Moral Theology : Anthropology, Gift and Wonder.

This year I am teaching a Moral Theology course to Juniors in a Catholic High School.  I will be synthesizing the lessons every 2 or 3 weeks for review for the students and for the parents to know what we have been learning. Since this will be taking up a lot of my creative energy I figured they might suffice as blog posts as well. Here is what we covered in the first couple of weeks. 

What is Moral Theology? Encyclopedia Brittanica defines it as a theological discipline concerned with identifying and elucidating the principles that determine the quality of human behavior in the light of Christian revelation. This definition, while true, does not help us to understand the overarching vision for the study of morality and it does not help us to answer the real question when encountering any topic, why should we care?

I'm a firm believer that stories help us to understand greater truths by filling our minds with beauty, goodness and truth with which we can illuminate any worthy topic, and since Jesus primarily used parables to teach his disciples I tend to feel like He would agree. That being said, I always like to start a good lesson with a great story that not only illustrates the point but also gives us a reference to fall back upon when later in our studies we might encounter a concept or term that we cannot make sense of and what greater example than our own patron, John Paul the Great.

On June 2nd, 1979 a newly appointed John Paul II visited his homeland Poland for the first time since becoming Pope only a few months before. He had been a surprise to the Church and to the world as the first non Italian to be named pope in more than 400 years! Although he was not very well known to the world he was very well known by the Polish people. He had been with them as a young boy watching his friends and family become victims of the Nazi regime. He had risked his own life to study in seminary. He had struggled with them as a young priest, bishop and cardinal as they struggled through the communist regime and now while they were still under the incredible weight of Communist oppression this Polish son, one of them, had been named the vicar of Christ. The communist authorities questioned letting him return home as they knew there was a possibility his visit could cause trouble for them. They finally decided that not letting him return home was a bigger risk and gave him a 9 day stretch to make a 'religious pilgrimage' in Poland. They made sure to prepare just in case. Messages were sent out to media and schools that anything contrary to their atheistic agenda was not to be tolerated. John Paul II was the enemy and they demanded censorship of his appearance and message.  They were right to be nervous. What transpired in those 9 days was the boom that shook the foundation of the wall and arguably what began the fall of communism. What happened in those days? In short, a revolution. He did not incite a call to arms. He did not encourage anger. He simply reminded them of who they are. "
To Poland the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding that great and fundamental reality that is man. For man cannot be fully understood without Christ. Or rather, man is incapable of understanding himself fully without Christ. He cannot understand who he is, nor what his true dignity is, nor what his vocation is, nor what his final end is. He cannot understand any of this without Christ."
It is therefore impossible without Christ to understand the history of the Polish nationthis great thousand-year-old communitythat is so profoundly decisive for me and each one of us. If we reject this key to understanding our nation, we lay ourselves open to a substantial misunderstanding. We no longer understand ourselves.
Here in the midst of a nation long oppressed by evil and blatant atheism he was saying to them that their very identity as humans and as the great nation of Poland is founded upon Christ! And then, as communist officials watched nearby he did the unspeakable. He called down the Holy Spirit upon them.

And I cryI who am a Son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul III cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost:
Let your Spirit descend.
Let your Spirit descend.
and renew the face of the earth, 
the face of this land.
Throughout his initial speech the crowd which had grown to a million people began to chant spontaneously "We want God! We want God!" He had reminded them of their true identity and had unleashed the spirit of the Polish people. His message liberated a people who had been enslaved by cultural amnesia. Now they were free to live in the truth of who they were made to be as humans and who they were as a nation. The entirety of the 9 days echoed this theme and the strength, confidence and dignity of the people grew exponentially along with the crowds. By the final Mass the crowd was, by some estimates, 3 million strong. The Polish people would not be the same after that visit from John Paul II and neither would the communist party. Over the next year the regime saw one occupation in Europe after another crumble and fall.

This revealing the true identity of a people, of humanity, could easily be described as the great and reoccurring work of John Paul II's pontificate. In all of his works the question of 'who man is' can be found and just like the Polish people, the answers are the key to our freedom and happiness. This 'adequate anthropology', as he called it ,culminates with the same message he gave to the Polish people."Jesus Christ reveals man to himself"(Gaudium et Spes 22), and it is only through Him that we can find our true identity. An adequate anthropology is absolutely essential if we are going to study moral theology. In other words, understanding 'who' we are is necessary if we are going to understand 'how we are to live".

An Adequate Anthropology

So, who are we then? What does it mean to be man and woman? Certainly the study of man can take on a scientific and sociological understanding and this study of the history and cultures of civilizations is typically what is assumed when the word anthropology is used. Here, however we are speaking of something different and yet much more. Philosophical/Theological Anthropology addresses the origins, purpose and ends of our being. By whom and for what were were created. This Christian Anthropology, a topic most recently contributed to by Pope John Paul II, is a theme that has been addressed throughout the history of God's people and the history of His Church and is a topic that we must take up in detail if we are to move forward into moral theology.

Another discipline that is integral to an adequate anthropology is the topic of metaphysics. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time and space. It seeks to answer two big questions in the broadest terms. Ultimately, what is there? and what is it like?.
If Christian Anthropology seeks to answer, What is man? metaphysics takes a step back to answer the question, 'What is?' The Catholic tradition is rich with scholars of metaphysics building on the works of Plato and Aristotle and most notably the vast knowledge and works of St. Thomas Aquinas, who we will reference much and often.

To introduce the topics of what makes man, we begin with the metaphysical principle of creation, in particular creation ex-nihilo. Ex-Nihilo means 'out of nothing' or 'from nothing'. While we might use the term 'creation' when referring to things that humans 'make' it is always from pre-existent matter. When God creates He does not create from anything. He literally creates out of nothing. This creation therefore, is complete and total gratuitousness. In other words, creation is a gift.

It can sound trite when you say it that way, but when we think about the concept of gift a little further it sheds some very important light on what it means for our existence. We are a society well versed in the giving of presents, presents for Christmas, presents for birthdays, presents for good grades and anniversaries and 'just because', but do we understand the concept of 'gift'? A true gift is one that is not something expected or due to the recipient, it does not come with conditions from the giver. It is not payment for a job done, it does not ask for a gift in return and it is unmerited. A true gift holds within it a true knowledge of the receiver and contains some token of the giver. We as humans of course find difficulty in maintaining this pure idea of gift but if you think of the best present you've ever received (aside from life of course) it probably contains some of these elements. Perhaps it was very personal and intricate and showed that the giver knew you well, it may have been a surprise or better than you could have hoped because the giver poured his own self into it, it may have been given without expectation or obligation. All of these things, even partially, transform a present into some symbol of the gift that we speak about when we speak of it in terms of creation. Creation is a gift in the fullest sense, WE are a gift in the fullest sense. This concept, then, says something profound about our identity.

An anthropology grounded in an understanding of creation as gift roots us in childlike wonder. This wonder that seeks to receive fully the beauty and truth and goodness of everything without expectation helps us to receive graciously the gifts that God has given us. The alternative, expecting everything as a 'given' creates in us a sense of entitlement and facilitates frustration and boredom because we grow tired and unsatisfied of what we demand unjustly.  So the beginning of what we should understand of our portrait of man, of who we are, begins with this gift and childlike wonder. Next we will consider the creation stories and the themes that they give us for a continuation of an adequate anthropology.

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

― G.K. ChestertonOrthodoxy


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