Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The “Culture of Faith” vs. the “Culture of Secularism”

by Dr. Mark S. Latkovic


Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D., professor of Moral Theology, writes on living a Christian moral life in twenty-first century America.

Larger Work

The Catholic Faith

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, September/October 2001

“We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 1995, #21).

“It is urgent, then, that Christians should rediscover the newness of the faith and its power to judge a prevalent and all-intrusive [secular] culture” (Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 1993, #88).

I. The Present Context: Evangelization and Anti-Evangelization, Faith and Secularism

A. The “New Evangelization” and Christian Life Today

What will it take to live a truly authentic Christian moral life in twenty-first century America? In many ways, Pope John Paul II has tried to answer this question with his call for a “new evangelization” or even a “re-evangelization” of countries or persons formerly Christian in belief and practice but now only so in name (see Redemptoris Missio). In speaking this way, however, the Holy Father was not obviously implying that we should preach a new gospel or a watered-down version of the old gospel, much less conform our own lives to a new gospel.

In his 1994 bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II informs us that the expression “new evangelization” was first popularized by Pope Paul VI in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, “as a response to the new challenges that the contemporary world creates for the mission of the Church” (p. 114). However, in its essentials, evangelization remains “the Church’s living teaching, the first proclamation of the faith (kerygma) and instruction, formation in the faith (catechesis) ... and also the entire wide-ranging commitment to reflect on revealed truth...”(Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 107).

Thus, the Gospel that we are called to proclaim and live – albeit in the changed and changing circumstances of the first century of the third millennium – is, in fact, the very same Gospel that our Lord began to preach when he gathered a few fisherman on Lake Tiberius two-thousand years ago. Today, however, Christians in Western societies, are, as John Paul recognizes, confronted by the “culture of secularism” or the “culture of unbelief” that often stands diametrically opposed to the vision and values of the Gospel and the “culture of faith.” Just reading a newspaper, watching television, listening to contemporary music, or strolling through the mall shopping on a Saturday afternoon is evidence enough of this radical opposition, however subtle it may sometimes be.

Therefore, how we communicate and live the Gospel in our present day affluent American society takes on a peculiar character: unlike previous centuries of our recent past, we can no longer presuppose in evangelizing – despite the incredible advances in communication technologies – that the man or woman of today has at least a general familiarity with the Gospel message. As the Pope states in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, “Generations come and go which have distanced themselves from Christ and the Church, which have accepted a secular model of thinking and living or upon which such a model has been imposed” (p. 113). In many respects, I believe that these words of the Holy Father describe our own country’s situation vis-à-vis the Christian world-view and value-system.

As a consequence, the Christian faithful are challenged to live a life which witnesses to our contemporaries the truth of the Gospel and of the Catholic Church in a culture whose world-view often questions, ridicules, or rejects the teachings of the faith. For instance, who among us has not had the experience of feeling like an alien when taking a stand against some viewpoint or practice of the “culture of secularism?” If only this experience were fictional, like watching an episode of The X Files and getting a sense of what it must be like to actually be an alien. But in our case, unfortunately, this is not fiction. Hence, we do not need the F.B.I. agents Skully and Mulder of that program to uncover the aliens among us. We have already found them. And, in reality, they are each one of us to a great extent. Yet, in a sense, if we are following Jesus, this is how we should always feel to some degree, more or less, depending on how far the culture in which we live either accepts or rejects Christian beliefs and practices. In the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews: “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (13:14).

If Christians have now lost this sense of alien-ation, maybe they have also lost the sense of just how far the culture has been swiftly, to quote Judge Robert Bork, “slouching towards Gomorrah.” As a Catholic newspaper columnist recently put it: “In our own day we have sunk below the level of pagans. We have not only embraced all their moral errors – they accepted divorce, contraception, abortion, infanticide, homosexuality, and suicide – but we have also gone beyond the point of feeling any moral horror at all” (Benjamin D. Wiker, “Sub-Pagan Winter Groans for New Christian Spring,” National Catholic Register, January 7-13, 2001, p. 9). And not only do we evince no moral horror, but, I might add, we call these practices “human rights”!

Of course, part of the blame for this current state of affairs must rest with Christians themselves who are at times more concerned with comfort than with conversion. As the Pope writes in his Lenten Message for 2001, “Some Christians think they are able to do without ... a constant spiritual effort because they do not heed the urgency of confronting themselves with the truth of the Gospel. So as not to disturb their way of living, they attempt to empty and make innocuous words such as: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’ (Lk 6:27).” But these words, “if taken seriously,” according to the Holy Father, “demand a radical conversion” (Message of the Holy Father for Lent 2001, #2).

Without trying to sound too apocalyptic (or is it extraterrestrial?), what all of this amounts to is nothing less than a matter of life and death because it is first of all a matter of the eternal salvation of both the world and each and every one of us. The Holy Father powerfully explains this point: “Against the spirit of the world, the Church takes up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world’s soul. If in fact, on the one hand, the Gospel and evangelization are present in this world, on the other, there is also present a powerful anti-evangelization that is well organized and has the means to vigorously oppose the Gospel and evangelization. The struggle for the soul of the contemporary world,” he adds, “is at its height where the spirit of the world seems strongest” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 112). Note, too, in these words “evangelization” and “anti-evangelization,” a foreshadowing of what the Pope would describe so brilliantly in different terms one year later in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, as the struggle of the “culture of life” against the “culture of death.”

B. Two Questions and “Two Cultures”

Let me now use these thoughts of our Holy Father on evangelization and anti-evangelization as a springboard, if you will, to ask two questions which will form the basis of the rest of my remarks to you men [women] gathered here at this retreat. Hopefully, they will provide for us the “opportune occasion for a profound re­examination of life” (see John Paul II, Message of the Holy Father for Lent 2001, #1). First, negatively speaking, what are the things that one especially needs to avoid, i.e., the things one must not do in order to live a good and holy Christian life today – specifically, amidst the “culture of secularism”? Second, positively speaking, what are the things that one especially needs to do in order to live a good and holy Christian life today – specifically, amidst the “culture of secularism”?

In describing the “things to avoid” and the “things to do,” we will, in effect, describe the essential moral features of the two “cultures:” what I am calling the “culture of faith” and the “culture of secularism.” It is the “culture of faith” – the one we profess membership in – which is in a daily battle for the soul of the world. A world whose culture or ideology we have called “secularism” because it is characterized by a “practical atheism”: if not actually denying God in theory (as some do), many live as if there were no God (see Veritatis Splendor, #88). Or, they put their “faith” in the “twin gods” of secular humanism – science and technology – as the answer to the many problems that beset the human family. Rather than look to God for help, the “culture of secularism” relies on man and the scientific method (see Humanist Manifesto I and II, 1933, 1973, respectively, and the Humanist Manifesto 2000).

But we can also say that the world the Pope describes is one whose possible openness to the Gospel message, I would remind you, must never be written off or considered totally hopeless, since there are many true and good things to be found in it, not least among them those persons who are still deeply religious and good or at least sincerely searching for truth. As Pope John Paul II himself affirms in Crossing the Threshold of Hope: “If the world is not Catholic from a denominational point of view, it is nonetheless [still] profoundly permeated by the Gospel. We can even say that the mystery of the Church, the Body of Christ, is in some way invisibly present in it” (p. 112, my emphasis). Thus, according to John Paul, “there are no grounds for losing hope” (ibid.).

Therefore, Christians must not only critique the culture and avoid capitulation to its various sinful practices, they must also, relying on their faith and hope, transform the culture for Jesus Christ. This implies that Christians must do something: they must consistently and courageously live their faith. But they must also avoid something. And it is to this topic that I turn to first.

II. What Must We as Christians Avoid?

In addressing this topic, my comments are not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of everything that a Christian must avoid to be saved. Rather, my approach will be to simply highlight those general “negative” moral features of a Christian life that, because of the context of the “culture of secularism” in which we live, call for particular attention, emphasis, and renewal. For the Christian, in speaking of the things to avoid or the things one must never do, we know that our faith has sin primarily in mind.

A. Sin and the Need for Mortification

As Christians, we know that sin is as old as the age of man himself. Because of it, “human persons are doomed to suffering and death, and their desires are distorted...” (Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2: Living a Christian Life, 1993, p. 78). And the roots of all sin, as moral theologian Germain Grisez reminds us, “are in the quest for status, possessions, and enjoyment – in pride, avarice, gluttony, and lust” (ibid. p. 349). So, as they say, “there is nothing new under the sun.” But, Grisez adds, “these perennial roots of sin assume particular forms in contemporary, materialistic culture, which leaves little or no room for heaven and assigns ultimate value mainly to things which here and now mitigate painful feelings or provide sentient satisfaction” (ibid.)

Thus, in our society today, pride takes the form of self-assertion and individualism; avarice takes the form of consumerism; and pleasure seeking serves pride and avarice and also uses them (ibid. pp. 349-350). It is these forms of sin that explain our own culture’s characteristic negative moral features. Given this reality, and our duties as Christians to read the “signs of the times” in the light of the Gospel (see Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, #4), the contemporary situation calls for the appropriate Christian response – one that directly addresses the particular problems of our culture. Hence, given this unique factual situation, we must ask: how, then, am I to live a Christian moral life today? (see Grisez, p. 351).

Although the Church has a large body of social doctrine which attempts to map out the response of the whole Church to the contemporary situation, my emphasis here is on the type of personal moral and spiritual life – in its most general form – that we need to develop in order to meet the challenges of the “culture of secularism.”

The great Thomist theologian and possible sainthood candidate, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. has in many ways, in my opinion, set forth just such a “spiritual plan of life” which is as relevant today (if not more so) as when he first articulated it in the middle part of the twentieth century in his masterful two-volume work on the spiritual life, The Three Ages of the Interior Life: Prelude of Eternal Life. For Garrigou-Lagrange anticipated, in many ways, the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the “universal call to holiness.”

Since we are presently treating the things that we need to avoid; and, moreover, since it is less than two weeks before the start of the penitential season of Lent – when we reflect on our sins and do penance for them in order to grow closer to Christ and thus prepare for Easter – it is appropriate now to turn to what Garrigou-Lagrange teaches us about the need for mortification as the means for dealing with sin as found in the Gospel and in the letters of St. Paul. It is this ascetical part of Garrigou-Lagrange’s spiritual program that I will briefly focus my attention on (see also Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, chapter 4 on repentance, the sacrament of reconciliation, and the struggle against sin).

With respect to mortification as understood in the Gospel, Fr. Garrigou–Lagrange turns to our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) as the best expression of His teaching on the interior and exterior mortification required of the Christian. In brief, he notes that Jesus insists on death to sin and its consequences, by drawing our attention to our supernatural end – the Kingdom of Heaven. And thus, if we wish to enter it, we must be “perfect,” as our “heavenly Father is perfect” [Mt. 5:48] (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol. 1, 1947, p. 281). But, Garrigou-Lagrange comments, “this precept requires the mortification of all that is inordinate in us, of the inordinate movements of concupiscence, anger, hatred, pride, hypocrisy, and so on” (ibid. pp. 281-282). However, as Christ also teaches, the spirit of mortification ought not to be merely a form of self-perfection or an end in itself, but rather: “death to sin and its consequences out of love for God” (ibid. p. 283, my emphasis).

With respect to the Pauline teaching on mortification, I note that Garrigou­Lagrange reduces St. Paul’s reasons for mortification to four: “(1) because of the consequences of original sin; (2) because of the results of our personal sins; (3) because of the infinite elevation of our supernatural end; [and] (4) because we must imitate our crucified Lord” (ibid. p. 285). These four motives of mortification (and I have simply listed them) are reduced further to two by our Dominican: “hatred of sin and love of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ibid. p. 298).

Hence, according to Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, the true answer to a world that lives as if there were no God, i.e., what we have called the “culture of secularism,” is “the love of Christ crucified, which leads us to resemble Him and to save souls with Him by the same means as He used” (ibid. my emphasis). This implies, furthermore, as Garrigou‑Lagrange expresses it, that our “world is not so much in need of philosophers and sociologists [valuable though they may be!], as of saints who are the living image of the Savior among us” (ibid. p. 297).

B. Specific Sins to Be Avoided

What now of sins to be avoided by the Christian? Let me approach this topic from the standpoint of the roots of sin that today, as we have seen, seem especially characteristic of our culture – pride, avarice, and pleasure seeking – and the specific sins (with their damaging effects) that these roots give rise to.

Pride. Pride, in particular, can be very ambiguous and for this reason all the more spiritually dangerous. For while the notion of the inherent worth of every human person and his or her healthy self-love clearly have a foundation in the Gospel, when this notion is removed from its context, the Christian belief in the dignity of each individual human person is “perverted to rationalize sin.” Thus, as Germain Grisez argues, “post-Christian humankind is susceptible to a distinctive moral pathology: egoistic individualism, which exalts the well-being and satisfaction of individuals above every community, even the family” (The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, p. 349).

Grisez points out that pride, in this form, is not just expressed as the quest to achieve positions of power in society, but also, “and even more arrogantly, it is seen in every individual’s effort to be his or her own sovereign” (ibid.). Thus, the perversion of freedom is manifested in the attitude that I can do whatever I want to; at least as long as I do not physically harm anyone (see also Evangelium Vitae, chapter 1). This attitude leads to a rejection of authority and also to a rejection of the demands of social justice. Grisez incisively captures this attitude when he writes: “Other people [especially those one has no personal feelings for] are to be ignored except to the extent that they are relevant to one’s own purposes or can be made so. Then they are to be dominated and manipulated, so that at least they will allow one to gain one’s ends and at best will serve one’s purposes” (The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, pp. 349-350).

This prideful attitude can manifest itself in such specific sins as abortion and euthanasia, and also in other forms of violence such as murder. Prostitution, racism, and unjust discrimination are further manifestations. But so also are extreme forms of genetic engineering. As an example of the kind of arrogant thinking which underlies the desire to tamper with our genes, James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA for which he won a Nobel Prize, has argued, that if genetic intervention could be used to “cure what I feel is a very serious disease – that is, stupidity – it would be a great thing for people” (Quoted in Dinesh D’Souza, “Staying Human: The Danger of Techno-Utopia,” National Review, January 22, 2001, p. 36). But what genetic “cure,” I ask, will be available for a statement such as this?

Avarice. Avarice is another root of sin that is particularly evident today, and made all the more problematic given the fact that we are capable, by human ingenuity, of providing goods and services on a scale never before imagined on this planet. These material goods are used rightly when they meet genuine human needs and the basic or real goods that correspond to them – goods such as life, health, friendship, and knowledge. Avarice, however, is “the will both to have material goods beyond those needed to achieve good purposes and fulfill one’s responsibilities, and to use the excess for emotional gratification – to compensate for a sense of insecurity or personal inadequacy – or some other illegitimate goal” (Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, p. 350, with reference to S. T., 2-2, q. 118, aa.1, 6).

Avarice’s destructiveness lies in its power to create artificial needs, i.e., demands for things “which give transient emotional gratification but provide little or no real benefit to the consumer in terms of fulfillment in any basic human good” (ibid.). Moreover, this “consumerism” or “materialism” that avarice fosters, leads persons to waste resources without regard for the basic needs of others. Thus, this attitude of wanting to have “more and more,” while it may be good for the economy is not good for our souls. It leads to a dulling, if not outright rejection, of the Gospel’s warnings regarding the absolutizing of wealth. How different is this attitude from the one that would want to use our country’s enormous wealth and resources to help alleviate poverty.

Pleasure seeking. Finally, pleasure seeking is a root of sin that I am sure would be on everyone’s “Top Ten” list of the things that make us happy. This has always been the case. Faced with pain or pleasure, we human beings naturally gravitate toward the latter. However, as Grisez notes, “modern technology offers new opportunities for pleasure seeking, not least by providing more resources and leisure.” Moreover, he points out, “the abuse of drugs, both legal and illegal, offers new sensory satisfactions and makes it possible to suppress feelings which ought to motivate efforts to deal with guilt and other evils” (ibid.).

The forms of sin that pleasure seeking takes today often involve the abuse of our sexual powers in such acts as masturbation, fornication, adultery, and homosexual behavior. But, of course, illicit pleasure seeking is not limited to sexual sins. There are many other forms of behavior that involve the willingness to do things whose sole purpose is to satisfy one’s own appetite for pleasure – apart from any good this behavior might serve or apart from any concern for the person(s) this behavior might harm, e.g., the abuse of alcohol. However, I should add, Christians are not opposed to pleasure per se – after all, it is a gift from God – but only its sinful forms, i.e., the kind of pleasure that accompanies an immoral act.

These sins and their roots, it seems to me, are the “culture of secularism’s” gravest moral evils (see ibid. pp. 351-352). We must struggle to overcome them in ourselves and in the world. And we must use such effective traditional means to deal with these sins as: the sacrament of penance; prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; self-denial; retreats; service to others; and the Eucharist.

In many ways, we could say that the Ten Commandments as interpreted by the Church already point out all of the sins against God and man that one needs to avoid in this culture or any other culture. For remember, the second tablet of the Decalogue is the revelation, by God Himself, of all those negative “Thou Shall Not” precepts that both point out our fundamental duties and protect our fundamental rights as human persons.

However, these precepts or commands also indicate the basic starting points of the kind of “positive” moral and spiritual plan of life that one must develop, i.e., by identifying the sins or vices to avoid, they implicitly indicate the corresponding virtues that one must acquire if one is to lead a good and holy Christian life in the “culture of secularism.” So, let me turn now to the things that we need to do and the virtues we need to form.

III. What Must We as Christians Do?

Here too in the third part of my reflections, I do not intend obviously to provide a comprehensive treatise on all those things that a Christian needs to do in order to be saved. Unlike the negative moral precepts – which although absolute, are few in number – affirmative moral precepts are too numerous to count and often depend on the situation.

In general, I will try to sketch out particular attitudes, actions, and virtues that, in light of my remarks on the predominate sins of our affluent American culture, seem especially needed today in order to live a good and holy Christian life. But before doing that, I will speak to our need to have a life based on faith in Jesus and ordered by one’s “personal vocation” as the necessary foundation both for a Christian life and for our response to the evils of the “culture of secularism.”

A. Faith, Personal Vocation, and the Response to the Culture’s Sins

In a powerful homily delivered in Germany in December of 1980, Pope John Paul II stated: “Very few of us can still let ourselves be carried along today in the practice of faith simply by an environment of deep faith. We must rather decide consciously to want to be practicing Christians, and to have the courage to distinguish ourselves, if necessary, form our environment. The premise for such a decided testimony of Christian life is to perceive and grasp faith as a precious chance of life, which transcends the interpretations and praxis of the environment” (Quoted in Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, p. 27, footnote 46).

This implies that today, as never before, all of our major commitments must be consciously made in order to live out one’s faith. If we do not do this, faith, as we know all to well, is “easily reduced to a single isolated interest among many, and the other interests, cultivated without reference to faith, eventually choke it out” (Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, p. 27, note omitted).

The Second Vatican Council responded to this modern crisis of faith by outlining a bold program which stressed how all the Christian faithful – not just priests and religious, “are called to holiness by a personal vocation to dedicate every part of their lives – family, school, work, citizenship, leisure – to the Lord Jesus: to his gospel and to works of love” (ibid. with reference to Lumen Gentium, #39-42, among other citations). This personal vocation or calling is our “unique share in the Church’s mission, a personal way of following Jesus” (ibid. p. 113). Indeed, our personal vocation is Christ saying in a special way to each of us as members of his body, the Church, “Follow Me” (see John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 1979, #71).

Hence, to live a good and holy Christian life in twenty-first century American culture, we must above all find, accept, and faithfully carry out our personal vocations. Assuming that each of us gathered here this morning has already discovered the fundamental elements his [her] personal vocation, our task now is to more and more fully integrate every aspect of our lives with this vocational life plan. So that nothing lies outside this commitment, so that nothing remains unshaped by faith, hope, and love – not family, work, friendships, entertainment, or hobbies.

If Christians can do this, we will help to overcome one of “the more serious errors of our age:” the tragic separation of faith from (daily) life and culture so deplored by the Council Fathers at Vatican II (see Gaudium et Spes, #43). And we will thus help to renew the Church as well as the face of the earth. As Grisez wonderfully expresses it, “To the extent that this is not just a lovely ideal but a living reality, the whole of one’s life will make Jesus’ light shine before humankind and give glory to God. Then all one is and does will flow from God’s self-gift in the Lord Jesus and one’s baptismal faith in him” (The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 1: Christian Moral Principles, 1983, p. 754).

The Second Vatican Council took up this same theme when it spoke of the particular vocation of the lay faithful, such as we, to be “leaven” for the world as we work in the world. “[T]he laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven.” Continuing, the Council Fathers noted that the laity “are called by God so that exercising their proper function and being led by the spirit of the gospel they can work for the sanctification of the world from within, in the manner of leaven. In this way they can make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope, and charity” (Lumen Gentium, #31).

I have gone on at length about the role of personal vocation for two reasons. First, for the simple fact that we have more choices to make today than earlier peoples were confronted with and thus we are also challenged as never before to ensure that our entire life is informed by a personal vocation. However, in our pluralistic and secular society, people of faith, like ourselves, often associate and cooperate with those without faith, and thus tend to acquire a secular outlook toward various activities, e.g., the practice of “dating.” And none of us, I might add, are immune from this process of “faith erosion,” especially when the culture exerts a pull that seems as strong as gravity. Thus, in this situation, Christian life will be prevented from its proper integration if commitments are made which do not positively express faith (see Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 1, p. 695).

Second, I have treated personal vocation in this extensive way because I am convinced, with Germain Grisez, Pope John Paul II, and the Fathers of Vatican Council II that a commitment to it will promote growth toward perfection – both for the individual and for the society in which he or she lives. Although holiness is not guaranteed by personal vocation, “one who is not radically unfaithful [to it] is almost compelled to make progress” (ibid. p. 701).

Moreover, in order “to live out a vocation, one must place oneself in the service of the source of the vocational commitment, living faith; but growing integration with living faith is precisely what is meant by progress toward holiness. The effort leads one to challenge the residual elements of other systems by which one may have structured one’s life” (ibid.).

Finally, as Grisez points out, when we live out a personal vocation, “the meaning of the Christian [virtues] becomes clearer and more definite, and the dynamics of Christian transformation become operative as one confronts problems in accord with these Christian norms,” e.g., the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (ibid; see C below).

With faith and personal vocation serving as a solid foundation, let me now, finally, briefly address the kinds of specific attitudes, actions, and virtues that seem especially needed in our society today, so influenced is it by the “culture of secularism.” To do this, we must begin, in my judgment, with the Sermon on the Mount.

B. The Sermon on the Mount on the Attitudes to Develop, Actions to Be Done, and Virtues to Be Formed

My previous discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in the second part of my reflections noted that it is considered to be the summit of Jesus’ moral teaching. Therefore, it would seem to follow that if we want to know what we are to do to cooperate with God in our own salvation and the salvation of our culture, there is no better place to look than the Sermon. But how is its teaching relevant to helping us live good and holy lives in the “culture of secularism”? Is not its guidance outdated for our complex, modern society? And, finally, is it not unrealistic to expect that its demanding teaching can be lived out in practice?

In returning again to the Sermon on the Mount for guidance on those attitudes we need to develop, those actions we need to do, and those virtues we need to acquire, we are only doing what many in the Christian Tradition, such as St. Augustine, had always done: give it pride of place as the master synthesis of Jesus’ moral teaching on those things necessary for us to reach the Kingdom of God (see Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, 1995, pp. 134-167). Indeed, insofar as Christ himself has fulfilled the words of the Sermon in His own life, “we can perceive the sentiments of His heart.” As the moral theologian and spiritual writer Fr. Servais Pinckaers, O.P. explains, “The Sermon on the Mount is the most faithful portrait of Christ we posses, and by the same token the most perfect life model we could be given” (Pinckaers, The Pursuit of Happiness – God’s Way: Living the Beatitudes, 1998, p. 19; see also Veritatis Splendor, #16).

Moreover, as Pinckaers argues, “the Sermon... contains within itself the potential to create, direct, and transform history: the history of the People of God, our personal history, and even the history of all humanity. At a time when Christians are committed with renewed concern to the destiny of men and society, they need to give special attention to the Sermon...if they would avoid drifting along like straws in the current of history, a history which they should rather be redirecting, so as to shape it to God’s plan” (ibid. p. 12). Thus, it seems right to reflect on the moral instruction contained in the Sermon.

But as we approach the Sermon on the Mount, we are cautioned to avoid understanding the Sermon as presenting a law contained within a code like other laws, which then leaves us on our own in trying to observe it. On the contrary, Pinckaers informs us, the New Law, as opposed to the Law of Moses, consists principally in the action of the Holy Spirit within the human heart; and thus, the very text of the Sermon takes on new meaning. “It is no longer made up of sheer imperatives, but reveals to us what the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish in our lives” (ibid. p. 16). Rather than a catalogue of impossible demands, then, the Sermon is the revelation of the Holy Spirit’s designs for us. Understanding the Sermon in this way, its sublime teaching appears not only livable, but also suitable for our age.

For, in truth, the Sermon deals with fundamental and universal human problems and sins (e.g., anger, lust, adultery, lying, and one’s relationship with enemies), Jesus’ response to them (e.g., the Beatitudes or Christian virtues), and the means for dealing with them – e.g., grace (e.g., in the sacraments) and prayer (the “Our Father”). All of this teaching is centered on doing everything for the right end – the Kingdom of God; and for the right reason – the love of God.

C. The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount as the Christian Program of Personal and Social Moral Transformation

My treatment of the Sermon on the Mount’s moral teaching will focus on the Beatitudes that are found at the beginning of the Sermon in Matthew’s Gospel (see Mt. 5: 3-10; my treatment here is largely based on Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 1, chapter 26. I omit, however, his discussion of what he calls, “modes of Christian response” – internal Christian dispositions or virtues – which express in the more technical language of theology each of the eight Beatitudes. The latter, in turn, which are “above all,” as John Paul II says, “promises from which flow normative indications for the moral life” [Veritatis Splendor, #16], express in the biblical language appropriate to Christians, the virtues that characterize followers of Jesus. See also, Pinckaers, The Pursuit of Happiness, pp. 23-187). By recommending the Beatitudes, I believe that we are offering the most appropriate response to our culture’s greatest and most prevalent sins – those that were treated in part two. In these Beatitudes we will find the mind of Jesus on the attitudes, actions, and virtues that are necessary on our part if we are both to renew our culture and to enter into the Kingdom of God. And thus, by living them, we become more and more like Jesus and more and more worthy of His Kingdom. But what do the Beatitudes say? What do they tell us to do? And what virtues do they express and embody to help us overcome the “culture of secularism’s” characteristic sins?

First, to overcome the Promethean pride which leads to the exaltation of oneself at the expense of our neighbor, the Christian is called to live the beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The corresponding virtue expressed by this beatitude is humility – a humility that can recognize in the other the “image of God,” and then treat that person according to his or her dignity as one who is indeed made in God’s image.

To overcome the avarice that leads us both to ignore the pleas of the poor and to squander resources, the Christian is called to live the beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” The corresponding virtues are Jesus-like mercy, generosity, compassion, and service to others. The beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” is also appropriate, since it refers not only to our mourning the death of a loved one, but also because it refers to the necessary virtuous attitudes that we are to have towards the world in general: detachment and “death to sin.”

To overcome the pleasure seeking which leads us to see and use others and ourselves as mere objects for gratification, Christians are called to live the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The corresponding virtue is single-minded devotion to God, which includes a sense of sin and a process of continuing conversion, especially in those areas where we might have a tendency to overindulge ourselves: sex, food, drink, and sleep.

I would also add that in order to carry out our personal vocations faithfully, we need to live the beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” because the meek person recognizes his or her personal vocation, knows its limits, sees God’s will, and accepts it with resignation and love. We should also add the beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” This beatitude is necessary so that we have the faithfulness and heroism characteristic of the martyr yet required of every Christian, who must be ready to suffer martyrdom at any time if that is required to witness to the truth of our faith.

Finally, to overcome the violence, vengefulness, and fear of our society, we need to live the beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God,” as well as the beatitude, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the former, the corresponding virtue is the conciliatoriness that seeks the redemption of enemies; in the latter it is self-oblation, the offering of one’s whole self to God as a living sacrifice. Thus, in a sense, this last beatitude serves as a wonderful “summary” for all of them.


Each of us as Christians, in accord with our personal vocations, is called to fully live the Beatitudes in our daily lives. They are, in truth, extensions of the Ten Commandments that Jesus Himself affirms and definitively interprets in the Sermon.

They are not the same as the Ten Commandments, to be sure, but they are not contrary to them either. Rather, the Beatitudes are the fulfillment of these commandments. And thus, I can think of no better spiritual program for our own lives and for the “culture of secularism” than the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes.

By following Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, we can be confident that the “culture of faith” can not only overcome the “culture of secularism,” it can convert it! And by doing so, we will cooperate with God in building His Kingdom – a future reality, yes, but one which is already present in mystery, already present in embryonic form within the Church on earth (see Lk. 17:21).

May this Lent help us to set our hearts and minds on the One who shows us the way to the Kingdom by giving us the great gift of the Sermon and its Beatitudes.

* One can also read with profit on the theme of my talk, a much more extensive treatment in Aidan Nichols, O.P., Christendom Awake: On Reenergizing the Church in Culture (Eerdmans, 1999). My article has been published in The Catholic Faith (September/October 2001). It was given originally as a talk at both the men and women’s retreat of the Community of God’s Mercy in Clarkston, MI (February 2001) and Windsor, Canada (March 2001), respectively.

© The Cathlic Faith, Ignatius Press

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