The Catholic Church is acknowledged by her children as their infallible guide, not only in matters of belief but in conduct also. And, indeed, since belief is for the sake of conduct, and directed to conduct, we should expect that the religious society that teaches the truth should also point the way to right living.
So it is with the Catholic Church: the truths that she proclaims are saving truths, addressed not merely to the intellect but also to the heart and the will. It is one of the signs of her divine origin that she satisfies both heart and mind — confirming, developing, and completing that instinctive teaching of man’s understanding and conscience that we usually speak of under the name of natural religion — the revelation of divine truth and law written on the heart of man. All truth has a value in itself and is admirable for its own sake; but religious truth has always a practical, not simply a speculative, value; and only he profits rightly by the heritage of divine revelation who strives to make it bear upon his life. It is the constant endeavor of the Church to aid us in doing this.
Hence, recognizing that true religion is a right life molded upon true beliefs, from her speculative doctrines she draws practical conclusions — that is, she instructs the understanding in order to guide the will; and in this work she is infallibly preserved from error by the spirit of her Master, who is not only the Truth, but the Way and the Life.
The General Obligation of Worship and Service
From what the Church teaches us about God, then, and about our relations to Him, there follow certain duties that we owe to Him. These are summed up in the twofold obligation of worship and service. Thus much of his duties man might have learned without a Church; but the Church, having been formed by the Son of God to continue His work of evangelization, tells us in His name what worship and what service we are to render, and how. Moreover, as God’s accredited representative, she claims a service and obedience due to herself — or, rather, due to Him in her. Above all, preaching the doctrine of her divine Founder, she tells us that both worship and service are to take their rise in, and be permeated through and through by, love of God.
Thus her primary message to mankind is: “Worship God and do His will for love of Him”; and she provides ways and means of doing this that she has learned from Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, who dwells within her.
Vested with divinely granted authority, and guided into all truth by the Spirit of Truth, she is able to particularize this general precept and has power to impose such regulations upon the consciences of her children as she knows to be conducive to its due observance. Hence her code of morality, and those laws that we know as the precepts of the Church. In these two is comprised all that Catholics are bound to practice.
Of the Church’s code of morality it is not my intention to treat. Based on the Ten Commandments, it would be generally acknowledged as binding upon Christians by those for whom I write. Nor is it necessary here to refute oft-refuted calumnies, such as the old lie that the Church advocates the doing of evil that good may come, or teaches that a good end justifies an evil means, or that lying is allowable.
The Precepts of the Church
I shall confine myself in this chapter to those distinctively Catholic practices that the Church enjoins as necessary to that good life lived for love of God that it is her mission to promote among men.
To take, then, first, the obligation of worship that arises from the relation of the creature to his Creator. This worship must include the four elements of adoration, thanksgiving, propitiation for sin, and prayer. The Catholic Church possesses the only form of worship on earth which fulfills these four duties in a way entirely worthy of the infinite majesty of God. That form of worship is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in which for those four ends the oblation of the true Body and Blood of the Incarnate Son is offered to the Father. What wonder that the Church enjoins upon her children as a solemn obligation to participate in the offering of this sacrifice! Particularizing the natural obligation that rests upon every human being of devoting some notable part of his time to the worship of his Maker and Father, and possessing the most perfect means of fulfilling it, she commands us to observe the Sundays and certain holy days by devoutly hearing Mass; adding, for the more complete consecration of those days, a prohibition of ordinary weekday labor. This precept we know as the First Commandment of the Church.
As we have already seen, the Church’s law of conduct is the law of love. He who loves will not refuse some pain and self-denial. Moreover, without self-denial and restriction the spirit cannot be free of the bondage of the flesh and fleshly desires. Men found that out before Christianity dawned upon the world. For this double reason, to train her children to the proof of their love of God by the taking up of the cross, and to aid them in subduing their carnal appetites to the spirit, she imposes upon them the duty of fasting and abstinence at certain seasons. Hence the Second Commandment of the Church: to keep the days of fasting and abstinence.
Every Catholic knows that he is not expected to injure his health by the observance of this precept, and thus to incapacitate himself from the performance of his daily duties. The duties of one’s state of life, performed for God, come first and foremost in the appreciation of the Church as well as in the right order of things. Piety that does not help to this is a sham. Therefore, the Church is always ready to grant a dispensation to all who can show good cause for being relieved of the obligation of fasting or abstinence; although, at the same time, she recommends or enjoins, according to circumstances, some alternative form of self-denial that will not interfere with other duties.
The next law of the Church concerns sin and the means and conditions of forgiveness. In none of the man-made religions that have sprung up since Jesus Christ founded the Church has due proportion been observed in this matter. Error, as it always does, has rushed into one or other of two opposite extremes. While in the early days of Christianity the tendency of heretics was to exclude some sins altogether from the hope of pardon, modern religions have to a greater or lesser extent lost the sense of personal sin and of the need of reconciliation with God. The Church from the beginning has steered the middle course, which is also the true one. She excludes none from pardon, whatever his guilt, provided that he is penitent; she insists on penitence as well as upon a humble acknowledgment of personal guilt. This acknowledgment takes a form that the instincts of nature itself point out as the condition of forgiveness — a detailed confession of the sins committed; hence the Third Commandment of the Church obliging the faithful to go to confession at least once a year.
Knowing that, since the promulgation of the gospel, the prerogative of pronouncing God’s forgiveness in His name has been entrusted to her by the commission of Jesus Christ Himself — “Whose sins ye shall forgive they are forgiven” (John 20:23) — she will not allow her children to deprive themselves, without strong protest on her part, of this necessary means of grace. Her children clearly understand that she makes no claim to forgive in her own name; and that although they may deceive the priest who exercises this ministry, and extort absolution from him on false pretenses, that judgment will not be ratified in heaven. With confession as without, repentance and purpose of amendment are necessary for forgiveness.
The motive of the next commandment of the Church is the same as that of the preceding — a desire, namely, on the part of the Church to prevent neglect of a necessary means of salvation. Mindful, therefore, of the words of Jesus, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you” and “He that eateth my flesh, and drink-eth my blood, hath eternal life” (cf. John 6:54-55; RSV = John 6:53-54), she lays upon us her Fourth Commandment: to receive the Blessed Sacrament at least once a year — and that at Easter or thereabouts.
The Fifth Commandment enjoins upon the faithful the duty of providing for the support of their pastors; and the sixth forbids marriage within certain degrees of kindred, and the solemn ceremonies of marriage in certain penitential seasons.
In the general law of worshipping God and of doing His will from the motive of love, and in these six commandments of the Church that interpret and define that law on certain points, providing thereby for its better observance, we have all that is of positive obligation for a Catholic.
By that motive — which, of course, includes love for one’s neighbor, as equally with ourselves a child of the Heavenly Father, the object of His predilection, the redeemed of His Son — a man’s whole life is rightly ordered in its active relations toward God and His fellowmen. By those laws he is directed to the essential means of performing God’s holy will. If anyone wishes to know the Church’s conception of a good Christian life, he will find it simply and excellently set forth in any catechism.
To go further into these details here would carry me beyond my scope, which is merely to remove certain misconceptions as to the strict obligations of Catholics. When we have said that the Church teaches us to worship God by faith, hope, and charity, and that the greatest of these virtues is charity — love of God, and of men for His sake — we have summed up the Catholic religion.
It remains, then, to add here only that, while providing for what we may call the minimum in Christian practice, the Church has never ceased to put before her children the higher standard of evangelical perfection to be aimed at for love of and in imitation of the perfections of God.
To all she cries aloud the exhortation of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be you, therefore, perfect, as also your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). With what fruit she does this the lives of her saints and the holiness of many thousands of her children at all periods of her history bear ample witness.
No earnest Catholic troubles himself about the minimum that he may perform; nor would any inquirer of goodwill do so, except for the purpose of getting rid of an exaggerated notion of what would be required of him if he were to submit to the Church. As soon as he began to understand the spirit of the Catholic religion — its intrinsic beauty and reasonableness, its evident power to satisfy all the spiritual needs of the souls of men — the tried efficacy of the means it offers, whether obligatory or free, to promote the great ends of holiness and salvation would produce in him the same desire that every earnest Catholic feels: not only to use to the full such means as are essential, but also to take advantage of the additional helps that the Church offers in so great abundance to suit the particular needs of individual souls.
If it shall be made even a little clearer to any inquirer that the Catholic religion is not to the children of the Church (as it appears to so many who are not of her) an intolerable burden, but the highest of privileges, a sweet and easy yoke, a help and not a hindrance to happiness here and hereafter, the object with which I write will have been attained.