Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Foundational Norms for Christian Ethics

by Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, D.D.


Discusses the secular and Christian visions of man and how they differ, shows that Christ is the norm for ethics.

Larger Work

The Catholic Faith

Publisher & Date

The Catholic Faith, July/August 1996

Vision Book Cover Prints

The Secular Vision Of Man

Many models of ethics today present a minimalist approach to human conduct. The human person is characterized by rationality and self-consciousness, nothing more and nothing less. His origins and end are wholly within this world. He was born of the stars and will return to become star dust. He is best described as a microcosm of nature. Personal and social problems are to be resolved simply and exclusively on the basis of history, science and individual experience.

For the secularist, morality is not dependent upon religion in any way. There is a dichotomy between religion and moral norms. In the West the Christian faith has become at best a privatized world-view. Modern man asserts that God, if He exists, has withdrawn totally from the world and is silent.

In such a view, people look for the best set of public and private rules and find them within the overriding value of tolerance. Society does not dictate values, but rather acts as a neutral arbiter to bring about a system of cooperation between competing and often conflicted factions and individuals. 'Human rights' become more basic than the 'good.'

Such a position is being pressed unremittingly in the United States even when it leads to the bizarre. An example is the letter sent by the California legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union to the members of the legislature of California regarding the teaching of the "value of marriage": "It is our position that teaching monogamous, heterosexual intercourse within marriage as a traditional American value is an unconstitutional establishment of a religious doctrine in public schools. There are various religions which hold contrary beliefs with respect to marriage and monogamy."

The Christian Vision Of Man

The Gospel, in contrast, has an exalted view of the human person. We are born of God (John 1:13). Jesus Christ is "the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" of all creation (Rev. 22:13), including man. Our actions take on meaning in a world unified by God's action of creation and redemption in Christ. There is a marriage between the biblical revelation and ethics.

The context for our moral activity is revealed in John's great Prologue, the Word who was with God in the beginning and "through whom all things have been made, and without him was not anything made that was made" Jesus Christ (John 1:3). In the light of Christian revelation, the world is a drama initiated by God for our salvation in Christ. And our encounter with infinite freedom can only take place within the perspective of a personal call, within a sense of vocation, of an election. Our lives make sense only within God's story.

How are Christians to live in a society whose supreme values are tolerance and the creation of a system of cooperation between competing groups? Hans Urs von Balthasar gives a compelling response. "Christians must be more intensely on fire with the love of God; they will have to be so if possible more absolutely, more silently, with less dramatic gestures and forms of devotion... They will have to efface themselves, disappearing in the uniform mass, and by doing so gain in sincerity and intensely humble objectivity."

Christians must accept the full impact that God no longer has meaning in the contemporary world. But this is not the last word by any means. Our testimony to Jesus of Nazareth must always and everywhere be a testimony of faith. This is what Balthasar calls the "elliptical structure of Christology."

Christ: The Supreme, Concrete Norm For Ethics

The supreme norm for Christian ethics is Christ. His obedience to the Father's will is the starting point for moral development. This is the teaching of the encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. "Consequently the decisive answer to every one of man's questions, his moral and religious questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself"(no. 2). And later, "Each day the Church looks to Christ with unfailing love, fully aware that the answer to the problem of morality lies in him alone" (no. 85).

Jesus Christ is the concrete, absolute, unqualified norm of all ethical actions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this by asserting that he is the unique measure and the archetype of divine love and the response to it. "The first and last point of reference of this catechesis will always be Jesus Christ himself, who is 'the way, and the truth, and the life.' It is by looking to him in faith that Christ's faithful can hope that he himself fulfills his promises in them, and that, by loving him with the same love with which he has loved them, they may perform works in keeping with their dignity" (no. 1698).

The ethical actions of Christians must mirror the reality that they live with Christ in the final times. By His death and resurrection, Christ carried creation to its eschatological fulfillment. Moral perfection is the goal of Christian reflection on ethics. "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Lk. 6:36). Our perfection consists in taking part in a mission, the origin of which is within the Trinity of Divine Persons and which becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ.

Christ: The Universal Ethical Norm

The perfect obedience of Jesus to His Father is the valid and applicable norm for all ethical situations. This becomes clear when one reflects upon the saving link between Christ and sinners. By the Paschal mystery we all 'abide' in Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. "The Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself'" for us (Veritatis Splendor, no. 85). We share in His freedom through faith.

This "for us" is to be taken seriously, that is, not metaphorically. It means that Jesus did not simply act in our favor, in solidarity with our sufferings. Rather for us God made him to be sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and Jesus became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13), that is, "in our stead" in the sense of representation. In what Balthasar calls "a breakthrough formula," St. Paul teaches that Jesus gives Himself for us to the extent of "exchanging place" with us. "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9).

In virtue of the Cross, the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all flesh (Acts 2:17). Through the Paschal Mystery the Holy Spirit of God universalizes the form of Christ in every believer making it available and applicable to every moral situation. The Church, especially through the Eucharist, is the privileged place in which the Holy Spirit of freedom leads the individual Christian freely into the Father's kingdom.

"The Golden Rule"

"So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets" (Mt. 7:112). On the lips of Jesus "The Golden Rule" is not a humanitarian statement. It requires a distinctively Christian interpretation. It is a call for an exchange of the gift of love among persons who are "in Christ Jesus." Everything that Christians do and say must now be seen in the context of the Eucharistic Christ. His life's surrender is freely imparted to use only through him and with Him and in Him.


Sin and its guilt can only be seen within the context of Christ who loved His own in the world to the end (John 13:1). This is the teaching of Pope John Paul II in his 1986 encyclical letter Dominum et Vivificantem:

When on the eve of the Passover Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as the one who 'will convince the world concerning sin,' on the one hand this statement must be given the widest possible meaning, insofar as it includes all the sin in the history of humanity. But on the other hand, when Jesus explains that this sin consists in the fact that 'they do not believe in him,' this meaning seems to apply only to those who rejected the messianic mission of the Son of Man and condemned him to the death on the Cross. But one can hardly fail to notice that the more 'limited' and historically specified meaning of sin expands, until it assumes a universal dimension by reason of the universality of the redemption, accomplished through the Cross. The revelation of the mystery of Redemption opens the way to an understanding in which every sin whenever and wherever committed has a reference to the Cross of Christ - and therefore indirectly also to the sin of these who 'have not believed in him,' and who condemned Jesus Christ to death on the Cross (no. 29).

There are further sources for the formation of ethical judgements: other biblical elements (the promise and the law), fragments of philosophical ethics (conscience and natural law), and the application of the so-called "anthropological sciences" to a post-Christian and non-Christian ethics. These sources attain their goal only in and through Christ, the absolutely singular and universal ethical norm.

[In some of what has preceded, I am indebted to the insights of Hans Urs von Balthasar, especially his "Nine Propositions on Christian Ethics."]

July/August 1996 issue of The Catholic Faith

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