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The Body of Christ

Addresses and Papers Delivered at the Fifth Annual Catholic Conference
Buffalo, N.Y., October 28th to 30th, 1930.

Auspices of the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests.

Milwaukee: Morehouse
London: A. R. Mowbray, 1930.

VII. The Moral Witness of the Body of Christ

Rector of Grace and St. Peter's Church, Baltimore


AN AUTHORITATIVE code of morals has force and effect only when it expresses the settled customs of a stable society." So writes Mr. Walter Lippmann in his book, A Preface to Morals, and the widespread influence of this interesting work is very significant for all of us here in this Congress. Where customs are unsettled no code of morals can be imposed by authority. No authority is ever able to impose a moral code against the will of the majority. We have no stable society. Our settled customs have vanished, or are rapidly vanishing. That there is no authoritative code of morals in Western civilization today is apparent to all of us.

Our task is not only to consider the Moral Witness of the Catholic Church throughout the ages, but also to think of it in relation to the times in which we live, in which we have to take our share in making that witness effective. It may be helpful, therefore, to glance for a moment at some of the historical conditions which have brought about the present state of society. Again I wish to quote Mr. Lippmann: "There is no moral authority to which the modern man must turn now, but there is coercion in opinions, fashions, fads. There is for him no inevitable purpose in the universe, but there are elaborate necessities, physical, political, economic. He does not believe himself to be an actor in a great and dramatic destiny, but he is subject to the massive powers of our civilization, forced to adopt their pace, bound to their routine, entangled in their conflicts. He can believe what he chooses about this civilization. He cannot, however, escape the compulsion of modern events."

Now the civilization which impels a sincere, honest, and painstaking investigator, a man under no suspicion of Orthodox Christianity, to describe it in this way is our own Western civilization which has been built upon the foundation of the Christendom of the Middle Ages. And Christendom in the Middle Ages was a stable society with settled customs, and therefore an authoritative code of morals could have and did have force and effect in that society. Let us not exaggerate this--and let us be careful that our meaning is clear.

"Medieval civilization was no flawless crystal. Then as now many men gave free play 'to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,' but they did not worship these things. In all ages men have been bad. But the achievements of the thirteenth century were owing precisely to the opposite of these elements men most admire today. As a hostile writer puts it, 'they had one idée fixe, religion.' They may not have always served God very well, but they knew that He was 'the chief end of man.' That world presents neither the oleographic picture dear to sentimentalists, nor yet the mere battle of kites and crows conceived by Puritan and Renaissance pride. Yet its most notable qualities--the things that made it what it was--the cathedral, the minister, the university (and each of us here owes more to the University of the Middle Ages than he is apt to imagine), the orders of chivalry, the hierarchy of society, the communal life and all its pageantry, that unity which outlasted so much conflict, all these things were what they were because of men's faith in God and man and the love which makes him free. None of them could have been at all in the form they took, had that faith not been present; and hence Walter Pater, summing up the qualities of the differing cultures of the world, speaks in the famous passage on Mona Lisa of 'The reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambitions and imaginative souls' as contrasted with 'the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias.'

"Always rather by its ideals than its achievements do we judge a nation or epoch. These ideals can be seen reflected as in a mirror all through the life of the Middle Ages, in the peace as of a strange land which pervades the Historia Ecclesiastica of the great Northumbrian monk, the Venerable Bede, in the love and universal reverence felt for St. Francis even in his lifetime, in the mystery plays like Everyman, in the almost autocratic influence of a mystic like St. Bernard, even indeed in the strength of the Papacy (for it rested not on material force, but on the faith of men), above all in the most characteristic of all its fruits--books such as The Imitation of Christ, similar works like the writings of Walter Hilton, or Richard Rolle, or Dame Julian, the anchoress of Norwich. All these are the natural fruit of the time; they express its spirit. So far as we have anything like them, it is rather as protests, reactions, the work of those who repudiate the prevalent ideals." [J. N. Figgis, Civilization at the Cross Roads.] The world in the Middle Ages was far enough from the practice of holiness, but at least it did not question the ideal. What are men's ideals today? It would be hard to tell. But so far as their main energies are concerned, if we can form any judgment as to what animates the man in the street, I cannot doubt that it is truer to say that Christianity runs counter to our civilization than that it fulfills it. In places indeed it remains intact, but they are as a rule those least touched by modern developments.

I am not going to trespass upon your time and your patience by tracing the process of the dissolution of that stable society which we call Christendom. What you or I might have to say on that subject would take a long time, and would be ascribed to bigoted Catholic prejudice against the glorious Reformation of the sixteenth century. It is better to call in Mr. Lippmann again. He is an impartial writ-ness, and writes tersely and with great power:

"When Luther rebelled against the authority of the Church, he did not suppose the way of life for the ordinary man would be radically altered. Luther supposed that men would continue to behave much as they had learned to behave under the Catholic discipline. The individual for whom he claimed the right of private judgment was one whose pre-judgments had been well fixed in a Catholic society. The authority of the Pope was to be destroyed and certain evils abolished, but there was to remain that feeling for objective moral certainties which Catholicism had nurtured. When the Anabaptists carried the practice of his theory beyond this point, Luther denounced them violently. For what he believed in was Protestantism for good Catholics. The reformers of the eighteenth century made a similar assumption. They really believed in democracy for men who had an aristocratic training. Jefferson, for example, had an instinctive fear of the urban rabble, that most democratic part of the population. The society of free men which he dreamed about was composed of those who had the discipline, the standards of honor and the taste, without the privileges or the corruptions, that are to be found in a society of well-bred country gentlemen.

"The more recent rebels frequently betray a somewhat similar inability to imagine the consequences of their own victories. For the smashing of idols is in itself such a preoccupation that it is almost impossible for the iconoclast to look clearly into a future when there will not be many idols left to smash. Yet that future is beginning to be our present, and it might be said that men are conscious of what modernity means in so far as they realize that they are confronted not so much with the necessity of promoting rebellion as of dealing with the consequences of it. The nineteenth century, roughly speaking the time between Voltaire and Mencken, was an age of terrific indictments and of feeble solutions. The Marxian indictment of capitalism is a case in point. The Nietzschean transvaluation of values is another; it is magnificent, but who can say, after he has shot his arrow of longing to the other shore, whether he will find Caesar Borgia, Henry Ford, or Isadora Duncan? Who knows, having read Mr. Mencken and Mr. Sinclair Lewis, what kind of world will be left when all the boobs and yokels have crawled back in their holes and have died of shame?"


What, then, is the Moral Witness of the Church, the Body of Christ? Let us look at this question, first, in the light of the unchanging witness which the Church has given throughout the nineteen centuries of Christian history; then let us look at it in the light of our own problems today.

The moral witness of the Church is not merely a restatement of old and familiar truths, the moral law and the cardinal virtues, with certain new virtues added; it is a view of human life, an outlook upon human destiny based upon a unique and utterly different experience of facts. The Incarnation for all who hold the faith in all ages has declared finally that man's nature, however frail and limited it may be, is the scene of a spiritual history and is explicable only in spiritual terms.

The Moral Witness of the Church is eternally the same even as Christ is the same, and moral progress is the extension of the area in which we recognize and apply our Christian obligations to others.

From the beginning the Church realized itself as a society. The belief in Jesus as Lord was an individual act involving a new relationship. But faith was never a mere pious opinion. It involved admission into the society of believers, it involved Holy Baptism, the Sacrament of Admission. And Christianity was indeed "A Way," but at the same time a way which involved a moral ideal, accepted and increasingly realized by the society as a whole and by the members as individuals.

It aimed at producing a moral life, not unlike that already proclaimed by the prophets as desirable, but loftier and more far reaching because of the more powerful motive of love. "Over all this ground, as over the region of doctrine, the Church had to feel its way, and to define its position by degrees. As people from time to time, through actual ignorance of the faith, or through lack of clearness in thought, or through positive distaste for the doctrines, devised phrases which fell short of the fulness of the creed, so from time to time men indulged themselves in practices which were really incompatible with the demands of the faith. As the intellectual limits of the freedom of speculation were gradually defined by reference to the test of the Incarnation, so the limits of moral or immoral enterprise were similarly fixed by degrees, and by references to the same test. It was the belief in the Incarnation that was the link between the moral and the intellectual life, a belief which was held by faith and verified in experience. [Rev. T. B. Strong, Ethics.]

"Men find by the sure road of experience that the example of Christ, interpreted by the Spirit, enables them to achieve success in the moral world. In this the school of Christ triumphs over the schools of the philosophers; Christ's followers had to deal practically with a moral experience as well as theoretically with a moral ideal."

Back of the whole process of adjustment the essential fact of the Church's moral witness was never neglected. Christian morality must aim at holiness, and that depends on union with Christ. The sphere of holiness is the Church which is His body.

And there is nothing nebulous or vague in this conception of the moral witness of the Church as being something new and distinct from all other systems known to man. The effect of faith in our Lord, and admission to and membership in the Christian Society, the Holy Catholic Church, was by no means confined to loosely defined general conditions. It passed on and dealt with the narrower questions of ordinary experience in the daily life of man. The Christian not only accepts the supreme example of our Blessed Lord, he believes in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit has taken command of his life. It is this indwelling of the Holy Spirit which makes the Christian ideal of moral life a possibility, and it also makes the conscience keen and alert and wide awake, discovering new moral ideas, widening the range of the application of familiar ones. And it is this, as we have already seen, which constitutes moral progress.

There are certain distinctive characteristics of the moral witness of the Body of Christ which it may be well to mention. First, the idea of sin. For the Church, this is not defined nor is it even affected by any popular legal or social standard, but by that which God calls sinful. Second, Christianity holds that "down to the very roots of his moral nature man is especially estranged from what is right, and therefore requires that he shall become a new creature and live a new life." If a liberal Protestant like Eucken (the words are his) writes this way--how strange it is to find Churchmen denying the fact of original sin and the necessity of baptismal regeneration. Third, Christianity maintains the inherent sacredness of personality along with a vivid sense of what the Archbishop of York calls "Fellow membership." The individual whose free exercise of his personal liberties others are to respect must remember that he is a member of God's family with all others and must use his liberty in pursuit of the general good. He is free from coercion only because he is to be more perfectly subject to moral obligation. The Christian should need no coercion on any moral issue, not because the moral witness of the Church is vague--but because the indwelling Spirit is a far more compelling motive than coercion can possibly be.

Two more aspects must be mentioned, the duty of Service and the still higher duty of Sacrifice. All these are distinctive elements in the moral witness of the Church, and have been emphasized by the Church as characteristic of the Christian Society. The flesh, the whole principle of selfishness, is subdued and brought into obedience, and the fruits of the Spirit become manifest in consequence.


Because of the moral witness of the Church throughout the ages, any religion today whether social or individual which is non-moral is recognized as an absurdity and a superstition and cannot declare itself in public among us.

And it is significant that when it has been difficult to bear this witness, in times of persecution and hardship, when the world was bitterly hostile to the whole moral ideal of the Church, as in the first and second centuries, then the Church bore a noble testimony to her own moral standard and ideals. In times of prosperity and ease she became lax--although the standards have not changed.

We saw at the outset that there is no stable society in Western civilization today. For centuries there has been a fusion of the world and the Church which has increasingly blurred and distorted her moral witness. "In sexual matters, in the maintenance of the marriage law and the sanctity of the home, against swearing, against violence, against drunkenness, against theft, in favor of the Sunday as a day of rest, Christianity has been clearly understood to bear a moral witness and make an inexorable moral claim; but it appears entirely to have forgotten the fundamental moral principle of our Lord that disreputable sins--the sins of the flesh, of hot blood and violent impulse--are nowise worse than the sins consistent with social respectability, than avarice and the love of money, pride and exclusiveness and un-brotherliness and contempt. This principle of Jesus has been ignored in an astonishing way. Thus it has come about that the witness of established Christianity to the principles of justice and brotherhood has been lamentably and inconceivably weak." [Bishop Gore.]

Christians must definitely recognize their membership in the Catholic Church, the Body of Christ. They must increasingly realize that Christian morality is of the essence of the Christian way of life. And it is just this which makes the Lambeth pronouncements of 1930 very tame and inadequate. Ten years ago things were better, and we had the C. O. P. E. C. Reports and the Archbishops' Report on Christianity and Industrial Problems.

And this brings me to the most hotly debated question of the day, birth control and the use of contraceptives. "It is possible for a man to be a socialist or an individualist without ever having to make one responsible decision in which his theories play any part. But what he thinks about divorce and contraception, continence and license, monogamy, prostitution, and sexual experience outside of marriage, are matters that are bound at some point in his life to affect his own happiness immediately and directly. The affairs of state may be regulated by leaders. But the affairs of a man and a woman are inescapably their own."

The Lambeth Fathers did not endorse Birth Control. They did not countenance the use of contraceptives. But in a great moral issue, an issue where all men would watch their actions and their words, they tried to "hedge." They failed the Church. They failed to bear the moral witness of the Church.

If, however, Catholics in the Anglican communion allow themselves to be discouraged by episcopal pronouncements they will be in a very bad way indeed. As has been already said, the intellectual limits of the freedom of speculation were gradually defined by reference to the test of the Incarnation--and so also the limits of moral or immoral enterprise were similarly fixed by degrees and by reference to the same test. How does a Christian look at birth control or contraceptives in the light of the sacredness of love, and family, and childhood, manifested in the Incarnation of the Son of God, being the test?

Let us take heart. The Catholic Movement has played a noble part in restoring the devotional life of the Anglican communion. Is God now calling us to restore and strengthen her moral witness? Let us be ready for His call and eager to obey.

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