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Fr. Glenn: Moral Courage

on February 24, 2019 - 7:19am

By Fr. Glenn Jones

More days than not we Catholics commemorate the memory of a certain saint—not worshiping them as is often mistakenly thought by non-Catholics, but rather a remembrance of their examples of fidelity to Jesus Christ and to virtuous life. Last week in part of our commemoration was a wonderful phrase describing the saint of that day:

“He was able to sin, but did not;
 He was able to do wrong, but would not.”

It is hard to imagine a much better epitaph for a Christian … or for anyone else for that matter—to always seek that which is truly right and good—moral character—eschewing that which is offensive to God or harmful to any person with whom we engage.

Of course, the problem is that “moral character” implies morals—a concept for which it is increasingly difficult to find societal common ground. In the past there was generally common agreement about morals within regions and various peoples, but with our modern day’s ease of movement and transportation and the movement of persons, agreement about what is moral or not becomes more difficult. Christians generally rely on the Bible, Muslims the Qur’an, etc., and many simply rely on whatever is the modern societal trend. And even within groups, what was considered moral in the past is not necessarily so in the future. We see this being played out daily in the increasing tensions between moral opinions—both within and outside of associations.

So … the stumper: What moral concepts cross all boundaries? In what principles do all moral systems intersect?

Well, we see a moral law most consistent throughout the world in family groups—persons bound together by love … these familial morals and proscriptions essentially uniform across all cultures, transcending time and place. In Catholicism is the concept of “natural law”—a moral law imbued within mankind in a reflection of the Creator and the eternal law—part of the “made in His image” concept of the book of Genesis—a reflection within the created of the Creator, much as art is a shadowy reflection of the artist (Salvador Dali must have been quite interesting).  One seeks the best result for those whom one loves. Therefore, it seems that the most basic and essential morals—the “natural law”—are most evident in such family groupings of love. So … is love itself, therefore, that common intersection of moral planes for which we seek? It certainly would seem so, as love abhors harm to the other person and seeks his good. 

And thus we see the wisdom espoused in the teaching of Jesus, Who bases His teaching on love—love extending not only within family or affiliate groups, but to all persons: “…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…' The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31), and in another place: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12-13)

Now, we might hear sardonic protestations: “Yeah, you Christians have always been GREAT examples … with prejudice, wars, (etc.)…” True, true ... and that’s a reason why St. Paul wrote:  “You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” (Romans 2:23-24) But such protestations also disregard the influence toward the good of Christian principles—love of neighbor working toward the abolishment of slavery in this nation, for one. No, neither the world nor the individual Christian may turn on a dime toward the good, but hopefully love exhibited will have a domino effect. The thing is: if someone doesn’t break the cycle of “eye for an eye” and practice a forgiving love, how can goodness grow? What can change?

And thus Jesus’ emphasis on humility and forgiveness … or, as we Christians pray daily: “Forgive us OUR trespasses AS WE FORGIVE those who trespass against us”—the prayer given us by Jesus Himself. Phrased in another way, we might say: “Forgive us because we have ourselves forgiven … realizing that WE are just as weak … just as faulty … just as imperfect … as those who may have offended us.” Is this not simply justice … colored by the sublime and exquisite hues of mercy … and love? After all, I have done wrong to others; how dare I demand perfection of them?

Thus St. Paul writes: “Put on then, as God's chosen ones…compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and…forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:12-13) We remember that this is the St. Paul who was beaten, whipped, exiled, imprisoned, and yet here was exhorting forgiveness … in emulation of his master, teacher and God: Jesus Christ.

So a true moral compass is imbued in all persons, for all seek to receive and to give love. This is why we Catholics display crucifixes rather than bare crosses, to remind us of Jesus’ act of perfect love … of perfect morality … of perfect self-sacrifice and moral courage.

Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.