Competing moral codes and the Passion of Christ

Everyone has a philosophy of life, so philosophers observe. It's just a matter of one's self-awareness of the philosophy. Hence there are realists, surrealists, existentialists, phenomenologists and so on. But most philosophers agree everyone is a "realist" when it comes to the pay and benefits grid. (You don't want to anger the existential realism of the IRS with an "appearance is reality" argument.) It can also be said that everyone has a moral code. It's just a matter of one's self-awareness of one's moral code.

The emerging modern secular moral code is increasingly clear and has significant overlaps with the Christian moral code. Mass murder, genocide, racism and forcible sexual relations - for now - remain on the "Thou shalt not" cultural list, and we can be grateful for that. There are, of course, items on the margins that may coincide with the Judeo-Christian code but are vague enough to cause restlessness: insensitivity, non-inclusivity, judgmentalism, economic injustice and failure to recognize global warming. Ambiguity in these terms is often used to support the prudential (and hence arguable) portions of the secular moral code to the exclusion of thoughtful disagreements.

There are several examples. Increasingly, phrases like "law and order" are read to be code words for "racism." (Of course in many situations this could be true as, for example, when law enforcement guns were turned on striking immigrant mine workers in 1897 in Lattimore, Pa.) It is common to accuse those promoting "fiscal responsibility" in government spending as being "insensitive to the poor" when government programs need to be downsized. There is insistence that "global warming" is a fact and that any opposition to the "settled science" is sinful. There is room, of course, in all these matters for reasonable debate. But the lines of demarcation between the old and the new Commandments are increasingly clear elsewhere.

According to the modern world, consensual sex wherever it can be enjoyed is an unalienable human right protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Comedy Channel. Pornography is playful and fun. Adultery may be unfortunate but always necessary for "life to go on." "Reproductive rights" is a code phrase for contraception and abortion. And the "war on women" is code for encouraging laws preventing women from killing their unborn babies. In some ways, the secular moral code has gained such widespread acceptance that protests by a few Christians are reduced to "voices crying out in the wilderness": embryonic stem cell research; in vitro fertilization; cohabitation ("living together before marriage") and cable TV porn. As a culture we have succumbed to man's first temptation in the Garden of Eden. We have chosen to be "like God" by "knowing (being in charge of) good and evil."

In the meantime, Christians, for better but often for worse, tend to be "live and let live" with sins. And we know we are sinners ourselves. We often feel disqualified to respond in the public square, either because we are "cursed by the memory" of our own failures and sins (and hence open to charges of "hypocrisy"), or fear being labelled "judgmental." So we remain silent and, taking recourse in the sacraments, live our lives in relative privacy. But the silence comes at a price.

There are new signs that the culture is on the verge of overthrowing the shackles of the old moral "constraints" (good morality is, in reality, an expression of man's true freedom) and replacing them definitively with its new politically correct moral order. Over the last several years, the bishops have been in a high profile battle to prevent the government from forcing Catholic institutions to pay for contraception. Recently, an archbishop's insistence that teachers support Catholic morality in Catholic schools is being met with widespread resistance by many inside and outside of the church. Changes in the very definition of marriage have caused many churchmen to run for cover, avoiding at all costs any charges of "judgmentalism."

Some Christians might be in despair when it comes to finding any remedy for all this confusion. But the remedy is available and must begin with a serious meditation on the events we are about to celebrate in the church this week. The Passion of Christ remains a historical fact. He suffered for our sins. He died for sins. In His tormented face and body on the cross, we see what sin does. We do not define ourselves in the nature of sin. The church herself is merely a witness. Christ Himself reveals and defines the nature of good and evil. "If you love me," Jesus tells His disciples, "keep my commandments." The cross is real and the objectively just measure of the consequences of sin and its horrible power to disfigure. The tormented body on the cross is also an image of soul ravaged by sin - in the "state of sin." If our sins tortured Christ to death, the same sins become self-inflicted wounds in need of His divine remedy. We need His love, and in contemplation of the cross, we should find ourselves desperate for His love.

Meditation on the Passion of Christ is essential to bring us to sobriety and sanity. Ours is to witness to His code of life purified of our horrible personal and cultural immoral accretions. With God's grace, ours is to live as Christ, to love as Christ, to die with Christ as we await His Resurrection.

Fr. Pokorsky is pastor of St. Michael Church in Annandale.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015