New Catholics remind me of nothing so much as the old Puritans, who ended a great many sentences with the sobrious four words: “. . . is a moral issue.” Thus, today, employment is a moral issue. Unemployment is a moral issue. Nuclear weapons are a moral issue. Infant formula is a moral issue. When religion is swallowed up in morality, you have not got Christianity, you have got sobriety. The true Christian, or at least the Catholic, does not see life primarily in moral colors. The Catholic, as he sees Joseph’s many-colored coat, sees life in religious colors. Christianity is to morality what the Incarnation is to the stoic endurance of labor pains: grace, gift, surprise, joy, mystery. One can imagine that, for the Magi, coming to visit the Babe was “a moral issue,” but one is more inclined to think of it as, in their eyes, an astonishing privilege, a once-in-all-lifetimes occurrence, a moment of delectable surprise, of which they were scarcely morally worthy.
Nowadays, alas, every diocese has its own Peace and Justice Commission. I would have thought that, in the Christian scheme, peace and justice were contradictory, not complementary, that wherever you have peace, there remains wide pockets of injustice, and wherever a bold man hungers and thirsts for justice, there you have a disturber of the peace. There is a quite different peace under totalitarianism; totalitarian justice is peace enforced. Totalitarian peace is a kind of pervasive quiet, as after an ice storm, socialist justice, justice by definition. You can have peace and justice under totalitarian societies. The one thing you cannot have is liberty. And that is why totalitarian societies regularly repress true Christianity. They would accept Peace and Justice Commissions all right. They would disturb no religion composed solely of peace and justice commissions. What would amaze them, what would affright them, what they simply could not tolerate, are liberty and justice commissions. Such dissidents as started these would soon be locked up, for disturbing the peace, in asylums for the insane.
It is true that Pope Paul VI, that tormented and saintly man, who tried so hard to be fair to everyone, cautioned those who desire peace to work for justice. But the peace which workers for justice experience is not at all the peace of this world; it is, rather, the peace of another and more paradoxical world, a peace the world cannot give, a justice which is that of the Crucified, a peace which is that of the Cross.
Thus, it should jolt no one in our mock-serious day to see the dying out even among Catholics of the Catholic impulse. For the Catholic impulse is surprise and liberty, or it is nothing at all. It is not the rational passion of “moral issues;” for that you need no angels and saints, no carnal eating of the Eucharist, no tinkling bells and billowing incense, no adoration and utter silence before the Word. No, for that you need only colors black and white and grey, the stamina of the ancient Stoics, the chill fog of Kant’s Germany. Moral issues! The world had plenty of moral issues before it had Christianity. Without Judaism and Christianity, that is all it had. When David danced before the Ark, and when Magdalene broke perfume over the feet of Jesus, there were those who raised in objection moral issues. The essence of Christianity is not moral issues. Its essence, rather, is that of the perfume which rose from Magdalene’s ministrations, her touch of love, her silent sighs of adoration later to be cried out aloud at the tomb of the Resurrection: “Lord and Master!”
Christianity includes morality. But of one thing we may be sure. Those whose primary focus is the moral making of history, the toil of modernity’s seriousness, have not yet discovered Christianity, but are waiting to be surprised by it.