Growing Into an Adult Morality
Fr. Bryan Massingale, in his workshop at the 2015 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, “Virtues for Adult Christians”, explains that Christian morality is about decisions we make that are motivated by faith in Christ. They are a response to God’s prior gift of love and expressed in our choices and decisions about what we do and the kind of person we are.
Morality, like much of human experience, is different for children than for adults. Childhood is a time of formation and growth. Adulthood is a time of internalization of what has been learned and growth in wisdom. For children, morality is something that comes from the outside, tends to be phrased more negatively (“you may not…”), is based on rules and obedience, and is reinforced by fear or rewards. For adults, morality comes from within the person. It is a positive statement of who I am. Based on ideals and goals, it is virtue-centered. Virtues in this sense are good habits — attitudes and ways of being/acting that are positive responses to divine love. Adult morality is inspirational: becoming the best person I can be, the one God calls me to be.
Both approaches to morality are appropriate and Catholic. Children need rules and boundaries in order to learn and grow safely and securely. But in late adolescence and early adulthood, they need to grow and make what they have learned a positive part of who they are. Humans need to grow up morally as well as physically, because most of what we experience in our adult lives does not fit easily into the system of rules we learned as children. As Fr. Massingale noted, life is sloppy, complex, messy, and fascinating. Rules are for perfect worlds: neat and precise! We expect more than rules can deliver and we want to be safe, but that’s not what adult life is about. Pope Francis tells us in The Joy of the Gospel (#39) that morality is more than rules and self-denial. It’s a response to the God of love.
Traditional lists of virtues are divided into two groups: Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love) and Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, Justice). The Cardinal virtues are sometimes known as “hinge” virtues because others flow from them.
In contrast to the virtues, we also have lists of vices. Interestingly, the vices come in two versions: an excess or a lack of that quality that makes a virtue the good quality that it is. For example the vice that is opposite to Hope may be seen as Despair (too little hope) or as Arrogance (too much misplaced confidence).
Fr. Massingale suggests that for today’s adult Christians, a list of some contemporary virtues should include: Courage, Compassion, Self-Love, Forgiveness, and Wisdom. If these are missing, our lives get all messed up.
His presentation was recorded and is well worth taking the time to enjoy. (The video gets started slowly. Move the cursor on the bar to 21.15 for the beginning!)