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Don’t Let People Tell You the Moral Law Is Too Hard

Are absolute moral norms really just too difficult to follow? Jesus has a stark answer.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this statement in light of the constant attempts to define Jesus as a figure somehow opposed to law, whether in its particular Jewish form or in general. Marcion did it in the second century, suggesting that the Old Testament God, the God of the Law and the Prophets, was an evil God, whereas Jesus represented a new God of spirituality and freedom.

I don’t hear that kind of direct Marcionism very often in a Catholic context today, but perhaps you’ll note with me the strong resonances with many of the ways that Jesus gets co-opted into this antinomian agenda. We hear from clergy, including bishops—heck, even the majority of bishops in some places—that it is not “pastoral” to talk about absolute moral norms, and that these laws are just too hard for most people to follow. We should certainly celebrate those brave—or should we say strange—individuals who are able to keep them, but not in a way that implies anyone else’s failure or sin. You have heard it said, “Do not commit adultery,” but we say to you, just don’t feel too guilty about it. You have heard it said, “Do not murder,” but we say to you, it’s really hard not to kill a baby every now and then, and also what about the environment?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to ask good rational questions about whether we’re presenting moral teaching in the best way, and especially whether we’re being consistent and coherent. But this modern worry that the universal moral law is just too hard to be taken seriously has no support whatsoever in the words of Jesus. Over and over in the sermon on the mount—whether it’s about marriage, or murder, or lust, or honesty—he takes the law given by Moses and says, you know what, that doesn’t go far enough, let’s go farther. Like a persistent physician, he keeps digging to find the root disorders in our souls. So yes, on one level we can say: something like adultery isn’t as big of a deal as lust, not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s a surface symptom of an internal sickness. Here perhaps we should qualify any Christian obsession over the big symptomatic moral issues of our time—sexuality, abortion, marriage—and remember that treating the symptoms will not ultimately cure the disease.

But the delving of the Great Physician doesn’t excuse us from ignoring the injunctions of the law. Nor can we, like the Pharisees, use Scripture to find loopholes and rationalizations to avoid our responsibilities. The teaching from our reading in Sirach is quite clear: if you choose, you can keep the commandments. God has set before you fire and water, life and death. How you choose is up to you. No one has a license to sin.

There are important and useful ways that the Catholic moral tradition reflects on circumstance, intention, and knowledge to understand the ways that we can be more or less culpable for our actions. But we have to see those within the broader shape of Catholic teaching on the moral life and virtue. It may be that your circumstances make it all the more difficult to avoid sin. But none of that changes the nature of the sin or how it affects us. Thinking about the exact gravity of an act is useful in the specific context of sacramental confession. There the confessor seeks to understand the root causes of the disorder, and that may mean relativizing in a certain way things on the surface. But today we have gotten into the habit of applying that technique in a more general way—of relativizing our actions without seeking out the inner disposition.

As a consequence, in addition to our own spiritual illness, we impede our witness to the world. Stanley Hauerwas writes, “The Pharisees quite understandably tried to observe the law without that observance being recognized as subversive to those who ruled them.” This is yet another version of the “invisibility” that Jesus insisted last week we avoid by being salt and light. But in the modern drive to contextualize and relativize everything away, often our intention is a little different. Maybe we want to avoid being like the Pharisees by avoiding hypocrisy. The trouble is that Jesus never envisions our avoiding hypocrisy by avoiding the seriousness of sin. A hypocritical nutritionist or personal trainer who tries to blanket over his bad habits is not actually going to appear less hypocritical by going around declaring that good nutrition and exercise habits are basically impossible and not worth trying. He’s just going to appear sad.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ statements against hypocrisy are never an excuse to just stop talking about sin; they’re a call to repentance. Because it turns out that real repentance, when we own it and don’t try to downplay it, is a powerful witness to the truth of the gospel.

So yes, living virtuously and defying the powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil is hard. It’s hard to avoid lust and build healthy relationships. It’s hard to cultivate the inner peace that overflows into love for our neighbor. It’s really hard to always tell the truth, to let our yes be yes and our no no. But we can do these things with God’s help. They are not impossible. God gives us both the power to do them in the first place, but, maybe more importantly, he gives us the power to recover gracefully when we fall.

Both of those powers show the world the truth of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. They show us a path of hope rather than avoidance. Salvation isn’t escape from reality, but a dive into the “dearest freshness deep down things” (as Hopkins puts it).

A sin-denying world is also a forgiveness-denying world, and without forgiveness we cannot understand the life and work of Jesus. He is not, against Marcions ancient and new, the rebel spiritualist telling us to forget. Rather, he is the God of Israel himself, calling us to remember what is old so that he can make us new.

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