January 26, 2017
Father Joseph Previtali
What is morality? Why does God give us commandments? Why should I care about doing good and avoiding evil? Why should I care about right and wrong? Why does it matter what I do or how I act?
In our Gospel this Sunday, we have the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): “Whoever will take the trouble to examine with a pious and sober spirit, will find in this sermon a perfect code of the Christian life as far as relates to the conduct of daily life,” St. Augustine tells us. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ morality, His teaching on how we are to live. In these three chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel, we have the basic plan of Christian living.
How does Jesus begin in His moral teaching? “Blessed…” This word “blessed” means “happy,” “fulfilled,” “flourishing.” Thus the Sermon on the Mount begins with what we call the “Beatitudes,” these teachings of Jesus Christ that promise blessedness – happiness, fulfillment, perfect joy, perfect flourishing – to those who live in accord with His Law.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is the New Moses, ascending to the top of a mountain – where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God – to legislate the precepts of the New Law in the Holy Spirit. Jesus here is connecting the Commandments with our happiness: He invites us to blessedness. “The chief good is the only motive of philosophical enquiry; but whatever confers blessedness, that is the chief good; therefore He begins, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’” St. Augustine explains.
The New Moses wants us to be happy. This is His starting point in teaching us the morality of the New Law. Jesus wants us to find blessedness, to flourish, to find peace and joy and the fulfillment of all our desires. This is what He promises to those who live in accord with His teachings. His happiness that He gives is the perfect happiness of the Vision of God in Heaven. This Vision is “Beatific.” It makes us blessed, happy, fulfilled. To live for this perfect happiness brings us a kind of imperfect happiness already here on Earth. Do I trust that Jesus wants to make me happy and that He has the power to make me happy? Do I trust that Jesus knows what is best for me?
This is where so many of us go wrong. We don’t understand that morality is about happiness. We see the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church as a simple list of “do’s” and “don’ts” (usually “don’ts”!), imposed upon us arbitrarily from without, having no real connection to our interior desire for happiness and fulfillment. We see the commandments of God as limitations on our freedom, as limits that God puts into place to keep us from enjoying life too much or having too much fun.
This dreary view of morality is not Christian. It does not presuppose a loving God, Who teaches us His Law in order to lead us to happiness. It does not have faith in God’s Goodness and trust in His Mercy. It is a deeply cynical and despairing view of morality, which ultimately leads to resentment and sin.
The Catholic Church is the Bride and Body of Jesus Christ. She is the faithful repository of all grace and truth. The teaching of the Catholic Church on morality, then, is the teaching of Jesus Christ. He guides His Church through His Holy Spirit, by which He lives in the Church always until the consummation of the world. Therefore, the moral teaching of the Catholic Church is also for our happiness. It is not an arbitrary limit on human freedom imposed from without. The teaching of the Church is a merciful GPS from Jesus Christ, as He guides us through the treacherous journey of human life to perfect happiness in Heaven. Do I trust Jesus?
Father Previtali is administrator of Our Lady of the Pillar Parish, Half Moon Bay.