Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 25--Good Acts and Salvation

MAN MUST NOT ONLY "BE," he must "do," as he is not Being itself, but participates in that Being, and so is a contingent, ever-changing being that is "becoming." As a consequence, man must act, and act freely, and "[i]t is precisely through his [free] acts that man attains perfection as man," which is to say becomes that which he his meant to be. VS, 71. What is he meant to be? What is his calling? He is "called to seek his Creator of his own accord and freely to arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to Him." VS, 71.

It is man's ultimate destiny in God which gives his acts dignity and meaning as they lead him to that end. It is also that fact which gives his acts a moral quality. "Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them." VS, 71. The both express who we are and determine who we are to become. They are at once both descriptive and formative. In a sense, man makes himself, not, of course, in the sense that he makes his nature, but in the sense that he has a role in freedom to perfect that nature by doing good or to act against that nature by doing evil. He uses his freedom and wills to act either to conform to his nature, or to deform his nature. That nature is spiritual, and hence every act has the ability profoundly to affect, to define, to determine the profound spiritual traits of man. John Paul II quotes the observation of St. Gregory of Nyssa from the latter's Life of Moses:

All things subject to change and to becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or worse. . . Now, human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew . . . . But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention [non extrinsecus / οὐκ ἐξ ἀλλοτρίας ], as is the case with bodily beings. . . ; it is the result of a free choice [electione propria / ἐκ προαιρέσεως]. Thus we are in a certain way our own parents [ipsis patres quodammodo simus nostri / καὶ ἔσμεν ἑαυτῶν τρόπον τινὰ πατέρες], creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions.

VS, 71.

St. Gregory of Nyssa
Our free choice allows us to parent our souls

The moral character of our acts is defined or determined by measuring it against authentic good, and so it is the relationship between the exercise of our freedom and that authentic good that determines whether and act is morally good or evil. This good is not something we define, but to us is a given, a gift whose source is God:
This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end: this eternal law is known both by man's natural reason (hence it is "natural law"), and — in an integral and perfect way — by God's supernatural Revelation (hence it is called "divine law").
VS, 72.

We have then this good promulgated by the Divine Wisdom of God as the eternal law, a law that orders all contingent beings to their own end. The eternal law is known to us in two ways: imperfectly and not altogether integrally through the natural law (i.e., through reason), and perfectly and integrally through the divine law (i.e., through Revelation). Since an act is morally good when it is freely and voluntarily ordered to, or conformed with, our true good, it follows that for an act to be morally good it also must conform to the natural and divine law both. And since man's ultimate good is God, it is to God as our ultimate end that all our moral acts must be ordered. Both the natural law and divine law come from God as creator and redeemer, and tend to him as our ultimate good. God himself is "the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness." VS, 72. God is the end of the law.

Hearkening back to his meditation at the beginning of the encyclical, John Paul II observes that there is an ineradicable nexus or connection between the moral value of an act (i.e., whether a moral act is good) and the final end of man, that plenary happiness of which is his as a result of a loving union with God. "What good must I do?" the young man asks, "to have eternal life." What good must I do to achieve my ultimate end?

There is an important principle here: eternal life is not something that is gained because one does good. Nor does the rich ruler see it that way. What the rich young ruler sees, however, and what most contemporary men (including many Christians, particularly those raised in the Protestant ecclesial communions, but not any less the Catholic theologians which John Paul II has in mind) fail to see is the necessary quality of good works, of acts that conform with the authentic good of man. Morally good acts may not be sufficient for salvation, but they are necessary for salvation:

[T]he performance of good acts, commanded by the One who "alone is good," constitutes the indispensable condition of and path to eternal blessedness: "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Mt 19:17). Jesus' answer and his reference to the commandments also make it clear that the path to that end is marked by respect for the divine laws which safeguard human good. Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life.

VS, 72. The modern problem is significant. In a way, we are all heirs to the Protestant Reformation's sophomoric and neurotic fear of any doctrine infected in any way by any hint of "salvation by works." The Protestant Reformers of course touted as their central doctrinal pennant the notion of "sola gratia," only grace, and held out as their oriflamme the doctrine of "sola fide," faith alone. As a consequence, the intimate relationship of good acts to salvation has largely been lost to the Protestant world. The Catholic theologians to whom John Paul II directs himself have fallen into this same trap: they have severed the tie between particular, concrete acts that conform with the good with eternal life, making the latter dependent upon some vague, generic "fundamental option," which is sort of a Catholic form of "once saved always saved."

But with St. Paul, John Paul II reminds the faithful: "Know you not that the unjust [unrighteous] shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err [or be deceived]: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God." 1 Cor. 6:9-10. Good acts, and not acts with good intentions, are a sine qua non of salvation:
The rational ordering of the human act to the good in its truth and the voluntary pursuit of that good, known by reason, constitute morality. Hence human activity cannot be judged as morally good merely because it is a means for attaining one or another of its goals, or simply because the subject's intention is good.* Activity is morally good when it attests to and expresses the voluntary ordering of the person to his ultimate end and the conformity of a concrete action with the human good as it is acknowledged in its truth by reason. If the object of the concrete action is not in harmony with the true good of the person, the choice of that action makes our will and ourselves morally evil, thus putting us in conflict with our ultimate end, the supreme good, God himself.
VS, 72.

One act, then, if it involves a grave matter and if done with knowledge and sufficient consent, can sever our tie with our ultimate Good, and make our will and our very persons morally evil, putting us at enmity with God. And this is universally true for all men: none escape from its reality.

Granted, the Christian, "thanks to God's Revelation and to faith," both products of God's grace and not as a result of any intrinsic merit, sees the natural law in a new light. The Christian is, as John Paul II expresses it, "aware of the 'newness' which characterizes the morality of actions," a morality he shares with all other men. He sees that his "actions are called to show either consistency or inconsistency with that dignity and vocation which have been bestowed on him by grace." The natural law is the gift of creation, the first creation, and may be called the "first grace." Man, the reasonable creature, made in the image of God, is meant to act out his nature as one created in the image of God. As a result of becoming a "new creation" in Christ, the Christian sees the natural law as being part of a greater order.

The Christian is aware that he is a citizen of the realm of nature, but is also aware that he is a citizen of the realm of supernature. When he follows Jesus and receives the Holy Spirit, the Christian becomes "a 'new creation,' a child of God," and is called to show, not only the likeness that is his as the "image of God" which he shares with all men, but also the "likeness or unlikeness to the image of the Son who is the first-born among many brethren." VS, 73 (cf. Rom. 8:29)** He is to live out his life either in "fidelity or infidelity to the gift of the Spirit." VS, 73. The Christian is aware, ultimately, that by his acts he either "opens or closes himself to eternal life, to the communion of vision, love and happiness with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." VS, 73. The moral life for a Christian, then, is clearly Trinitarian, and goes well beyond an ordering to the law of God who is known only as Creator, as First Cause.

This knowledge is not only one to which a Christian is called: all men are called to this end. And in fact, in some manner, men of good will may, without even expressly knowing it, be participating in the Christian dispensation. Here we enter into a world where only God knows, and where no man can see and must speak only of possibilities and not probabilities, and surely not certainties. There may, it would appear, though how many God only knows, anonymous Christians, secret Christians--anima naturaliter Christiana, the souls is naturally Christian. John Paul II, invoking the Second Vatican Council's pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes observes that the call to a Trinitarian response to the moral life is universal: "This applies not only to Christians but to all men of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for all and since man's ultimate calling comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of sharing in this paschal mystery in a manner known to God." VS, 73, n. 123 (quoting GS, 22). The image of God in every man is implicitly a Trinitarian image. What else could it be since the God who created man is the God who redeemed him? There is not one salvation for the non-believer, and another for Christ's faithful. There is only one way, truth, and life: there is only one faith, and one baptism. And how the Holy Spirit reaches outside of the confines of his established Church with Grace to draw men toward Christ and his Church and into salvation is shrouded in mystery.

Because the moral life is intrinsically ordered to God as Trinity, it follows that it "has an essential 'teleological' character, since it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end (telos) of man." VS, 73. That end is not subjective: we do not give ourselves our own final end. That end is objectively predetermined, and that is why there is a law--"commandments"--which serve, as a sort of moral trailblazers, to mark the way, to keep us on salvation's path.

To have moral value, our participation in that objective order must be free, and must, in addition, be conscious and deliberate. The opposite side of the coin of freedom, consciousness, and deliberation is responsibility. Together with his freedom, man holds his responsibility. And the use (or abuse) of this freedom is "subject to the judgment of God," that good and just judge "who, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, rewards good and punishes evil." VS, 73.
*Cf. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIa-IIae, q.148, a. 3.
**"For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son; that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren."

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