This fall I am giving presentations to all of the high school teachers, staff and administrators in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. These talks take place on an annual basis, and they are dedicated to a regular cycle of topics. This year, the theme is morality. Lucky me! My guess is that disquisitions on doctrine or church history or pastoral practice wouldn’t raise too many hackles, but ethics is practically guaranteed to rile people up, especially now when issues of same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and assisted suicide are so present to the public consciousness.
I am not sure whether I’m delighting or disappointing my audiences, but I am not ordering my talks to address these hot-button questions. Indeed, it is my conviction that a good deal of mischief and confusion is caused precisely by characterizing Catholic morality primarily as a matrix for adjudicating such matters. A purely rational or deductive approach to controversial ethical choices is largely an exercise in missing the point. For to know how to behave as a Christian is a function of knowing, first, who we are as Christians. Understanding how to act is, if I can pun a little, a function of understanding what play we are in. The great Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, has said that most of us are like actors who are dressed up for Hamlet, who have memorized all of the right lines from Hamlet, and who thoroughly grasp the thematics of Hamlet. The only problem is that we are in Romeo and Juliet. Therefore, what I am sharing with the good teachers of the L.A. Archdiocese is largely Christian anthropology, a fancy way of saying the articulation of what play we’re in and what role we’ve been given in that production.
Like the great Shakespeare plays, the drama of salvation history consists of five acts: Creation, the Fall, the Formation of Israel, the Coming of the Messiah, and the Church. Comprehending the dynamics of all five acts is indispensable to knowing how to behave. So let’s take things one step at a time. According to the still breathtaking poetic account in the first chapter of Genesis, all created things come forth in an orderly and harmonious manner from the hand of the Creator. Sun, moon, planets, stars, the earth itself, animals, even those things that crawl upon the earth, come into existence as a sort of stately liturgical procession. What the author is showing, first, is that none of these things—all of which at one time or another in the ancient world were the object of worship—is divine. What he is demonstrating, secondly, is that all of them find their purpose in giving praise to the Creator. It is of crucial significance that the final element in the parade—like the last figure in a liturgical procession—is the human being. We are meant to see our identity and our task: to give praise to God on behalf of all creation. Before the Fall, Adam was the first priest.
So what is the Fall? What takes place in act two is the loss of our priestly identity. Grasping at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we end up worshipping our own egos rather than God, and from this misdirected praise, chaos follows. Things fall apart, both inside and outside, that is to say, in our hearts and in the natural order—and the Garden becomes a desert. Throughout the Bible, the basic problem, though it manifests itself politically, culturally, psycho-dynamically, etc., is always bad praise.
But God does not abandon his people; on the contrary, he sends a rescue operation. Beginning with the covenant with Abraham, God shapes a nation according to his own mind and heart; he teaches a particular tribe to worship him aright, to be his priestly people. His ultimate intention is to use Israel for the instruction of all the nations of the world. Mt. Zion, the locale of the Temple, the place of right worship, is meant to become a magnet to the whole of humanity: “There all the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord” (Psalm 122:4). The entire drama of Israel is the content of act three.
But we hear, over and again, that Israel does not live up to its high calling, that it falls short of its vocation to worship the Lord alone. And so the best and the brightest among the chosen people commence to dream of a Messiah, a figure who would represent the full realization of Israel’s mission and identity. The coming of this anointed one is the central drama of act four. The still startling claim of the first Christians is that Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, is this long-awaited Messiah, the one in whom faithful Yahweh finally meets faithful Israel. Notice, please, how Jesus is consistently presented as a priestly figure. John the Baptist declares him to be the “Lamb of God;” at the climax of his life, he comes into the holy city of Jerusalem and cleanses the Temple, declaring, “I will destroy this place and in three days rebuild it,” referring to the Temple of his own body; and on the cross, bearing the sins of the world, he offers a final priestly sacrifice, offering right praise to his Father and bringing sinful humanity back in line with him. This is precisely why, in the light of the Resurrection, St. Paul would refer to Jesus as “the new Adam,” which is to say, the one who restores the human race to correct praise.
Now, we are ready for act five and the proper context for speaking of morality. Act five is the life and work of the Church. Grafted on to Jesus, members of his mystical body, all of the baptized are meant to do what Jesus did and be who Jesus was. We are meant, as Paul put it, to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord.” This implies that we are to turn every aspect of ourselves—our minds, our wills, our personal affairs, our jobs, our recreation, and yes, our sexuality—into acts of worship. To make it more pointed, our bodies and their desires do not belong to us; they are not intended to serve our selfish purposes. They are designed to be turned to God’s purpose, which implies that they be placed under the aegis of love. Now we can understand why the Church is so demanding in regard to sex, why it stands so staunchly athwart divorce, contraception, same-sex marriage, masturbation, etc. It is not because the Church is against sex or against pleasure or against self-determination. It is because the Church is for turning the whole of life into an act of radical love. And its dearest hope is that the very quality of its right praise will attract the whole world to Christ. I realize that it sounds strange to put it this way, but the moral lives of the baptized are not meant finally for them; they are meant to be salt and light for the rest of humanity.
What I’m telling the Catholic high school teachers of L.A. is what I want to tell all Catholics: you won’t know how to behave until you know who you are. And you won’t know who you are until you realize what play you’re in!
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.