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What is Written in Our Hearts?

In a recent general audience, Pope Francis urged people to memorize the Beatitudes, a message he took so seriously that he read each one and ask the gathered crowd to repeat them back. But, as CNS reports:

One repetition of the text of the beatitudes is not enough to "remember them and impress them on our hearts," the pope said, so he gave the crowd "homework," asking them to spend time in the coming days reading the text again, from the Bible "you always should have with you."

While this teaching is likely to get far less press that his statements on hot-button issues, it actually represents something much more fundamental about the pope’s vision of the moral life. A shift to the Beatitudes would be a shift not so much in moral content, but in the framing of the moral life. This is especially important for base-level moral catechesis that goes on in preaching and religious education at the parish level. It promotes a vision of the moral life as a “morality of happiness,” rather than a “morality of obligation,” to use the contrast of the Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers.

Historically, a focus on the Ten Commandments as the center of moral catechesis is relatively new. The commandments only come to the fore in the Reformation era; prior to this time, the primary categories throughout the medieval era were the seven deadly sins, which grew out of monasticism. In many ways, the seven deadly sins remain a far more powerful moral tool for assessing and discerning our own failings, since they focus on the roots of patterns of behavior, rather than simply on offenses. Indeed, like the Beatitudes, they grow out of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which he invites his followers to root out things like anger, greed, and lust, rather than just following the letter of commandments against killing, stealing, and adultery.

However, a turn to the Beatitudes would move us even further beyond commandments. Both modern psychology and ancient virtue ethics agree in pointing to the importance of moral exemplars in developing our moral compass. Rather than simply assessing how to follow a rule, we look at the people around us, and we develop categories that describe what an exemplary life looks like. These categories can never be exhaustively defined – instead, we ultimately develop our knowledge by pointing to and imitating figures that exemplify the categories. This is exactly what the Beatitudes do. They say to us, find the merciful, find the poor in spirit, find the peacemakers, find those who suffer for their faith… and imitate them. Such an imitation becomes our response to Vatican II’s universal call to holiness.

Structurally, a moral catechesis focused on the Beatitudes does invite further reflection on one aspect of the structure of Catholic practice: the sacrament of reconciliation. No doubt frequent confession and communion indirectly encouraged a legalistic moral theology, since the practice of confession required both priest and penitent to name particular sins. I do not mean to criticize the importance of this – I suspect many readers of this blog (myself included) can point to particular times in our lives when the concrete particularity of naming sins and receiving the grace of forgiveness was exactly the right practice. But the Pope’s emphasis on the Beatitudes should encourage us to be creative about what concrete practices our communities could implement to highlight discernment in those terms. One could imagine, for example, penances that (instead of prayer recitation) named a particular beatitude related to sins confessed. One could also think beyond the sacrament of reconciliation, for ways parish life could be practically animated by the Beatitudes – say, highlighting acts which exemplify them to the larger community, or encouraging prayer groups during Lent that would use the Beatitudes for concrete reflection on conversion.

The Pope’s call for us to memorize the Beatitudes could be a game-changer…. If we figure out how to take it beyond memorization.

About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of He is the author of The Vice of Luxury (2015), Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Christian Ethics (2014), and Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008). In fall 2016, he is starting a position at the Catholic University of America.



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A wonderful suggestion.

Here they are in the Douay-Rheims:


The rest of the chapter contains some hard truths, too, including the one about not swearing oaths and not calling others fools.

I mean no disrespect to Francis' predecessor in noting that Benedict, contemplating the Beatitudes, might be inclined to write a learned treatise about them.  What a contrast with Francis, who urges us to memorize them, as parents have had their children memorize the Our Father and the Hail Mary, as catechists have had schoolchildren memorize the Ten Commandments, as missionaries teach the people they evangelize to sing the Good News in popular song form.  I think we see here Francis's missionary heart, his pastor's heart.


Fr. John Dear often wrote/talked about the beatitudes.  One of his articles on them at NCR ...

Sadly, the pope signed off on his dismissal from the Jesuits.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven", begins Matthew's version.  Luke's is not quite the same: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.".  And Luke's is paired with a "woe": "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation".  

I suppose a liberal, volume of Piketty in hand, would prefer Luke's rhetoric.  Matthew's version, ironing out the wrinkles of economic class division by giving us a "poor in spirit" to which we can all aspire, is a good deal more inclusive.  Speaking as a member of the middle class, I'm glad Francis chose Matthew!  And Cardinal Dolan's interpretation is vindicated: Francis loves poor people and rich people.

I offer the above as one pastoral application of Francis' exhortation.  Perhaps others are possible :-)


Thanks for the thoughtful reflection on Francis' reflection.

As (arguably!) a modern psychologist I'm drawn to your point about the importance of moral exemplars.  I think if people reflect on this they will find that these exemplars are often what drew them to the Church.  Perhaps their teachers in Catholic school, friends who work with the homeless, or single pregnant women or those on death row, the stories of those working with Catholic Relief Services.  This seems to me to get at what Francis and Benedict have said about evengelizing as attraction rather than proselytizing.

Psychology has long emphasized the importance of exemplars.  Albert Bandura moved past traditional behaviorism in large part by emphasizing observational learning.  Before I actually got behind the wheel of a car I had learned a great deal about what I was supposed to do by watching the actions of those  who drove.  Bandura would do things like show spider phobics films of people handling spiders well and this was a quite effective treatment.  Most recently Robert Cialdini, Timothy Wilson and others have been applying this idea of exemplars to everything from energy usage to theft of petrified wood to binge drinking.  To take just one example college students tend to think that more people binge drink than actually do.  (This is not to say there aren't binge drinkers, just that their frequency is overestimated. Binge drinkers are very vivid in a way that those who just sip a beer for a long while are not.  Since they are more memorable their frequency is overestimated.)  When students learn what the actual frequency of binge drinking is there is evidence that binge drinking declines.   The students have new examples.

If we want to get people to live the beatitudes it will likely help to give them examplars of people living the beatitudes.  How?  I suppose we could get everyone to read Fr. Jim Martin's My Life With the Saints.  We can encourage homilies that include examples of real people in similar circumstances to our own living the beatitudes.   Messy though our lives are we can try as best we can to live them by the beatitudes, not in a the manner of the Pharisee at the front of the temple who received his benefit by public approval, but one that highlights the beauty of the action so that just as water hollows out rocks, it slowly shapes people's sense of possibility.

I take "poor in spirit" to mean a recognition that it's either God or nothing;that we are dependent for our being on God;a recognition of the  emotional,spiritual, physical frailty,of our own self and that of all other beings too.That for all the riches of life,our condition is pitiful and only if indeed God is love and love prevails, is our pitiful conditon transformed.

I think reflection on the extent to which we are living out the Beatitudes is preferable to the identification of name and kind of sins. This puts us in a kind of a criminal procedures instead of a relational one.

No doubt frequent confession and communion indirectly encouraged a legalistic moral theology, since the practice of confession required both priest and penitent to name particular sins. I do not mean to criticize the importance of this

I don't question the importance but I question how it has been framed ince the middle ages. No question that sin is a reality that distorts our relationship with God and one another. As the link below notes, confession is not pining away in narcissistic self-reflection, even while implying self-knowledge and self-examination. Sin itself is a relational act - a break in the "I-Thou" relationship. And we are all in need of the Divine healer. Franics's approach is a good one but we also need to recast how we think about the sacrament of reconciliation.

(Scholastic) theology tended to transpose the concept of sin, repentance and forgiveness into a forensic idiom, and placed the emphasis on the power of the priest to absolve. In the Orthodox Church, the priest is seen as a witness of repentance, not a recipient of secrets, a detective of speci­fic misdeeds. The "eye," the "ear" of the priest is dissolved in the sacramental mystery. He is not a dispenser, a power­wielding, vindicating agent, an "authority." Such a concep­tion exteriorizes the function of the confessor and of con­fession which is an act of re-integration of the penitent and priest alike into the Body of Christ. The declaration "I, an unworthy priest, by the power given unto me, absolve you" is unknown in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is of later Latin origin and was adopted in some Russian liturgical books at the time of the domination of Russian Orthodox theology by Latin thought and practice. The idea served to bring confession into disrepute, turning it into a procedure of justification and exculpation in respect of particular pun­ishable offenses. Forgiveness, absolution is the culmination of repentance, in response to sincerely felt compunction. It is not "administered" by the priest, or anybody else. It is a freely given grace of Christ and the Holy Spirit within the Church as the Body of Christ.

Jim Pauwels,

I mean no disrespect, but why is it always necessary to compare and contrast Francis with Benedict and/or JPII?  What do you mean that Benedict "might be inclined to write a learned treatise"?   "What a contrast with Francis..." 

Benedict had a pastor's heart.  You can easily find on the internet where Benedict speaks of the Beatitudes in terms that non-academics can understand.  And Francis' qualities can stand on their own without comparisons to Benedict and John Paul II.




When the Beatitudes became only a suggestion or advice for those very spiritual the taith sunk. They are mandatory as is the mandatum of Christ to love our enemies. As Jesus said how are we better than heathens if we love and do good to those who love and do good to us. We are the church of the Beatitudes. Not the church of dogma



Thank you for your reflections. It's interesting that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its section on "Life in Christ," devotes a few pages to the Beatitudes and the virtues, and about 100 pages to the Ten Commandments. By contrast, Herbert McCabe (in his 75 page catechism) lists the Beatitudes as Jesus' summary of "life in the Spirit," and in his section devoted to "Life in the Spirit," McCabe focuses on the theological and cardinal virtues.

I recall something Kurt Vonnegut said about the Beatitudes:

If Christ hadn't delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn't want to be a human being. For some reason the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings...."Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

"When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face."

When we are just starting out and having our first introductions to Jesus, we need rules, or a method (as the Methodists say). Growing up should be a process of needing the checklist less and following more and more -- indistinctly -- the path Jesus is opening before us. I worry about kids who have never heard the Ten Commandments and adults who have never heard the Eight Beatitudes .

Or is it Four, Jim? An Indian priest I know was once "tested" by an Immigration oifficer on his arrival in the Land of the Free. "How many beatitudes are there, Father?" He replied, "Eight in Matthew. Four in Luke -- but there are four woes with them. And one in John -- 'Love one another as I have loved you.' " The customs agent said, "Are you sure you are not a Protestant?"

It's up to us to reconcile Matthew and Luke, and the ongoing exercise is good for us.



Hi, Frank, as I said in my comment, I meant no disrespect to Benedict in making the comparison.  Their papal 'styles' do strike me as quite different.  It is inevitable and unavoidable that popes will be compared to one another.  In recent another topic here, I compared Francis to Paul VI.  I don't think it is wrong to compare and contrast.

Clearly, quite a few people really like Francis, and think he gets the better of the comparison.  I like him, too.  I try to appreciate Benedict for who he is, and try to do the same for Francis.  My view is that Francis is highlighting areas of ecclesial life and mission that really need emphasizing, so I am enthused.

Tom - actually, I believe there are nine :-).  Although an NAB footnote suggests that four are original to Jesus (#s 1, 2, 4 and 9) and the others were Matthew's composition.   I tend to mentally preface those scholarly glosses with, "We don't know for certain, but ..."

Bill Mazella

Who are these heathens you think Jesus spoke of?  The word "heathen" does not appear in the NT.

Dear Jim,

Perhaps best to keep the two in tension: one for practicing inclusion, one for calling out injustice. We can do both; read Luke and Matthew on alternating days. It would be the Catholic "both/and" response.

From a Piketty-reading deacon brother.

Alan, I see that all versions now have "sinners." Somehow I recall the word translated as "heathen." But I guess not. Thanks for the correction. I also learned  how it used to refer to non-Jews. Apparently Jesus used it once.

In the first volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict devotes a number of pages to a reflection on the "Beatitudes." He writes:

the Beatitudes present a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure. He who has no place to lay his head is truly poor; he who can say, "Come to me ... for I am meek and lowly in heart" is truly meek; he is the one who is pure of heart and so unceasingly beholds God. He is the peacemaker, he is the one who suffers for God's sake.

The Beatitudes display the mystery of Christ himself, and they call us into communion with him. But precisely because of their hidden Christological charcter, the Beatitudes are also a road map for the Church, which recognizes in them the model of what she herself should be. They are directions for discipleship, directions that concern every individual, even though – according to the variety of callings – they do so differently for each person (p. 74).

My Greek teacher,  Father Bermingham, a long, long, time ago told us that the Beatitudes are really radical and we dumb them down.   Jesus was saying "Congratulations! You're poor!  but when we go to church we all too often hear a tepid translation with a sermon that tries to make the Sermon on the Mount  some kind of justification for the Protestant work ethic. (Father Bermingham said).  I don't remember any Greek, but I always remembered that. 


Thanks to David Cloutier for this splendid post. I have nothing of substance to add to it, other than one minor anecdote. In a Just Faith group I was involved in some years ago, the question arose about what the preferential option for the poor amounted to. Does it mean that Jesus cares less for the wealthy than for the poor? One of our members, who generally said little, responded. "The option for the poor means that Jesus is saying that He's on the side of the poor and that if we well-to-do people wanted to stand with Him, then we had to stand on the side of the poor." I've found no better way to harmonize Matthew's and Luke's versions of the Beatitude concerning the poor.

As I understand them, the Beatitudes originally were not descriptions of desired behavior or attitudes, but announcements of those being blessed as the Kingdom breaks in with Jesus and his message and works, along the same lines as that other Beatitude: "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see and the ears that hear what you hear, for many a prophet and many a king longed to see what you see and never saw it, longed to hear what you hear and never heard it."

Bernard Dauenhauer wrote:

One of our members, who generally said little, responded. "The option for the poor means that Jesus is saying that He's on the side of the poor and that if we well-to-do people wanted to stand with Him, then we had to stand on the side of the poor."

What can happen to us if we do that, as did the four U.S. churchwomen who, in 1980, during El Salvador’s civil war, were raped and murdered by members of El Salvador’s National Guard?  Fr. Michael Crowley, an Irish priest who was close to one of the women, put it this way:

If you stand with the poor, if you identify with them, feel their insecurity, their rejection, you begin to understand in a new way.

The churchwomen had stood with the poor, identified with them, worked with them in conflict zones and refugee camps. This “new way of understanding” that Father Crowley spoke of, this new grasp of the truth – what did it mean for the churchwomen? This is how it looked to Ana Carrigan, who made a documentary film (“Roses in December”) about them:

I came to see that the meaning of their lives was so rich that death was not ultimately important. Every single day, when they got up, they had to know that that day might be ‘it,’ the end, as it had been for so many of their friends and so many people all around them. But it was like the biblical saying, "Death, where is thy sting?" It wasn’t a factor for them. If it had been, they could never have done what they did. They simply couldn’t have functioned.

Joe K, 


It is both and. What you say is true.But you cannot separate the Beatitudes from behavior. It is an ex natura sua.

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