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Dei Verbum and Christian Morals | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P. | Ignatius Insight | Part Two | Part One

What then about difficult texts of the New Testament? We have all met women who were offended by St. Paul’s famous directive to the church of Corinth not to allow women to speak in church assemblies and, if they had questions, to ask them through their husbands. Similarly, the admonitions in the Pastoral Epistles for women to be “submissive” to their husbands often provoke indignant reactions from women. While some minor efforts have been made in revising the liturgical books to omit passages that might seem offensive to modern ears, some readings still contain statements that some find shocking when they hear them read at Mass. I believe that celebrants should become sensitive to such reactions and not simply hurry over the troublesome pericopes or try to make impromptu changes in the Sacred Text. While it is responsibility of preachers to be aware of passages or expressions that might offend, they should not try to silence or correct the Holy Spirit by passing over the words he has inspired. Instead they should explain them in the sense that the Tradition of the Church gives to them.

For example, he should point out, as John Paul II has done, that the texts in the Pastorals about women submitting to their husbands, if rightly read, actually speak of a “mutual submission” of husband and wife in respect and love. This is clearly the meaning of Ephesians 5:21: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” No doubt a modern author would have used other terms than “submission” or “subordination.” Yet the biblical author was teaching attitudes in marriage that are still valid today. It is only his language and rhetoric that reflect his own times. As for the “Let women be silent in Church” of St. Paul (1 Cor 14:34), the preacher should explain carefully what the situation was in the Corinthians’ church and why St. Paul, in view of the circumstances, gave this pastoral directive to quiet a divisive situation. Certain charismatic women of Corinth were giving that church a bad reputation by seeming to ignore the customs of the times that expected heads of household, generally men, to speak for their household. For women to assume this role on their own seemed at the time to indicate the notion that since baptism symbolized the resurrection, it also meant the dissolution of all earthly relationships and responsibilities. It was this heretical notion that St. Paul was writing to correct, not to provide a rule of conduct for all times. Similarly he wants women to veil their heads in church to respect local customs and not give a bad impression to outsiders as to what the Christian assembly was all about.

Does that mean that such passages are now simply obsolete and should be “exorcised” from the Bible as a certain feminist theologian has proposed? By no means; they provide a teaching occasion, in which we can explain how biblical principles remain always true, but certain of their applications necessarily change as circumstances change. In American society today nobody is shocked if women speak in their own name even in the most sacred situations. The restriction of priestly ordination to men does not rest on such texts, even if so eminent a theologian as St. Thomas Aquinas seems to have supposed so.

But what these texts still teach us and will always teach Christians, if they are rightly understood, is that everyone, men and women alike, should not abuse the liturgy by making it the occasion for division rather than for promoting understanding and mutual love and unity in the community. It was this peace and love that was St. Paul’s concern.

Another current issue about the use of New Testament passages on morality is the unfortunate tendency to misuse the great teaching of Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John that the “love of God and neighbor sums up the whole Law.” Rightly used, this is the fundamental principle in the light of which all biblical morality must be understood. But it is not always rightly used. Too often it is put forward as if it meant that “the love of God and neighbor” takes the place of the moral Law. The New Testament often uses a special word for “love,” namely agape, in order to avoid the erotic, sentimental, and other more secular connotations of the concept. This why our older biblical translations used the term “charity” for agape rather than “love.” Today unfortunately “charity” generally means a concern to help others, but does not imply that we want these persons for intimate friends, rather the contrary, we would like to get rid of them and their troublesome requests.

St. Thomas Aquinas points out that the love of the New Testament is a love of the highest kind of friendship, and this has two aspects (S.Th. II-II. Q. 27, a.2 c.). First, if we truly love someone we seek what is truly good for them, not just for ourselves, and this means above all their eternal salvation. Thus those who excuse causing another to sin on the grounds that one loves them, as extramarital “lovers” do, is not what the New Testament is talking about. Second, if we truly love someone we not only want to do them only good, but to be united to them in a common life of communication and virtue in eternal life. Friends want to be together.







From this it follows that what the New Testament means by “loving God and our neighbor” means that we both seek their good and want to share our lives with them. In other words love means to seek to include others in a community of mutual care directed toward life together with God forever. Such love seeks that spiritual solidarity that is so lacking in our individualistic and secularized culture. Consequently, those who love in this Christian sense are eager to hear what the Scriptures both Old and New say about a very detailed and concrete way of life that is directed to achieve the human good and avoid the evils that corrupt it. Unfortunately today too many read the Bible selectively.

Some quote the passages about social justice and freedom but explain away or suppress the passages about sexual morality as obsolete. Others quote the commands against sexual immorality to prove that those who talk about social justice are hypocrites, but pay little attention to how the biblical commands on social justice rebuke their individualistic political and economic views. We must take the whole biblical moral law, in all its details, as interpreted by Christ and the Tradition of the Church as given for our welfare, not to take away our freedom but to liberate us to live as Jesus did and with him.

Yet how is such a Christ-like life possible for us weak persons living in a society with a culture of death? We know, of course, that “all things are possible for God” and that he has sent us the Holy Spirit to empower us in grace to do what we cannot do of our own power. Hence, we are frequently sorry for our sins and do a little better for a while. But as St. Paul reminds us (1 Cor 9:24), no one wins a race just by taking a few steps forward. We have to keep running to the goal. This requires a consistency in our lives that is probably the hardest thing for most of us to achieve. Consistency in right living is possible not just through occasional resolutions to do better, but through virtue, that is, a quality or skill that enables us consistently to keep moving toward the goal, no matter what obstacles arise before us. Even a virtuous person in an unguarded moment can sin, as the Bible tells us about David who the Lord considered “a man after my own heart” (1 Sm 13:14), yet who in an idle moment became an adulterer and murderer. Yet if we have solid virtue we are greatly guarded against such weaknesses.

This is why today biblical scholars are pointing out that in the Old Testament the emphasis is on Law, that is, rules to guide behavior; in the New Testament, though it continues to teach this Law, the emphasis shifts to talk of the virtues. For example, St. Paul says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against these there is no law” (Gal 5:22-23). There are two kinds of virtue recognized in Christian Tradition: one is the gift of God, the work of the Holy Spirit in us, as St. Paul indicates. These are given in baptism and remain unless destroyed by deliberate, serious sin. Yet there are also natural virtues that we acquire by regularly living according to the moral law, and thus acquiring a skill in keeping that law consistently, just as a person learns to play golf or the piano with consistent effectiveness. What is often not understood is that if we use the virtues that are gifts of the Spirit we will gradually also acquire the natural virtues that will support these gifts. But we can fail to do so in two ways. The first is not to use our gifts of the Spirit by acting from other than Christian motives and by neglecting the use of the sacraments and prayer. Too often this is the case with baptized Christians who simply live in a worldly way, never rising above it by cooperating with the Holy Spirit. It is possible for such worldly persons, Christian or not, to acquire the natural virtues by practice, and that is why sometimes they put Christians to shame by their better conduct. Yet without grace and the use of God’s gifts no one, however naturally disciplined in virtue, can go for long with falling into mortal sin. Then the good habits acquired by a disciplined life may suddenly fail and even become a source of pride and arrogance and still deeper malice and sin.

The right way, taught in the New Testament, is to make use both of the virtues given us by the Holy Spirit and of the disciplined practice of morality urged on us by sound reason. This has through the ages been the pastoral urging of the Church, which warns us not to tempt God by simply relying on his gifts of grace without an effort at acquiring a natural integrity of life, or on the other hand, trying to live simply on our own acquired habits of morality. “Grace perfects nature” and nature, rightly used, supports grace. The Bible itself seldom contrasts these two aspects of a virtuous life, nor does the Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasize the classical distinction made by St. Thomas Aquinas between the “infused” and the “acquired” virtues. Yet the doctrines of the Creation on the one hand and of the Incarnation on the other, in which the divine and human, nature and grace, are intimately wedded, imply this twofold character of human virtue found in Christ himself.

The primary virtues that the New Testament teaches are first of all what later theologians were to call the “theological virtues” because they enable us to consistently maintain our direct and intimate friendship with God himself, and therefore with our neighbor in God. These are faith, hope, and love, of which love (agape) is the greatest, but which is not possible without faith and hope. We cannot truly love God if we do not truly know him through faith; and we cannot continue to love him in the midst of the trials of life, unless we truly hope at last to be united with him forever. These theological virtues are in the strictest sense the gifts of God, who loved us first and made it possible for us to love him in return.

Yet faith, hope, and love cannot flourish in the human person unless that person is also endowed with virtues that discipline her or his various voluntary powers to pursue the goal of love of God and neighbor and true love of self. These are required in the natural order, but if they are to strive for the ultimate goal of grace they must also have a supernatural, graced aspect. First of all we need to be free of addiction to those biological pleasures that destroy so many human lives– food, sex, drugs, comfort, greed– and for this we need the virtue of moderation (temperance). The Bible does not teach a stoic morality. It praises the physical joys that God has given us to facilitate us in satisfying our necessary biological needs, but Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said not to be overly concerned about such matters. “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all”(Mt 5:31-32). Christians should seek a simple lifestyle that will leave them free to pursue greater goods.

True love, moreover, requires great courage (fortitude) that is willing to make sacrifices, as Jesus did, for the sake of fidelity to God and the welfare of one’s neighbor. That requires a spiritual warfare (Eph 6:10-17) that is non-violent, and hence consists first of all in patience and endurance of the Cross (Rm 15:1-6). Thus the virtues of moderation and courage enable us to control our emotions of desire for pleasure and fear of difficulties, so that we can truly believe, hope, and love.

Moderation and courage, however, pertain primarily to control of bodily emotions. We also need to control our spiritual intelligence and free will that enter directly into free choice where good actions take place but where also sin is most profound and destructive. The virtue that puts the human will to the service of God and neighbor is justice, often called “righteousness.” We all love ourselves because God made us that way, and thus the commandment is “love your neighbor as yourself.” But, of course, our self-love is often foolish and destructive. To love our neighbor and to fulfill our duties to our Creator we must have a firm will to think not just of our own good, but also of the good of others, and this is far from easy. Justice is that virtue that respects the rights of others. It leads us to prefer the common good to our private goods. Because we realize that our private goods, though more evident to us, are actually less important for us than those common goods that we can share with others, we must have this will to solidarity with others, but to do so we must be mindful of them and of our own true good. We must be able to say as St. Paul did (1 Cor 2:16), “We have the mind of Christ.” This requires the virtue of prudence or, as the Old Testament often calls it, “wisdom.” It is that thoughtfulness that keeps us from acting under impulse and addictive compulsion and helps us consider realistically what is truly good for ourselves and others and most expressive of a sincere love of our Creator.

The New Testament, like the Old, constantly contrasts the “way of the fool” to “the way of the wise” as the “way of death” and the “way of life.” Both Testaments assure us that this wisdom can be found even in simple persons who are often regarded as of low intelligence, yet who by the gift of the Spirit exhibit a clean and true conscience. Thus the wisdom that comes from God is not the privilege simply of an educated elite, but of those whose faith teaches them to follow the guidance of God himself given through the Bible and the Church. It is this prudence or wisdom, this effort to learn what is truly good by listening to God in his biblical and traditional revelation, that makes all the other virtues work. Even love, if it is not prudent, is foolishness not true love, and often is destructive of others and ourselves. It is a kind of practical atheism, since it rejects the wisdom of God who is Wisdom.

Thus Dei Verbum, in reaffirming for our own times and circumstances the divine, inerrant inspiration of the Bible as it is united to the living Tradition of the Church guided by the Holy Spirit, points the way to the solution of the many moral questions that confront us in our society today. All of Scripture is inspired and contains for us, when properly understood, a sure and detailed guidance for our lives and the acquisition and development of the virtues that can make Christian life a success. But we must be willing to learn from it, even when we find the sayings “hard,” as the Apostles found the teachings of Jesus himself. We must not substitute for these teachings the foolishness of our own times, although they may enable us to find in our own times things that enable us to understand Jesus’ teaching more profoundly.

[This article originally appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of The Catholic Dossier.]



Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

The Bible Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Scripture and Theology | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
Pope John Paul II and the Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes | Douglas Bushman
Going Deeper Into the Old Testament | An Interview with Aidan Nichols, O.P.
The Pattern of Revelation: A Contentious Issue | From Lovely Like Jerusalem | Aidan Nichols, O.P.
God, The Author of Scripture | From God and His Image | Fr. Dominique Barthélemy, O.P.
Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac
How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft
Approaching the Sacred Scriptures | Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch
The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion" | James Hitchcock
Introduction to The Meaning of Tradition | Yves Congar, O.P.



Benedict M. Ashley, OP, is a priest of the Dominican Order, Chicago Province. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame and has doctorates in philosophy and political science, and the post-doctoral decree of Master of Sacred Theology conferred by an international committee of the Order of Preachers. He was formerly President of Aquinas Institute of Theology, St.Louis, Professor of Theology at the Institute of Religion and Human Development, Houston, TX, and Professor of Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C, and Visiting Lecturer in Humanities at the University of Chicago (1999). At present he is Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis and Adjunct Professor at the Center for Health Care Ethics, Saint Louis University. He is a Senior Fellow of the Pope John Center of Medical Ethics, Boston. He is the author of numerous books and articles.



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