The Ideal of Christian Humanism

Author: Pope Paul VI


Pope Paul VI

In his discourse during the General Audience of Wednesday July 17th, the Holy Father Pope Paul VI examined the modern rejection of our religious past in the desire to find a new ideal of humanity and showed how this ideal can be found only in the age-long dogmatic and moral teaching of the Church.

Dearest Sons and Daughters,

To those who ask themselves the question, now occupying Our own thought, regarding human perfection, the ideal towards which modern man ought to aim, there come to mind many ideas which represent one of the characteristics of the mentality of the men of our day. In general these ideas are the result of a negative evaluation of the types of humanity to which we have become attuned by what we learned from an earlier generation. A bold and often bitter criticism demolishes the personalities of the past who were offered for our example; the stature of the heroes of times gone by is lowered and often brought down to less than normal; the representatives especially of the generations nearest to our own are automatically rejected as unfit to teach anything to the young, indeed are often enough accused of being responsible for the situations which are unacceptable to the youth of today who have inherited them. What good the old or not so old have done, or tried to do, is willingly forgotten. Everything has to be given a new concept and to be undertaken without any regard for, rather in opposition to, whatever is traditional and what the passage of time and maturity in civil life offer as the outcome of immense labour and as worthy of honourable recognition. Everything has been mistaken, they say, or at any rate everything of the past is to be given up and refashioned as far as man's image is concerned. What is wanted is a new humanism, so new indeed that they are continually rejecting the humanist formulas put forward yesterday, or even today, by the different schools of thought or the various social movements. In searching for always new forms of originality it is easy to fall into line with some questionable authority who happens to be fashionable, just provided he be fashionable.

Christ the Model of the Ideal Man

But in this search for a typical and ideal form of humanity there are also positive ideas, especially in the favoured environment of our ecclesial community. The whole of the teaching on the perfection of christian living, the destiny of holiness that emerges from the very call to follow Christ, the affirmation of the values not only of the supernatural sphere of grace but of those also of the temporal order and of natural activities, spread throughout its documents by the Council, strengthens our belief that the follower of Christ still can have and ought to have a moral grandeur, inherited front the past it is true, but alive and meant to be lived, of which grandeur, even if he has not unfortunately the highest advantages of it in his actual life, he has at any rate the secret, the true formula in the doctrinal field. The Christian, if he really is one, is the true man, he is the man who realizes himself fully and freely, and he does this by modeling himself on an example of infinite perfection and of unsurpassed humanity, Christ our Lord, who can be imitated in those necessary ways required by faith and grace, as well as in many other ways suggested by a man's own mental make-up as a Christian and by his own conscious choice (cf. S. Th. I- II, 108, 1).

Dogma and the Moral Conscience

Here we encounter a widespread objection often recurring in history and in literature, one which has become classical because its echo is found in well-known authors like Machiavelli and Pascal (cf. Papini, Scrittori ed Artisti 1959, p. 443) and one which as formulated by Sismondi in the last volume of his history of the Italian republics in the Middle Ages, had the honour of being refuted, in a manner as wise as it was worthy of respect, in a work too little valued even in Italy (cf. Croce) and too often forgotten even by us Catholics; I mean those "Osservazioni sulla Morale cattolica" which, in Our opinion, merit still the study and admiration not only of lovers of the renowned author's literary works but also of the faithful even today (cf. Umberto Colommbo's valuable study in Vol. III of the opera omnia of Manzoni) .

The objection in question is that the Catholic religion, particularly in its presentation of moral teaching, degrades the moral sense, putting dogmatic doctrine before the dictates of conscience and preferring pietism and theological virtues to the principles of justice which pertain to natural morality. Let us leave the study of the question to men of good will.

Grace Perfects Nature

As far as this humble dialogue of Ours is concerned We will limit Ourself to some obvious yet important observations. The first of these is a defence of the relation that exists between religion and morality. We maintain, in accordance with all the theological and teaching tradition of Christianity, that grace perfects nature; that is to say that the faith, religious living, reference of our activity to God as to its beginning and end, the example and virtue that come from the Gospel, instruction given to the faithful by the Church in the matter of knowledge of their duties and of the way in which individual and social life are to be understood, the practice of prayer and of the fear of God, and so forth—these do not deform man's character, do not degrade his liberty, do not displace the inner workings of conscience. Still less do they authorize the believer to evade his obligations in the natural and civil sphere, or turn him into a bigoted and hypocritical pharisee. No; they strengthen in a man the true sense of manhood, awake in him the knowledge of good and evil, and liberate him from the moral indifferentism tending to result from that widespread attitude of mind in which, for lack of the sense of God, the how and the why of honest activity are obscured. Moreover they provide him with a power of his own to be strong and upright and add another mysterious help, namely grace, which together start a man on the way to becoming something greater than himself, to becoming a true superman such as he is who is justified by faith, the hero, simple and constant in the trials of life, great and small, the saint indeed, whether in the primitive meaning of the term as used in the early christian community or, in special cases, in the sense it has in modern hagiography.

The believer need not fear he will be the last or even the second at the winning post of that human ideal with which the contemporary mentality is concerned.

Sincerity, Justice, Courage, Honesty

This We say in view of another observation. In the concept of the perfect Christian great importance must be attached to the moral virtues proper to human nature considered as a whole (cf. Decree de Instit. sacerdotali n. 11). We cite the. first of these virtues: sincerity, veracity. "Let your speech be Yea, yea; Nay, nay" our Lord teaches us (Mth. 5, 37 and Jam. 5, 12). We must break the Christian loose from the false and dishonourable view that it is lawful for him to play on words, to allow duplicity as between thought and speech, to deceive his neighbour for his own benefit. Hypocrisy is not to be protected under the mantle of religion (cf. Bernanos L'imposture). The same is to be said with regard to the sense of justice; first of all in the matter of commutative justice which is concerned with mine and thine, that is to say with honesty in economic dealings, in business affairs, in right administration, especially in public offices; and then in the matter of social justice (the ancients called it legal justice "in the sense that by it a man conforms to the law which governs the actions in all human operation for the common good") (cf. S. Th. 11, 58 6; St Thomas calls it therefore an "architectonic virtue") (cf. ibid. 60, 1 ad 4). We say the same with regard to the sense of duty, of courage, of magnanimity, of honesty in habits, and so on (cf. Gillet, La valeur educative de la morale catholique). We must appreciate these natural virtues highly even though not forgetting that, outside the order of grace, they are incomplete and are often linked up with very deplorable human weaknesses (cf. St. Aug. de civ. Dei V 19; P.L. 41, 166) ; and we remember that of themselves they are unproductive of supernatural value (ibid. XX, 25; P.L. 41, 656; and XXI, 16; P.L. 41, 730).

Balanced Humanism of the Council

Are these only teachings of the past? No; they are recorded for us by the Council when it says, for example: "Many of our contemporaries ... seem to be afraid that, if the bonds between human activity and religion are too tight, the activities of men, of society, of science will be impeded." And so it defends the legitimate autonomy of action in mundane affairs (Gaudium et Spes n. 36).

So again in another example: "It is a sacred duty on the part of all to include social needs amongst the principle obligations of modern man and to take heed of them" (ibid. n. 30). And the Council throughout puts before the Christian a wise humanism which, without forgetting the great laws of evangelical perfection, such as the renunciations which make us more holy and more spiritual or the sacrifices which imprint on our life the redemptive sign of the Cross, raise the christian to the stature of the complete man, to the fulness of the gifts received, together with life itself, from God, to the ordered balance of his faculties, to the unwearied and harmonious employment of his powers, to the community sense in his actual human relationships, to the dignity of his own conscience, not certainly as a criterion of objective truth but as a principle of free arid responsible moral conduct.

It is good that actually in our own day, so disturbed as it is by ideological and social confusion, the Church of God speaks to each and all of perfection, the human, moral perfection of everyday life. Let us listen to her, and may Our Apostolic Blessing strengthen this paternal and heartfelt invitation.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 July 1968, page 1

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