“O Christian, recognise your dignity.” With this pithy phrase, Pope Saint Leo the Great (c.400-461) sums up the moral life. Many people today think that being a Catholic means following a list of “dos and don’ts”. The truth is much more exciting.
Created in the image and likeness of God himself, the human person has a unique value, or dignity, among the whole of creation. This dignity is reflected most importantly in three ways.
First, a person has an immortal soul. From conception, all people are destined for eternal happiness.
Secondly, the soul is endowed with a mind, or an intellect. This means that we are able to understand how things are ordered in Creation, and make rational judgments about our surroundings.
Thirdly, the person has a free will. Knowing things with his or her intellect, a person is able then to freely choose what is good and avoid what is evil. It is worth noting that even the most developed apes or the most sophisticated computers are unable to make choices based on reasoning. In short, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person” (CCC 1706).
This is the basic situation. But our first parents succumbed to temptation and did what was wrong. This was the “original sin”. All people since then bear this wound of original sin, and we are inclined to evil, being “divided” in our very selves.
The Good News is that by his death and resurrection, Christ freed us from the grip of evil, earning for us new life in the Holy Spirit. His grace, or help, restores what sin had damaged in us. It is up to us to try and conform our lives to Christ’s life, in order for us to receive the benefits of his work for us. These benefits bring us joy and peace in this life, and eternal happiness, the bliss of heaven, the satisfaction of all our desires, in heaven. The moral life is our response to this. It is what the recognition of our dignity is all about.
So how do we lead a “moral life”? How do we follow Christ? How do we recognise the dignity that Saint Leo urges? How, in short, do we become saints? We do so by making efforts to do good, to grow in virtue, to root out the sin and bad habits to which we are so easily prone. Prayer, the sharing of faith with other Catholics, availing oneself of the sacraments such as Mass or individual Confession, finding a “spiritual director” are the tried and tested means used by Christians over the centuries to become a saint. It is worth noting that the sacraments give us supernatural power.
The task is by no means easy. But it is the only way. Christ said that the way to eternal life was “narrow”. But he also said that everything is possible to God. Even the most hardened sinner, through effort and the grace of God, can receive eternal life. After all, that is why Christ came: “I came that they might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10,10).