a force above his own. It is labor lost for us to strive to climb the clouds on a ladder of our own make; the ladder must be let down from above. Human air-ships are a futile invention and cannot be made to steer straight or to soar high in the atmosphere of the supernatural. One-half of those who fail in moral matters are those who trust altogether, or too much, in their own strength, and reckon without the power that said "Without Me you can do nothing."

The other half go to the other extreme. They imagine that the Almighty should not only direct and aid them, but also that He should come down and drag them along in spite of themselves; and they complain when He does not, excuse and justify themselves on the ground that He does not, and blame Him for their failure to walk straight in the narrow path. They expect Him to pull them from the clutches of temptation into which they have deliberately walked. The drunkard expects Him to knock the glass out of his hand: the imprudent, the inquisitive and the vicious would have it so that they might play with fire, yea, even put in their hand, and not be scorched or burnt. 'Tis a miracle they want, a miracle at every turn, a suspension of the laws of nature to save them from the effects of their voluntary perverseness. Too lazy to employ the means at their command, they thrust the whole burden on the Maker. God helps those who help themselves. A supernatural state does not dispense us from the obligation of practicing natural virtue. You can build a supernatural life only on the foundations of a natural life. To do away with the latter is to build in the air; the structure will not stay up, it will and must come down at the first blast of temptation.

Catholic morals therefore require faith in revealed truths, of which they are but deductions, logical conclusions; they presuppose, in their observance, the grace of God; and call for a certain strenuosity of life without which nothing meritorious can be effected. We must be convinced of the right God has to trace a line of conduct for us; we must be as earnest in enlisting His assistance as if all depended on Him; and then go to work as if it all depended on ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Tremendous reflection, thank you...Was it St Thomas Aquinas who said "Hope, without virtue, is presumption "?


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