Pastoral accommodation is close to the idea of acculturation or inculturation, and both reflect the dynamic of incarnation – the idea that the eternal Word enters the realm of history and the flesh, with all its variety, confusion and pain. Though Christ is ‘he who comes from heaven’ (Jn 3.31), his teaching is a two-way dialogue. He does not seek the perfect application of the law to a multitude, or to its individual members isolated from one another. The law serves the building of a community of mutual consideration and mutual help; it is this realized community of love that is the fulfilling of the law. Yet all too often the moral life of the Christian has been a lonely struggle between an abstract divine voice speaking in conscience on the one hand and a navel-gazing recollection of isolated peccadilloes on the other. Without a wholesome and vibrant community, Christian ethics remains disincarnate, and fails to realize the good that God intends for us in Christ.
Ethics is realized in creative practice as each follows his or her vocation. This concept was much developed by Luther, who regarded both the ecclesial order and the civil order as instituted by the Word of God, not just to regulate sinful humanity, but as part of God’s good creation. Unfortunately, the notion of vocation has become a highly individualistic one, prone to pious mystification. A call to play a God-given role within some sphere of human community has been distorted into a magical election to special ontological status. Secular vocations, including the married state, have been treated as inferior to religious ones, and an old Augustinian tendency to regard the earthly city as specially marked by Original Sin has not entirely died out. Avoidance of sin became the cardinal ethical concern, rather than production of good works that build up human community. The crushing of liberation theology means that the notion of building up God’s Kingdom on earth, as the central ethical focus, is again receding in favor of the older concern with saving one’s soul.
The pastoral culture of the Church, and its role of building human community within and outside its borders, cannot flourish if the authority of the local church is annulled in favor of the universal church, or if individual pastors feel unduly exposed to the accusations of laxism or heterodoxy when they show leniency and understanding in their practical advice, or if the Church is more concerned with the purity of its identity than with being a functioning community. A living community can never be totally pure in its identity, for purity entails exclusions and constant debate about what counts as pure or impure. There is little doubt that Jesus of Nazareth stood for inclusive community over against the Pharisees’ obsession with purity and identity. If the pastoral interaction between church teaching and the lives of the faithful is short-circuited, the result will be that on one side pure doctrine will be proclaimed in ever loftier tones while on the other ethical thinking becomes ever more sporadic and inoperative in people’s lives.
An incarnational ethics is one that takes human beings as it finds them, and that does not airbrush out their messy reality on the grounds that it does not match the specifications of some Holiness Code. The Jesus of the Gospels exhibits such an ethics, and was denounced as a laxist by the puritans of the day. Those who wanted to stone adulterers – today, it would be those who want to lynch pedophiles – met a surprising failure of collaboration on the part of the Nazarene. His ethics began not with principles but with the human heart, with its baggage of past sins, present habits, and future possibilities of love and generosity. The moral realism of Jesus flashes out in many a homely proverbial thrust. Unfortunately his words are seized on by fundamentalists to again lay heavy burdens on others. The sayings of Jesus are meant to challenge, not to enslave, and that is the basic interpretative principle for understanding and using them today.
The thrust of the Gospel is toward the transformation of a sinful world, especially toward overcoming the sinful social structures that prevent just and loving relationships. This transformation is not an obsessive effort to clean out all evil, to scour the soul clean. Rather it accentuates the elements within any given human situation that open up a future of renewed life, elements that co-exist with enslaving habits that cannot immediately be overcome. Much of what we call casuistry is based on recognition of this torn condition of humans, simul iusti et peccatores, sinners insofar as they are caught in unjust structures and webs of fleshly weakness, righteous insofar as they identify with the Gospel transformation that is also at work within them. Those obsessed with their own righteousness try to iron out all the moral wrinkles in the fabric of their existence, a fruitless and sterilizing task. Those who have been freed by the call of Gospel righteousness acknowledge their sinfulness but do not let it become a depressing hindrance to their participation in the work of the Kingdom.
In the biblical vision sexuality is a blessing, but in Christian theology it soon came to be seen primarily as a source of temptation and concupiscence, even within marriage. Rethinking sex within a broader social context, we should put the moral accent on responsibility, generosity, building creative relationships, and not on what Yves Congar denounced as ‘the morality of the sacrosanct semen,’ a monastic, clerical preoccupation that distorts our vision of any issue involving sex ( with catastrophic consequences, recently, in relation to Aids prevention). To find righteousness in the battlefield of human relationships, one needs to learn how to handle the forces of sexuality humanely. That is best done by affirming their basic goodness, even if in certain circumstances or in alliance with pathologies or reckless ideologies they can be destructive. Any mighty force of the human heart will be liable to errors and excesses, and a certain suspicion of sinfulness may never be out of place. But that is part and parcel of the creative project of living a human life. We should repent of having sinned, but not of having lived. No one should have to apologize for being a human being.
One often wonders what it must feel like to work in an execution chamber, or an abortion clinic, or a military outpost. Even if one’s conscience were at ease in performing such dirty jobs, is there not an unbearable taint attached to having to perform acts of death? ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is perhaps as much promise as commandment, like ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ (in its original context in Leviticus 19.18). In an ideal world no human would ever kill another human. Most of us are happy not to have to do such dirty jobs. But we conveniently forget that the jobs are being carried out on our behalf. In the case of abortion, for example, if we regard its legalization as a sad necessity, we are all participants in its practice. If we see abortion as always inexcusable, we are then guilty for its continuance in that we have not created a culture of sexual responsibility and social care that would makes abortion rarer. Likewise, we all participate in executions if we approve of capital punishment, and if we do not, we are still guilty if we have not been vigorous in our protests. As to war, every nation has an army and considers it a necessity, which again makes all citizens participants in an activity of death.
What I am trying to suggest is that sinful social structures mean that we are all up to our necks in the disorders that we pretend have nothing to do with us. This is perhaps what original sin might mean, not an obscure transgression in prehistory but a present aporia, the impossibility of escaping from our share in the sin of the world. In the battle of existence one group or individual often advances at the expense of another. Life itself is a dirty job. Yet it is possible to perform works of righteousness, to acquit oneself honorably, on this battlefield. In fact, abstention from action would leave us passive victims of the sinful forces on every side; it is by plunging into action, in a spirit of disinterestedness, that we offset the murky aspects of our condition and prevent them from paralyzing us.
Do good and avoid evil! What could be simpler? Have the above reflections made morality out to be more complicated than it actually is? Our elastic consciences will grasp at any straw, any sophism, to override moral objections to what we strongly desire. A dash of moral absolutism is no doubt intrinsic to the Gospel and to authentic church teaching. Nonetheless, the ultimate ethical vision of the Gospel is not a matter of absolute principles, but of building up the Kingdom, through the creation of a loving, inclusive community. In such a community moral principles are means rather than ends. If ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mk 2.27), it can with equal justice be said that the moral law was made for human flourishing. An ethics that builds up the body of Christ, instead of lacerating it, will not gravitate toward excommunication of the sinner, but toward acceptance of people as they are, encouraging their promise, commiserating with their bondage to sin, which we all share. It will respect the rights of conscience, even when conscience is objectively in error. Moral judgment has too often been a lever for mutual condemnation, insidious prejudice and discrimination, and even physical violence. Christians need to reclaim the art of moral judgment and turn it from a sword into a ploughshare, with which to cultivate the field of Christian community as one of peaceful debate and mutual upbuilding.