Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


by Fr. Peter Pilsner

FP>> As I come to the next few sections, I am in something of a quandary. On the one hand, I see that what the Holy Father has written here is so clear that it hardly needs commentary. Yet, I would feel bad if I passed it by altogether, because I would not want anyone to think that I give it little importance. I suppose that what I will do is be as brief as I can be, and leave the text itself, not so much for your study as for your meditation. And I hope that those of you who do this will share the fruits of your meditations with the rest of us.

VS >> 15. In the "Sermon on the Mount," the "magna charta" of Gospel morality,[24] Jesus says: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17). Christ is the key to the Scriptures: "You search the Scriptures...; and it is they that bear witness to me" (Jn 5:39). Christ is the centre of the economy of salvation, the recapitulation of the Old and New Testaments, of the promises of the Law and of their fulfillment in the Gospel; he is the living and eternal link between the Old and the New Covenants. Commenting on Paul's statement that "Christ is the end of the law" (Rom 10:4), Saint Ambrose writes: "end not in the sense of a deficiency, but in the sense of the fullness of the Law: a fullness which is achieved in Christ ("plenitudo legis in Christo est"), since he came not to abolish the Law but to bring it to fulfilment. In the same way that there is an Old Testament, but all truth is in the New Testament, so it is for the Law: what was given through Moses is a figure of the true law. Therefore, the Mosaic Law is an image of the truth".[25]

FP>> Here another important principle that the Holy Father sets down for us. Christ came to fulfill the law, not to negate it. Therefore, one can never disobey the ten commandments in the name of Christ, or of His teaching.

VS>> "Jesus brings God's commandments to fulfilment," particularly the commandment of love of neighbour, "by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning." Love of neighbour springs from "a loving heart" which, precisely because it loves, is ready to live out "the loftiest challenges." Jesus shows that the commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love (cf. Col 3:14). Thus the commandment "You shall not murder" becomes a call to an attentive love which protects and promotes the life of one's neighbour. The precept prohibiting adultery becomes an invitation to a pure way of looking at others, capable of respecting the spousal meaning of the body: "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment'. But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment... You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'. But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:21-22,27-28). "Jesus himself is the living 'fulfilment' of the Law" inasmuch as he fulfils its authentic meaning by the total gift of himself: "he himself becomes a living and personal Law," who invites people to follow him; through the Spirit, he gives the grace to share his own life and love and provides the strength to bear witness to that love in personal choices and actions (cf. Jn 13:34-35).

FP>> The commandments represent the "bottom limit" of love and its starting point. That is, loving our neighbor demands that at the very least we don't take his property, kill him, bear false witness against him, etc. However, even if, in obedience to the commandments, we refrain from doing evil to our neighbor, that hardly means we have begun to love him. We must take the next

step demanded by love and taught to us by Jesus. We must refrain from doing evil, not only in our actions, but in our hearts. As Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, if we love our neighbor, we will refrain from killing him, but beyond that, we will refrain from making him into an object of hate, scorn, or derision in our thoughts. Also, if we love our neighbor, we will not commit adultery with him or her, nor will we make that other person into an object of lust in our thoughts. (By the way, John Paul II has made the point in his past writings that while sins such as adultery and fornication have always been thought of as sins against the virtue of temperance, they can also be said to be sins against CHARITY.)

VS>> "If you wish to be perfect" (Mt 19:21)

16. The answer he receives about the commandments does not satisfy the young man, who asks Jesus a further question. "I have kept all these; 'what do I still lack?'" (Mt 19:20). It is not easy to say with a clear conscience "I have kept all these", if one has any understanding of the real meaning of the demands contained in God's Law. And yet, even though he is able to make this reply, even though he has followed the moral ideal seriously and generously from childhood, the rich young man knows that he is still far from the goal: before the person of Jesus he realizes that he is still lacking something. It is his awareness of this insufficiency that Jesus addresses in his final answer. Conscious of "the young man's yearning for something greater, which would transcend a legalistic interpretation of the commandments," the Good Teacher invites him to enter upon the path of perfection: "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).

FP>> What we learn in these next few sections is very important for our understanding of moral theology. Moral theology is often viewed as the study of what the "rules" say not to do. It's as if the Church's moral teaching were limited to, "Here's what's wrong, and here's why." If we were to think of moral theology only in such terms, our view of it would be dreadfully incomplete. We would be like basketball players who think that being a good player means that you don't foul, you don't double-dribble, and you don't step out of bounds. There is so much more to the game than not breaking the rules. And there is so much more to moral theology than not breaking the commandments. Moral theology is not just about the evil we should avoid doing, but about the good that we should strive for. Moral theology is about growing in virtue and spiritual perfection. It is the answer to our "yearning for something greater, which would transcend a legalistic interpretation of the commandments."

VS>>Like the earlier part of Jesus' answer, this part too must be read and interpreted in the context of the whole moral message of the Gospel, and in particular in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3-12), the first of which is precisely the Beatitude of the poor, the "poor in spirit" as Saint Matthew makes clear (Mt 5:3), the humble. In this sense it can be said that the Beatitudes are also relevant to the answer given by Jesus to the young man's question: "What good must I do to have eternal life?". Indeed, each of the Beatitudes promises, from a particular viewpoint, that very "good" which opens man up to eternal life, and indeed is eternal life.

"The Beatitudes" are not specifically concerned with certain particular rules of behaviour. Rather, they speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life and therefore they "do not coincide exactly with the commandments." On the other hand, "there is no separation or opposition" between the Beatitudes and the commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of the Beatitudes, but also refers to the commandments (cf. Mt 5:20-48). At the same time, the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the openness of the commandments and their orientation towards the horizon of the perfection proper to the Beatitudes. These latter are above all "promises," from which there also indirectly flow "normative indications" for the moral life. In their originality and profundity they are a sort of "self-portrait of Christ," and for this very reason are "invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ."[26]

FP>> Just as the commandments tell us what actions to avoid, the Beatitudes tell us about the "basic attitudes and dispositions" that we should strive for. Both the beatitudes and commandments guide us toward the possession of eternal life. Also, it is helpful to see the Beatitudes in the form of promises. For example, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy," can be understood as, "If you are merciful, then, I promise you, I will bless you with my mercy." And here is a good subject for meditation: "In their originality and profundity [the Beatitudes] are a sort of 'self-portrait of Christ,' and for this very reason are 'invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ.'" Take each beatitude, try to recall examples from the Gospel of how Jesus exemplifies the corresponding virtue (e.g., mercy, purity of heart, meekness), and ask him to show you how you could imitate him in the practice of it.

VS>> 17. We do not know how clearly the young man in the Gospel understood the profound and challenging import of Jesus' first reply: "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments". But it is certain that the young man's commitment to respect all the moral demands of the commandments represents the absolutely essential ground in which the desire for perfection can take root and mature, the desire, that is, for the meaning of the commandments to be completely fulfilled in following Christ. Jesus' conversation with the young man helps us to grasp "the conditions for the moral growth of man, who has been called to perfection:" the young man, having observed all the commandments, shows that he is incapable of taking the next step by himself alone. To do so requires mature human freedom ("If you wish to be perfect") and God's gift of grace ("Come, follow me").

FP>> Another very important point here. Jesus, in his response to the young man, keeps first things first. First, he asks him about whether he is keeping the commandments, then, he calls him to perfection. The lesson: keeping the commandments is a necessary, non-negotiable preparation for growing in holiness and spiritual perfection. Or to put it another way, it is impossible to become holy if one is living in violation of the commandments. Hence, any system of spirituality that promises spiritual advancement but at the same time does not demand that a person live in accord with the moral teaching of the Church, is a false spirituality.

VS>> "Perfection demands that maturity in self-giving to which human freedom is called." Jesus points out to the young man that the commandments are the first and indispensable condition for having eternal life; on the other hand, for the young man to give up all he possesses and to follow the Lord is presented as an invitation: "If you wish...". These words of Jesus reveal the particular dynamic of freedom's growth towards maturity, and at the same time "they bear witness to the fundamental relationship between freedom and divine law." Human freedom and God's law are not in opposition; on the contrary, they appeal one to the other. The follower of Christ knows that his vocation is to freedom. "You were called to freedom, brethren" (Gal 5:13), proclaims the Apostle Paul with joy and pride. But he immediately adds: "only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another" (ibid.). The firmness with which the Apostle opposes those who believe that they are justified by the Law has nothing to do with man's "liberation" from precepts. On the contrary, the latter are at the service of the practice of love: "For he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet,' and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself " (Rom 13:8-9). Saint Augustine, after speaking of the observance of the commandments as being a kind of incipient, imperfect freedom, goes on to say: "Why, someone will ask, is it not yet perfect? Because 'I see in my members another law at war with the law of my reason' ... In part freedom, in part slavery: not yet complete freedom, not yet pure, not yet whole, because we are not yet in eternity. In part we retain our weakness and in part we have attained freedom. All our sins were destroyed in Baptism, but does it follow that no weakness remained after iniquity was destroyed? Had none remained, we would live without sin in this life. But who would dare to say this except someone who is proud, someone unworthy of the mercy of our deliverer?... Therefore, since some weakness has remained in us, I dare to say that to the extent to which we serve God we are free, while to the extent that we follow the law of sin, we are still slaves".[27]

FP>> Another favorite theme of John Paul II: the commandments do not restrict our freedom. Rather, they make us free to enter into friendship with God.

VS>> 18. Those who live "by the flesh" experience God's law as a burden, and indeed as a denial or at least a restriction of their own freedom. On the other hand, those who are impelled by love and "walk by the Spirit" (Gal 5:16), and who desire to serve others, find in God's Law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practise love as something freely chosen and freely lived out. Indeed, they feel an interior urge--a genuine "necessity" and no longer a form of coercion--not to stop at the minimum demands of the Law, but to live them in their "fullness". This is a still uncertain and fragile journey as long as we are on earth, but it is one made possible by grace, which enables us to possess the full freedom of the children of God (cf. Rom 8:21) and thus to live our moral life in a way worthy of our sublime vocation as "sons in the Son".

This vocation to perfect love is not restricted to a small group of individuals. "The invitation," "go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor", and the promise "you will have treasure in heaven", "are meant for everyone," because they bring out the full meaning of the commandment of love for neighbour, just as the invitation which follows, "Come, follow me", is the new, specific form of the commandment of love of God. Both the commandments and Jesus' invitation to the rich young man stand at the service of a single and indivisible charity, which spontaneously tends towards that perfection whose measure is God alone: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus makes even clearer the meaning of this perfection: "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36).

FP>> As one reads these paragraphs above, one begins to get an idea of the progress in freedom that a person experiences as he progresses from a life of sin, to spiritual maturity. A person who gives into the weakness of original sin habitually becomes a slave of sin. If he realizes he is in a state of sin, then he may struggle to overcome his bad habits. Once he does that, he enters into a new level of freedom. Consider this example. A person habitually commits the sin of gluttony. Much of his time and energy is caught up in food. He thinks constantly about food, takes long meals, prepares food, washes dishes, watches cooking shows. Then one day, he hears a Sunday sermon on the sins of intemperance. He becomes angry with the priest. "He wants us all to be emaciated, like he is," he thinks. Then one day, he is walking to a business meeting down a street, and he is late. But as he goes, he passes by a bakery, and smells the fresh, hot jelly rolls, and goes in for one. When he is done enjoying several, he realizes he is very late for his meeting, and when he finally arrives, he feels humiliated and anxious, especially since some of his fellow workers, knowing his past record, are well aware of what he was probably doing. That night at home, he feels angry and frustrated with himself, and wonders if he is in charge of his own life, or if he is like a slave to his own stomach. He makes a decision to control his eating, at least in between meals, and as he tries to put this good resolution into practice, he finds, to his surprise, that he fails time and time again, in spite of his best efforts. He begins to pray to God for help, and goes to confession. Perhaps he seeks professional help. Eventually, he gets his appetite under control, and can walk past the bakery without a second thought. He comes to his meetings on time, with no anxiety and embarrassment. He becomes more prayerful, since he has learned by experience how helpful prayer can be. As time goes on, he wants more and more out of his relationship with God, and his lifestyle begins to change so that the time and energy he had spent on food, he now re-directs to loving and serving God. And in this he finds much fulfilment, meaning, and happiness. His life has a new hope and direction.

The reason I give this long example is to illustrate the point our Holy Father is making. The commandments are not restrictions placed on our freedom. That is the view of those who are blinded by sin. The commandments are guides to real freedom. A person who follows them will first be freed from slavery to his sinful inclinations. Then, he will be able to use his freedom to unite himself with God. Perhaps some of you are aware of real-life stories that are like the one I made up above. I would be interested to hear them.

Fr. Peter