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.

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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