Till Christ Be Formed in Every Heart



Christian Morality: Happiness

Is there such a thing as "Christian morality", as in, a morality that is shaped by the Christian faith? If morality is universal, how can any religion or sect or belief claim to have a morality all to themselves, or claim that their morality is morality as such? As Catholics we have a strong belief in what is known as the moral law, or the natural law, or, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, the "natural moral law", that is written on the hearts of every human person and is echoed in each conscience. Is Christian morality, then, an extra superimposed or added on to the already existing super-structure of natural law morality?

These are questions that have bothered me over the years. I think this is what drove the Enlightenment project of Immanuel Kant. He sought to remove from morality any supernatural basis and ground everything in the individual's practical reason, that is, in the capacity for rational thought about human action. For Kant, the natural law was more or less an artifact of the past. He rejected the thought of a law imposed on human beings from above, but likewise he was against the rejection of morality, per se. His project was to keep morality rational, as opposed to faith-based, and to keep it universal, that is, applying to all men at all times and places. In rejecting classic natural law, he created instead the Categorical Imperative, which is to make your action an "ought" that applies to everyone, and see whether it is rational or irrational. In stripping moral laws of their objective character, he labored to keep it universal, whereas the natural law remains both objective and universal.

Though many, especially Nietzsche, would demolish the philosophical system of Immanuel Kant over the years, his project became the paradigm of Enlightenment men using their reason to impose order on the universe, especially on the moral universe, in order to discover the non-religious foundation of morality.

It belongs to the great achievement of a contemporary philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, of Notre Dame, who shows the emptiness of the Enlightenment Project as a whole. For him their fatal flaw was to abandon the teleological structure of morality, which was regarded by the pagan Greeks and Romans, the Jews and the Christians alike, as the basis for any moral system.

Teleology comes from the Greek word "telos" meaning "end". What modern morality did was reject that essential characteristic from moral judgment, finding the end of a man's life too religious, too vague, or too egotistic. And so the Enlightenment Project to found a rational morality (and religion, too!) had failed, and oh what a fall it was!

It belongs to our Catholic Christian faith that the reason why we have become Catholics is because Jesus Christ is God and God is real. Furthermore, God is love, and so this changes things entirely for those who believe, because this means that the Hands that creates and sustains the universe are good hands. God implanted in the hearts of every human person the desire to be happy. This is the first impulse and ultimate desire of all life- it is fulfillment, happiness, beatitude, flourishing- whatever word you want to use to describe it, this is the Ultimate End for each and every human person.

Happiness is the most important thing in each and every human person's life. We do all of the things that we do, make all of the sacrifices that we make, buy things, wear things, eat and drink things, inject things, and everything else that comprises human actions for this one goal: our own happiness. Jesus put this desire in us. Love of self is not the same as selfishness. In fact, the love for oneself is an essential characteristic of Christian morality.

Jesus recognized this innate human desire for happiness and placed it at the center of his preaching ministry. The Beatitudes are eight categories of blessed people that will have Heaven in Matthew 5:3-12. In this famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus starts of with "Blessed... Blessed... Blessed..." In Greek, the word "Markiros" means "Blessed" but also "Happy". "Happy are the poor in spirit, for their's is the Kingdom of Heaven." At the center of Jesus' public ministry, in the midst of the largest recorded sermon, stretching from chapter five to seven in Matthew's Gospel, the concept of happiness is the starting point. 

The Beatitudes form the core of Jesus' moral teaching. The Sermon on the Mount, then, is the Magna Carta of Christian living. The Sermon contains most the precepts of how to live as a Christian and pray as one. If you want to be His disciple, start with the exhortations in the Sermon.  With that being said, over and over again Jesus Christ appeals to our desire to be happy as the foundation stone of morality. 

Happiness is the end of all human desiring. We desire money not for its own sake, but because we believe that money will make us happy. Try to reverse it and see how ridiculous it would sound: we desire happiness because it will make us money. That is absurd! Wealth, health, status, sex, pleasures- all of these are means to the one, final and ultimate end. That end, we call happiness. Jesus Christ revealed that end is union with God.

Though many philosophers do see happiness as having something to do with God, it was Jesus Christ who taught us that our heart's deepest longing, only suggested in the Old Testament, was to be fully united to God, to share in God's own life, to become divine. 

This is the fundamental difference in Christian morality (moral theology): it begins with the End, which is God, and goes from there. Happiness, the longing of every person, is given not only new weight, but a new name: eternal life. And linking this with our desires, Jesus calls it our "reward".