I once knew a Baptist who was sleeping with her boyfriend. She knew this was wrong, but consoled herself that she was “bringing her boyfriend to Christ.”
She told me, “If I can just get him to salvation” (meaning “saying the Sinner’s Prayer, and asking Jesus into his heart as his personal Lord and Savior”) then he can’t lose it.” She believed in “eternal security.” After the prayer, they’d be free to pursue unfettered fornication.
Serious Catholics roll their eyes at this. We know “having said a prayer once” guarantees nothing. We recognize (at least when non-Catholics do stuff like this) that being a Christian is more than just a matter of “minimum daily requirements.”
However, Catholics can also slip into this sort of thinking.
For instance, how many of our parishes have RCIA programs that are pretty much predicated on the notion that Baptism is the end, not the beginning of the journey of faith? How many new converts find themselves utterly abandoned to just flop around on the shore of the great Catholic ocean after Easter? Might this have something to do with the enormous attrition rate among new converts?
Similarly, some Catholics can be positively Clintonian in parsing the “bottom line” on pet moral issues.
On one side, for instance, we find many ingenious attempts to explain away the Church’s teaching regarding the intrinsically immoral act of abortion, while on the other, similar efforts go into figuring out clever ways to defend the intrinsically immoral acts of torture sanctioned by the Bush administration.
Usually, this feat is accomplished by reverting to the notion that obeying the Church’s moral teaching is, again, a matter of “minimum daily requirement” thinking.
“Just exactly when does a human person come into existence? Can we really say that a cluster of cells is precisely, technically, exactly a person? Thomas Aquinas did not recognize ensoulment till the 40th day after conception, you know! What is the precise boundary between removing cells and killing a person?” runs one line of sophistry on one side of Catholic thought.
Meanwhile, on the other side, the cry goes up that the Geneva Accords, which forbid “outrages on human dignity” and seemed to work just fine for decades, are suddenly, in Bush’s words, “vague.”
Much chin-stroking ensues as some Catholics on one side try to figure out just exactly how much you can waterboard or inflict pain on or otherwise frighten and torment prisoners before it’s exactly, legally, technically, precisely, you know, torture.
The problem is, all this sort of thinking is rubbish. For Jesus makes clear that the Ten Commandments, like all the prohibitions of the Law, are the floor, not the ceiling of the moral life.
This comes as a shock to people used to political blather about the Ten Commandments as “the sacred teachings that enshrine our highest values” and so forth.
The Ten Commandments do not enshrine our highest values. They enshrine our lowest values. For it is the bare minimum of decency and common sense to say, “At the very least, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, have some respect for your parents, honor your Creator, etc.”
These are not “the highest ideals of the human race.” They are the absolute bare minimum for a functioning human society.
Jesus makes this clear by insisting that laws like “Don’t murder” or “Torture is intrinsically immoral” are there in order to be transcended, not parsed for loopholes.
So, for instance, he not only reiterates the commandment against murder, but tells us that murder is found in the heart and must be conquered there. If you cherish hatred of another, you have already murdered him.
The point of this is to get us to realize, not that the Law is a bad thing, but that, as Paul says, “Love is the fulfillment of the Law.”
The Law is the floor below which we may not go. But love is the ceiling or, better still, the sky — and the sky’s the limit.
Therefore, attempts at moral reasoning, like attempts at evangelism, which aim at asking, “What’s the bare minimum of obedience to Christ I can get away with and still be saved?” are fundamentally wrong-headed, like the guy who asks just exactly how far he can go with the secretary before it’s really precisely, technically, exactly, you know, adultery.
To even ask the question is to already reveal your corruption.
Similarly, the way you avoid injustice to the unborn babe or the prisoner is not to waste time trying to figure out how close you can come to killing or torturing him without “crossing the line.” Instead you aim to love him and you will not accidentally kill or torture him.
Seek first the Kingdom and everything else will be added, as well.
Mark Shea is
senior content editor