The Bible, Morality and Happiness

Fr Adrian Graffy takes a look at the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document on ‘The Bible and Morality’. This article was originally published in The Pastoral Review, issue 5 (2009) 45-50.

The recent [in 2009] appearance of ‘atheist buses’ up and down the country is likely to perpetuate a common misunderstanding of Christianity. The slogan carried by the buses clearly implies that it is only by rejecting belief in God that happiness can be achieved. ‘There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life!’

Such a misstatement of faith is explicitly challenged by the scholars of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, who have recently produced a new teaching document entitled ‘The Bible and Morality’ (1). The Commission, founded in 1902 by Pope Leo XIII and redesigned in 1971 by Pope Paul VI, consists of twenty-four eminent Catholic biblical scholars from across the word, including Dom Henry Wansbrough of Ampleforth Abbey. When it began work on this topic it was led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The project was brought to its conclusion under the new prefect, appointed  when Pope Benedict XVI was elected, Cardinal William Levada.

Happiness, happiness

In his preface Cardinal Levada immediately focuses on happiness. God wants our happiness. It is only through recognising God-given values that we can truly achieve it. This document is of immense importance both for those who misunderstand Christianity and misrepresent it, for those called to preach and teach it, and for all of us for whom morality in the Bible can present a challenge. Against the background of repeated surveys reporting that people in Britain, both children and adults, are sadder and less fulfilled than those of other nations, we need to rediscover the values hidden in the Scriptures and the programme for happiness which they contain.

Cardinal Levada maintains that the Bible is not only a source of revelation but also a reference point for behaviour. The guidelines and norms in the Bible offer a good way forward, but people of today often have a strong antipathy to norms, obligations and commandments, which is accompanied by a desire for unlimited liberty, a freedom to act according to one’s desires without the constraint of any rules. As a consequence the Bible is often dismissed as an obstacle to personal happiness. The biblical writings, produced in a distant age, do not speak of modern problems, so how can they speak to us? The Bible and Morality tackles these problems. The document repeatedly stresses that the Bible is not a rule book, nor is it an arbitrary imposition of a tyrannical god, but that ‘revealed morality’ is an invitation to respond to the gifts of God.

Creation and Covenant

The first part of The Bible and  Morality surveys the gifts of God as presented in the Scriptures. Our very  creation and the creation of the world is the foundational gift. Since human  beings are created by God and ‘in the image of God’, God is a point of reference for human decision-making. Above all, human beings should reflect the wisdom and care God shows, which would lead to a new respect and gratitude for the whole of creation. There is a profound wisdom here, which is certainly shared by many people of other faiths and none, and invites our responsibility in preserving and caring for the creation.

The gift of covenant in the Hebrew Bible embraces all the dealings of God with the people of Israel, who come to know God as accompanying and liberating them, as giver of gifts and as gathering them together. It is a covenant between unequal partners, in which the grace of God invites a free human response. Morality is a journey, for the people of God and for the nations. The charter of the covenant, the Decalogue or Ten Commandments, focuses on external acts and is largely made up of prohibitions, but it points to rich values, which are valid for all humanity and which enhance the human freedom given by God at the exodus. The document lists the positive values which derive from the Decalogue.

The words of the Commission sound prophetic amid our present difficulties:

‘When a political and social system  is founded, openly or not, on false basic values (or uncertainty about values),  when commerce and consumerism are considered more important than personal relationships, that system is fractured from its very beginning, and doomed, sooner or later, to collapse.’ (n.30)

The alternative is the ‘liberating morality’ offered in the Decalogue,  and confirmed and deepened by Jesus Christ.

Speaking of the pentateuchal law  codes and then of the preaching of the prophets, the document highlights social justice and concern for the poor and the foreigner, and the essential link between such concern and true worship. The Wisdom literature meanwhile contains an openness to the wisdom of the nations, which provides a biblical basis for dialogue with other religions and ‘the search for a global ethic’ (n.40).

The new gift of Jesus Christ

The new covenant brought by Jesus and the Kingdom which he preached are pure grace, total gift. The values and virtues of the Kingdom will be fully realised in the future, but are a gift for the here and now. Jesus invites people to ‘repent’, to change their minds, and to follow him. Again, these are not external norms but an invitation to follow the path he followed, to walk his walk. The Beatitudes are described as ‘a sort of synthesis of his teaching’ (n.47) and present fundamental virtues and dispositions. They lead to the joy and happiness of the Kingdom. Most important is the call to service and

The first part of the document continues by looking at other parts of the New Testament. Commenting on John 3 the scholars write: ‘the newness Jesus brings is the fruit of a gratuitous gift that begs to be accepted’ (n.48). In similar fashion for Paul, ‘the moral life does not fully make sense except as an offering of self to God in response to his own gift’ (n.53). Believers are guided by the ‘delicate voice of the Spirit within them’ (n.59).

This is all very well, but it might sound very much like preaching to the converted in a language which only the initiated can grasp. The second part of The Bible and Morality faces head on the problems of using the Bible for moral decisions. It is admitted that the
Bible contains diverse views and shows a development of moral awareness. This second part presents two ‘fundamental criteria’ and six ‘specific criteria’, guidelines or rules for decision-making. This part of the document presents sound advice that will surprise many by its freshness, as well as showing that the unhappy God rejected by the atheists is not the God we believe in.

The Basics

There are two ‘fundamental criteria’ for biblical morality. It has two basic features. Any moral decision must be in conformity both with the biblical concept of human nature, and with the example of Jesus. Two examples from the Decalogue are provided to show how the biblical view of human beings inspires morality. The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ points to respect for life as its corresponding positive value. Respect for life should be afforded at all stages, and to all people, including those who are considered socially or economically unproductive, or whose ‘quality of life’ is considered too low.
Respect for life has led the Church to refine her attitude to the death penalty and to war. It leads to a regard for all forms of life, animal and plant, and to the protection of creation. It is the divine origin of all things that leads to this respect for life.

Similarly, the commandment ‘You shall not commit adultery’ offers a rich horizon in the values of personal and mutual responsibility, and solidarity. The married couple are called to witness to the stability and permanence of God’s love. The commandment does not simply denounce moral laxity, but ‘defends the full significance of the reality of marriage in God’s purpose’ (n.99).

The second fundamental criterion is conformity to the example of Jesus. The imitation of Jesus is described as ‘the heart of Christian morality’ (n.100). Once again the scholars turn to the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes show the dignity of human beings in the most disadvantaged situations. Jesus typifies these values and situations, in his poverty, humility and meekness, and in being persecuted. At the same time he fulfils and deepens the demands of the Law, by offering a ‘greater righteousness’ (Mt. 5.20) appropriate for the children of God. The morality of the Sermon on the Mount is not an inaccessible ideal, but the way of life which reflects the teaching of Jesus and is compatible with the disciple’s status as child of God.

Agreement and disagreement

The second part of the document follows up the two fundamental criteria for moral behaviour with six ‘specific criteria’. These are six important guidelines which illuminate more detailed features of biblical morality. In the English translation of the original Italian document they are listed as: convergence, contrast, advance, community dimension, finality and discernment. (2)

The scholars referred earlier to the way that the material in the Hebrew Bible often reflects the wisdom of other peoples. This is particularly true of the Wisdom books. The first guideline to moral decision-making is ‘convergence’. The ‘natural wisdom’ of the peoples will very often be confirmed by the pages of Scripture. There are, for example, profound similarities between the laws of the Pentateuch and other ancient legislation, such as the Code of Hammurabi. The language is not that of rights, but of the duty of each individual to further the ‘common good’, to treat others, and in particular the poor and the weak, in a way which respects the human dignity given them by God.

In the New Testament the apostle Paul, who had little success with the philosophers in the Areopagus, shares the concerns of contemporary philosophy, such as the Stoics’ quest for freedom from the passions. His lists of virtues have the new element that it is only the Spirit of Jesus which can assist our innate weakness. The scholars conclude that the Church of Vatican II is rightly in dialogue with the world on a wide range of issues: human rights, the arms trade and weapons of mass destruction, the dignity of the sexes, the abuse of resources, massive inequalities, ecology and justice.

The final paragraph on this first specific criterion is worth quoting in full:

‘The Bible has no immediate and ready answers to these problems, but its message on God the Creator of all, on human responsibility for creation, on the dignity of every human person, on solicitude for the poor, etc., prepares Christians for an active and fruitful participation in the common search for an adequate solution to these current problems.’ (n.110)

While biblical morality supports and encourages all that is good in human endeavour, it staunchly opposes all forms of evil, sin and injustice. The second guideline for biblical morality is ‘contrast’, or opposition to these elements. In the words of the prophets certain behaviours are identified as sins, and the same is true in Paul’s writings. Sin is described as a violation of the relationship with God and as the violation of the dignity and rights of other people. Different kinds of ‘idolatry’ are listed: the worship of other gods condemned by Elijah and Hosea, the greed which leads to the oppression of the poor, the enforced pagan worship of the Maccabean times, the moral confusion confronted by Paul, the godlessness of the Roman Empire with the martyrdom of Christians.

The contemporary implications of such biblical confrontations are easy to see. The scholars refer to the ‘self-idolatry’ of individuals, social classes and states (n.117). The pursuit of ‘total liberty’, which excludes God, leads to greed and exploitation, the ‘stifling pursuit of profit’, the abuse of nature and the oppression of others, most graphically visible in the neglect of the poor world. Oppressive regimes set themselves up in the place of God with consequent immense suffering inflicted on their people. In the midst of all this Christians are called to persevering witness to a better way, the way of response to God’s goodness, in which happiness is not illusory but real.

Moral Moves

The Bible witnesses to a ‘refinement of conscience’ over time in relation to certain moral questions (n.120). This is the guideline of ‘advance’, the recognition of the development of understanding found throughout the Scriptures. Once again it is apparent that the Bible does not present a rigid moral system but an awareness which grows through revelation, and especially in the light of the paschal mystery of Christ and the gift of the
Holy Spirit.

The scholars provide three fine examples of such development. The excessive vengeance which was the practice of early times (Gen. 4.23-24) is to be limited by the lex talionis, by which Israel is commanded to avoid disproportionate vengeance (Exod. 21.23-24). This in turn is challenged by the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance.’ (Mt. 5.39). The God who pardons faults invites human beings to do the same. While polygamy is practised in early times, there is a progression from monogamy with divorce to monogamy without divorce in the teaching of Jesus (Mt. 5.31-32). Finally, the system of sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible is replaced by the one sacrifice of Christ and the new worship offered by the ‘royal priesthood’ of Christians.

Biblical morality insists that the human person is a member of a community. The ‘community dimension’ is the fourth guideline, or ‘specific criterion’. The aim of the moral life is not to produce a perfect independent individual, but a person who lives harmoniously and generously in relationship. The ‘people of God’ in the Hebrew Bible prepared for the new people of Christ, called to live in communion, guided by the Spirit, and accepting the challenge of the ‘greater righteousness’ which includes the love of all, even of enemies, called to care most of all for the poor, the stranger and the foreigner. This guideline points to the crucial importance of the family, the fundamental community, as well as the awareness of being a global community. Love is defined as ‘that profound undertaking to transcend oneself for the good of others’ (n.135), the love that goes beyond justice and counters the excessive individualism of today’s world.

The hope of the future life is described as a ‘decisive motive’ for behaviour. ‘Finality’ is the fifth ‘specific criterion’. The death and resurrection of Jesus brought new light to human anxiety about death, and confirmed the longings of many pages of the Scriptures. The prospect of life in union with God makes the way of the cross more tolerable. Paul urges believers to ‘search for the things that are above, where Christ is’ (Col. 3.1). The Church looks towards this fulfilment, knowing that ‘one day she will succeed in loving Christ as he loves her’ (n.145). This ‘criterion of eschatological tension’ has the potential to correct the false attitudes so prevalent in today’s world

The sixth and final criterion is that of ‘discernment’. We cannot attribute the same value to all the moral rulings in the Bible. We have already seen when dealing with the criterion of ‘advance’ that there is a refinement of conscience within Scripture. Prudence is needed in both community and personal discernment. The scholars stress that the Church disapproves of every fundamentalist use of Scripture. A sound critical reading of the Bible will, on the other hand, be able to make a distinction between ‘precepts and practices valid for all times and for all places’ and those which have rightly been discarded (n.154). Such decisions will be made in the light of conscience and with guidance from the community. The developing Tradition of the Church must be brought into the consideration of biblical morality.

A modest seed

In their conclusion the scholars refer to their extensive document as ‘a modest seed for reflection’ (n.155). They stress for a final time that ‘revealed morality’ is not a code of commands but a response to God’s gifts, which reveals values that, while they are demanding, are also more attractive to contemporary moral sensitivities. Morality is to be seen ‘as a stimulus, rather than a burden’ (n.157).  They express the wish that this ‘breath of fresh air’ (n.158) will be a useful contribution to dialogue, and recognised as a ‘valid proposal’ (n.160). Preachers of a rigid bent will profit from this more nuanced approach to biblical morality. Parents and teachers will appreciate here ‘the way of true happiness’ (n.162). Atheists would be able to correct their caricature of God. This ‘modest seed’ deserves to be widely disseminated for all these reasons.

(1)  ‘The Bible and Morality: Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct’, Pontifical Biblical
Commission, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2008.

(2) The original Italian document can be found at At the time of writing no translation into English or another language [was] available on the Vatican website.

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