Skip to content

Catholic Christian Morality Definition Essay


Every human person is a being of immeasurable dignity because each is created in the image and likeness of God, with a spiritual and immortal soul (or spirit), intelligence and free will. God wants everyone to find eternal beatitude (happiness) and has placed this desire deep within every heart. Speaking of all dimensions of life in this world and beyond, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Only God alone can satisfy the human desire for fullness of life and enduring happiness. When St Augustine discovered this, he wrote: “You have made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (St Augustine, Confessions, Chapter 1).

Humanity is faced with ‘big questions’; How should we live? What is goodness? Why should we act morally? How do we know what is right or wrong? What kind of life leads to real, and eternal, happiness? For Catholic Christians, faith in Jesus Christ is expressed in lives of loving service as his disciples.

Christian morality helps us discover how we should live our lives as a result of our faith in God’s word which has been revealed to us. Christian Morality can be summarized in the word responsibility. There are two components to this term: response and ability. To what do we respond? Christian life is a response to God’s freely given love and gift of salvation offered to us through Jesus Christ. ‘Following Christ is thus the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality’ (Pope John Paul II, The Splendour of Truth, #19). Christian morality comes to the forefront when people say yes to God, when they freely respond to God’s love. The essence of Christian morality is, simply, love. Reflect on the words of Jesus: ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your sould, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: you must love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mt 22:37-39).

The second aspect of Christian morality is the ability to respond to God, the ability to love, the ability to say to say yes to God. This is also a gift, also freely bestowed on us. It is part of what it means to be a human being. Human persons have basic dignity which flows from our being created in God’s image (with a soul); this implies that we can think and love and be in relationship to others in community. Our conscience aids us in a life directed to God and other people.”
[Michael Pennock, The Seeker’s Catechism: The Basics of Catholicism, Notre Dame Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1994,  p 43-44]

More Information

“This is what he taught them:
‘How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Happy the gentle, they shall have the earth for their heritage.
Happy those who mourn; they shall be comforted.
Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right; they shall be satisfied.
Happy the merciful; they shall have mercy shown them.
Happy the pure i heart; they shall see God.
Happy the peacemakers; they shall be called children of God.
Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven; this is how they persecuted the prophets before you.”
(Matthew 5:2-12)

“Love one another as I have loved you ...” (John 15:12-14 )

The Law of the Gospel fulfils and surpasses the Old Law and brings it to perfection: its promises, through the Beatitudes of the Kingdom of heaven; its commandments, by reforming the heart, the root of human acts. (Catechism of the Catholic Church No 1984)

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, A Consistent Ethic of Life: An American – Catholic Dialogue, Gannon Lecture, Fordham University, December 6, 1983: Click to download pdf

‘TEN COMMANDMENTS’     Exodus 20:1-21         Deuteronomy 5:1-22

Christopher Steck, SJ, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington, District of Columbia, and author of The Ethical Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Crossroad, 2001).*

The Ecclesial Context

The third change relates to the kind of applied issues that the magisterium and Catholic ethicists address. The almost complete abandonment of scholarly reflection on specific, often personal, case studies paralleled (and was justified by) the change in the confessional needs of the Church and a movement away from the confessional emphasis of pre-conciliar ethics. Issues of public policy, though always a concern of Catholic ethics, now occupy much of Catholic reflection on applied issues. A danger, however, accompanies this shift: It could skew the way Catholic moralists understand their profession and the role that a standard of holiness plays in it. Ethicists are affected by the issues on which they reflect. They tutor ethicists into certain ways of understanding problems. Public policy issues, because they require widespread consensus in a pluralistic society, are often poor vehicles for exploring the radical implications of the call to discipleship for the individual Christian life. The practice of casuistry, with its focus on the ordinary dilemmas of everyday life, was done not only as a way of solving those dilemmas, but also as a way of training the moral wisdom of the confessor — a kind of askesis for him.(30) Such askesis is needed today more than ever. Contemporary casuist reflections on daily life issues, with the expressed intention of exploring the implications of Christian discipleship, might serve to educate today’s ethicist in a kind of moral reasoning appropriate to a discipline that concerns itself with matters of Christian holiness. Moreover, such reflections are part of the ecclesial responsibilities of Catholic ethicists; the Church needs help in thinking through what it means to live holy lives, and it will not happen exclusively through studies of immigration, just war, or welfare reform, however clear and pressing the need for reflection on such issues is.

Saintly Voyeurism

in the life of the Saint, we have a microcosm, or whole work of God.... The exhibition of a person, his thoughts, his words, his acts, his trials, his fortunes, his beginnings, his growth, his end, have a charm to every one, and when he is a Saint they have a Divine influence and persuasion, a power of exercising and eliciting the latent elements of Divine grace in individual readers, as no other reading can claim.(45)


1. I am grateful to William Mattison, William Werpehowski, Cathy Kaveny, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments and suggestions.

2. I will use the terms Catholic ethicist, Catholic moralist, and moral theologian interchangeably in this paper.

3. James Keating provides a very helpful list of the literature in this area in his “A Mystical Moral Theology,” New Blackfriars 83 (January 2002): 276 nn. 1-4.

4. The “number of people categorized as ‘professionals’ by census bureaus throughout the developed world has been growing in a dramatic fashion. In the United States before World War II, for example, only one percent of all employed people were college-educated and classified by the Census Bureau as ‘professional, technical, and kindred’ workers. Today, the comparable group is twelve times as large.” Steven Brint, In an Age of Experts: The Changing Role of Professionals in Politics and Public Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 3.

5. Talcott Parsons, Essays in Sociological Theory, rev. ed. (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1954), 34.

6. See Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1976).

7. Richard Posner, “The University as Business,” The Atlantic Monthly 289 (June 2002): 21. Laurence Veysey finds three competing visions of higher education present in academia: career training, basic research, and liberal education. The pressures and needs of American business and society (i.e., the external culture) have put the last on the defensive, though it is also the one most innately resistant to a merely utilitarian and functional understanding of knowledge. “Higher Education as Profession: Changes and Continuities,” in The Professions in American History, ed. Nathan O. Hatch (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 15-32.

8. Michael J. Baxter and Frederick C. Bauerschmidt, “Catholics in the Academy,” Communio 22 (Summer 1995): 288.

29. See James D. Davidson et al., “The Impact of Generations: Pre-Vatican II Catholics, Vatican II Catholics, and Post-Vatican II Catholics,” The Search for the Common Ground (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 1997), 111-139, esp. 119-120, 137-139.

37. Ibid., 74.

38. John A. Coleman, S.J., “Conclusion: After Sainthood?” in Saints and Virtues, ed. John Stratton Hawley (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987), 223.

39. A “society without saints tends to allow virtue to sink to the level of utilitarian value” (ibid., 221).

40. I was helped on this point by an essay by James Keating and David M. McCarthy, “Habits of Holiness: The Ordering of Moral-Mystical Living,” Communio 28 (Winter 2001:) 820-842. In keeping with their notion of a “moral-mystical living,” I intend to emphasize here that Christian moral living cannot be viewed only as an alternate cultural ethics. Christian ethicists must take account of the theological nature of that life and the ways in which the divine mystery upsets neat patterns of moral analysis. The saints can help us do that.

41. Keating and McCarthy, “Moral Theology with the Saints,” 209.

42. Karl Rahner, “The Church of the Saints,” Theological Investigations, vol. 3 (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), 100, cited by Donna L. Orsuto, “The Saint as Moral Paradigm,” Spirituality and Morality: Integrating Prayer and Action, ed. Dennis J. Billy, C.Ss.R., and Donna L. Orsuto (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), 131.

43. Edith Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 26.

44. Martha C. Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 171.