From the Church’s earliest beginnings, Christians have sought to make this world a better place. Whether through thinking about how to order the political realm more justly or by serving the poor in conditions of indescribable filth, great saints ranging from Augustine to Teresa of Calcutta exemplify this living-out of the Gospel message.
Like everything else in the Church’s life, however, such activities can become distorted as a result of being detached from the truth of Catholic faith. Indeed, since the mid-twentieth century, many Catholics have effectively reduced the faith to the pursuit of various political, economic and social agendas—so much so that such activism becomes seen as the essence of being Catholic. This essentially amounts to the faith’s absorption into what I’ll call secular moralism.
The term “moralism” is used a great deal today. It’s often employed to stigmatize moral arguments associated with orthodox Christianity or what are often conventionally labelled “conservative” positions. There are, however, legitimate uses of the word within a Christian context. One is the idea that moral improvement is the way to win God’s favor, or what might be called a type of pious Pelagianism. Another is a deep preoccupation with oneself and others being obedient to moral precepts—an approach that goes hand-in-hand with a heavily duty-based and legalistic mindset. This type of moralism often degenerates into trying to find loopholes which allow people to rationalize free choices to violate, for instance, the moral absolutes underscored by the Decalogue, Christ, Saint Paul, and the entire Christian tradition.
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