Winter 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 349-360.

Michael K. Duffey:
      Called to Be Holy: The Reconvergence of Christian Morality and Spirituality

Both learning and teaching Christian morality require an integrated convergence with spirituality, if ethical values and behavior are to have human significance for contemporary Catholic youth

Dr. Duffey is a member of the theology faculty at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He earned his doctorate in theology from Notre Dame University in 1981. Presently, he is completing a book on the importance of spirituality for the teaching and learn of the Christian moral tradition.

THE past several years have witnessed a proliferation of "ethics committees" established to foster good conduct and the making of moral decisions in the realms of business, the professions and government. Likewise, educators at all levels have called for "moral/value education" to inspire in young people honesty, respect for others, and a sense of fairness in individual behavior and social arrangements. At the college level, ethics courses in both philosophy and theology departments attract many students.


What do college students hope to learn in ethics courses? No doubt, many are looking for personal practical guidance, since "ethics" would seem to pertain to making moral decisions. Thus many college students expect help in determining what to do from courses in Christian ethics. At times they may be interested in the grounding of their religious tradition and how it is to be defended. But most often they seek greater certainty about the right thing to do in various situations. In class discussions many questions begin with "Is it all right to : . ." and "Does the church allow . . . ." Few students may actually want to be told what to do. Many may simply want some assurance that they already are morally responsible. In either case, ethics is perceived as mastery of the rules by which to avoid moral failure and blame. In short, students want answers -- or reassurances.

For their part, what do college teachers of Christian ethics hope to accomplish? Clearly, they want to avoid being seen as sources of moral authority. Positively, they may seek to make students better decision-makers who can articulate justifications for their positions. Beyond that they may seek to broaden students' moral focus from actions to the moral quality of their lives and that of their society. At a recent symposium entitled "Ethics on a Catholic University Campus," one participant elaborated upon four skills which students in ethics courses need to learn: recognition of the values at stake in a given situation, clarification of the reasoning process involved in reaching a decision, appreciation of the social and institutional impact of one's choices, and tolerance of open moral deliberation in which to test one's moral judgments against those of others.(1) These are not unimportant objectives. Although none of the symposium participants was a theologian, many moral theologians would concur that these are important skills for the Christian moral life.

Introducing ethics in the christian tradition requires a substantially different approach than what often appears to be the central task of teaching ethics. While moral theologians also desire to broaden perspectives and teach skills rather than give answers, the teaching of Christian ethics involves more than this. The Christian ethicist is introducing students to the Christian tradition and thereby attempting to root their moral lives in the Christian calling. Hence, Christian morality must be approached in such a way that students understand it as an invitation to live deeply the adventure of being a Christian. Christian morality is about more than the quality of performance expected of us and the quantity of the pitfalls surrounding us. Our approaches to the teaching of Christian ethics and the transmitting of our moral tradition are suffering, at least in their Roman Catholic context. The modest intent of this essay is to suggest why the revitalization of Christian ethics must move in the direction of spirituality. It is suggestive but not very programmatic. That is, it does not attempt to detail how spiritual theology would enter the curriculum of moral theology.


Efforts at renewal in Catholic ethics since about the time of Vatican II have taken a variety of forms. Emphasis is focused on personal moral responsibility and the formation of conscience. After decades of emphasizing the permission or prohibition of particular acts, there is renewed interest in the virtues. More explicit reference to the centrality of Jesus for moral identity has led to a return to the scriptures in search of a moral "horizon" for the Christian community. Yet the predominant interest in the renewal continues to be moral decision-making: How do we solve moral dilemmas? How much moral ambiguity exists and how do we deal with it?

For all the efforts at "renewal" in Roman Catholic moral theology, something essential has yet to be fully recovered. If there is a lack of enthusiasm among undergraduate students, it may be that what they are being taught is not suggesting to them how they might be led into a deeper living of the Christian life. We are not talking simply about providing greater motivation for living the life of Christian discipleship. Something more fundamental is missing. For Christian moral teaching to be appropriated and handed on, the insights and the processes associated with Christian spiritual life must form the backdrop for discussions of the Christian practical life.

In an earlier time, this would have been assumed. For instance, in his Summa, Thomas' moral, ascetical, and mystical theology are treated side by side. They are not considered independently of one another. Only in the sixteenth century was a "summa" produced dealing with morality but not the life of faith. In contemporary Moral theology, spirituality is seldom presented as integrally related to the Christian journey. A recent and very successful textbook in moral theology devotes only four sentences to spirituality. Three pages from the conclusion Timothy O'Connell writes:

Christian living also involves the development of an inner spirituality by which to nourish that life .... We have neglected the profound truth that sacrifice of self is not merely an external religious command; it is also an inevitable, profoundly human, and potentially enriching correlate to commitment to the service of others. We have not spoken of a most potent theme: the ascesis of love, which must surely play a role in the successful living of the Christian life.(2)
Here the context is his disclaimer that in the preceding two hundred pages not everything relevant to Christian living could be addressed. Although he clearly believes that spirituality has an important role in Christian practical life, he offers no explanation of how the two are related. Readers are directed elsewhere.(3) The most insightful spiritual writers in the Christian tradition never fail to make the connection between spirituality and ethics. Yet their insights seldom find their way into moral theology.

Consider what the impact has been on the modern bifurcation of the active and contemplative life. Lay people are often genuinely confused about the relationship between social morality and personal spirituality. Confusion is to be expected. The literature in spirituality and the texts in ethics say little about one another. Bishops and dissenting theologians dispute moral questions but few of them suggest how the issues involve personal spirituality. Whether scandalized or alienated, the laity do not know how to relate the arms race or social justice to their personal religious experience. Some view the bishops deliberation on nuclear armaments and the American economy as "worldly" and "unspiritual" activities. Others imagine spirituality as a road leading out of the world and see piety as a movement away from moral concerns. Neither position is correct. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, the universal Christian call is to achieve holiness in our worldly circumstances. "Holy worldliness," we might say.


Contemplative monks like Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating may lead us to a fuller appreciation and appropriation of Christian morality. Consider the way in which Thomas Keating links the moral and spiritual dimensions of life:

There are two kinds of spiritual experience . . . one interior, the other active. The spiritual experience that comes through the development of interior prayer is the result of the influx of divine love and contemplative gifts of the Holy Spirit. Divine love illumines the mysteries of faith and enables one to begin to taste the sweetness and goodness of God through the gift of wisdom. This awakens enthusiasm in the whole of one's being. The second kind of spiritual experience translates that enthusiasm into concrete action. That is what is meant by the practice of virtue. We do not practice virtue for its own sake .... We practice virtue out of love for Christ. One of the best ways to do this is to seek God's will as it manifests itself in ordinary circumstances and events.(4)

Christians have always acknowledged that God's initiative precedes our response and in fact makes human response possible. Yet recognition of the dynamism of divine grace, the breathing of God's spirit that continually enlivens us, and the human practices which encourage our reception of the Spirit seldom enter into our consideration of the moral life. The practices of the spiritual life reflect the human need for fuller knowledge of and communion with God. Introducing students to the Christian tradition and giving them an appreciation of their identity within the church will make a difference in their lives only if and when they progress along the pathways to true knowledge of themselves and God. That is, personal appropriation depends upon integration of the moral with the spiritual dimensions of our lives. Failing to perceive the moral quest as also a spiritual quest leads to many distortions of the moral life. Christian morality may be reduced to conformity to law or be construed as an ideal which is distant rather than applying to me in my present situation.

How are ethics and spirituality to be integrated? Clearly it is not the history of spirituality but the personal relevance of spiritual growth and the practices of spirituality which must be considered. Can these things be taught, and if so how are they to be taught? Students desire to be more ethically informed. More fundamentally still, they intensely desire the kind of integration and self-knowledge associated with spirituality. There are many occasions in our lives when such needs are keenly felt. The "crisis" of mid-life may be a time of recognized spiritual need expressed as the desire to find or rediscover ourselves. The result of such crises may not necessarily be a turning to the resources of spirituality and will thus be an opportunity missed. Old age may bring its own personal crises, opening the way for a spiritual deepening. Young adulthood is filled with pressures to compete successfully, to find a niche, and to form intimate relationships. The future is anticipated with hope but already many young people have experienced confusion, loss and loneliness. It should not be imagined that the young are too busy with carving out their niches, pursuing livelihoods, and starting families to be attracted to their inner lives. The need to discover ones self-identity at the profound level of self-in-relation-to-God is present and in need of direction.


The hunger for the Spirit is present in every age. The need seems to be especially felt by present generations. Prevailing forces in our technologically advanced societies have precipitated a spiritual crisis engulfing all of us. We have been alerted to the dimensions of that crisis not only by theologians and spiritual writers but also by psychologists. Some seventy years ago C.G. Jung warned us of the dangers which would result from the neglect of the spirit. He saw the cold war as a deadening of the spirit which was distracting us from our interior lives. Jung termed the realm of the spirit the "unconscious" and claimed that it contained "potentialities of the greatest dynamism that depend entirely upon the preparedness and attitude of the conscious mind . . . whether they will tend toward construction or catastrophe."(5)

The spiritual crisis of our culture is manifested in many ways. In contrast to our alleged faith in progress we live under a pervasive sense of despair. Increasingly we hear theories of cultural decline, the running down of the universe, or the fiery end of the world -- a fear which is more than a loss of nerve, given the present nuclear realities. The loss of confidence in technology has forced us to turn again toward the spirit as a source of hope and vitality.

In today's academic environments the personal integration of what is being taught and learned is often not adequately considered. Despite the intense level of activity, as learning subjects our own identity often remains a mystery. Thoreau's observation that many people who love to be in touch with others "have not been in touch with themselves for a long time" aptly describes the predicament of academia. Introducing spirituality into the teaching of Christian ethics must be done with the appreciative awareness that a personal power is being elicited from students and teachers alike that depends upon a personal and communal process as well as upon a content. "Doing spirituality" does not mean adding more material to an already overloaded syllabus.

Teaching Christian ethics requires a counter-cultural stance. The habits of self-reflection must be modeled by teachers who are not so hurried that they miss the richness of the present in their own lives. For many teachers that will mean letting go of some of the learning process and encouraging students to take charge of their inner lives. As this happens teachers will have less cause to lament the dearth of creativity in their students.

Ethical reflection that is not self-reflective is ethical rote. Conversely, the subject matter of ethics -- who we are, what we ought to do -- are questions which challenge us to deeper self-awareness and integrity in a highly fragmented world. Ethics and spirituality together hold the promise of helping us to unite the inner and outer worlds, the natural and the supernatural so that we might encounter more fully self, God, and others.


The passages into early adulthood and then into mid-life and old age are also opportunities for relearning truths gradually eclipsed as we enter adult life. Our desire for self-actualization and expansion leads more often to self-contraction. Jung argued that the ego in its development loses contact with the ground of its more complete life which he called the "self." Observing children at play reveals the extraordinary attentiveness they bring to their world. Their senses are finely tuned to colors, shapes, sounds, and smells. Their feel for relationships is so keen that it often spills over into the creation of imaginary friends and worlds.

As adults we often recollect our former attentiveness for the world around us and wish for the opportunity to reclaim it. Even while our vision is narrowed by the tasks which we pile up for ourselves a vestige of desire to see reality more deeply and broadly remains. Despite our wishes we grow increasingly "intentive" as we consider careers and life goals and begin the hard work of attaining them. Our focus becomes more concentrated. The eye of the mind has no time to survey the landscape but must be trained on the tasks which we hope will bring self-actualization. A major change of perception has occurred in which we have traded attentiveness for intentiveness. That is, we seek to change the world around us before we understand it. By being so intent we gradually block the channels of perception of both the world and the self. A genuine loss has occurred, which is most sorely felt in our relationships. Henri Nouwen, for example, writes that our ability to care effectively for others is diminished when we are not attentive -- that is, really "present" -- to them in order that we might discover their own reality instead of imposing our intentions upon them. We are right to disparage such "good intentions."(6)

A healthy capacity for intentionality is not being questioned. Indeed, mature adults are able to embark on life projects precisely because they are able to form goals and initiate the intermediate means to their attainment. As psychologist Rollo May concluded, the dual capacities to love and to will are essential for human well-being. His account of love stresses the need to awaken passion (eros) through encounter with others. Of equal importance is a capacity for willing. Victor Frankl's personal experience at Auschwitz convinced him that survival always requires determining a meaning for one's life and engaging in activities that reflect a purpose. May and Frankl have wide appeal at a time when apathy saps the vitality of many.

Our accounts of the moral life may presuppose the blending of intentional activity and attentiveness to others, self, and world. For morality is concerned with the needs of others and the articulation of the common good. Its concern with goodness is also a concern for truth and beauty. Such attentiveness is necessary to recover the self now eclipsed by the pursuits of the ego. But ethical analysis seldom addresses how attentiveness is to be relearned and cultivated. Study of what it means to be a moral agent is not adequate which does not acknowledge attentiveness and suggest how it may be cultivated. We often encounter the world as if "intending" were our only mode of being. It is well to remember that while the faculty of the will is crucial in the pursuit of the good, the ability to recognize the good is also critical. In our day too little attention is devoted to the ends to which human intention is directed, either in terms of self-knowledge or communal understanding. Instead, the purposes of individuals arise simply from personal preference. To learn what we must learn in our measure of days we must surely unlearn a good deal of what passes as virtuoso performances by "self-made" men and women seeking fulfillment with concentrated gaze and hard drive. So busy do we become living purposefully that we miss a simple truth: our lives are gifts which are only fully lived by becoming receptive and reflective of the reality all around us.


To arrive at the knowledge of the self is to encounter God. Having such encounter is the purpose of our existence. Our deepest knowledge begins with the recognition of self as gift and God as Giver. Yet we can no more encounter true self and God by our own strivings than we can will ourselves into existence, for the encounter is a divine initiative. Our part is to desire and prepare for it, believing as Thomas Merton did, that

there is only one problem on which all my existence my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him, I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.(7)
To live well is to prepare ourselves to encounter God, thereby bringing us home to ourselves and to all the others with whom we sojourn. Merton writes that the one thing we must intend with all of our energies is
to have a will that is always ready to fold back within itself and draw all the powers of the soul down into its deepest center to rest in silent expectancy for the coming of God, poised in tranquil and effortless concentration upon the point of my dependence upon Him; to gather all that I am and have and all that I can possibly suffer or do or be, and to abandon them all to God in the resignation of a perfect love and blind faith and pure trust in God, to do His will. And then to wait in peace and emptiness and oblivion of all things.(8)

To make ready for the encounter requires the slow and disciplined work of forming habits. These do not come naturally. We must learn to control our appetite for all of the activity which beckons us or already amounts to the daily compulsiveness that marks our lives. To rest in "silent expectancy," to abandon the self to God and to wait in emptiness represent the most difficult counter-movement modern men and women can make. It is a painful birthing process with little support from our culture -- or any culture. We resist making the spiritual journey not because it is considered irrelevant or a luxury we cannot afford in a world needing our immediate action. The deeper resistance resides in the fact that such a journey requires letting go of so much that anchors us: our present identity, our "control," and finally our very image of God.

Merton, in the briefest of statements, captures what the journey is about: "In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be . . . ."(9) As creatures we are "being lived" as the ongoing act of the Creator. We are called to acknowledge that reality so that we may be joined to the procession of creatures moving toward God in the momentum flowing from God. If I have the courage to look for God, Merton writes, "every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of His life, that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest."(10)

Christian ethics calls us to acts of love of neighbor extending to the entire world. While we may not feel called to extraordinary spiritual disciplines we are all called to love God and neighbor and strive for more just social arrangements. As we are reminded in the First Epistle of John, love of neighbor is the immediate way we can come to love of God. This will require greater spiritual depth than we consider ourselves capable of realizing. It is difficult to love others because we are caught in a net of desires, divided into warring camps that keep us from desiring unity with others. Merton describes our plight:

People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world. They try to become real by imposing themselves on other people, by appropriating for themselves some share of the limited supply of created goods and thus emphasizing the difference between themselves and (others) who have less than they, or nothing at all.(11)
But those who hunger and thirst for God also hunger and thirst for righteousness on earth, that is, for right relations among all persons.

Our moral failures often lay in the lack of knowledge of the self. By befriending the self within, we are empowered to befriend those who now appear to threaten us. The more our identities become known the greater our capacity for life with others. Presently, programs in spirituality are growing simply because people are recognizing their neediness. As theologian David Burrell writes, we seek a spiritual discipline "less out of moral imperative than from sheer necessity. Something must keep one from being pulled apart!"(12) The spiritual life does not take us away from the world but creates energies "so that God's energies can find full play in our lives."(13) There is much to be gained in our moral reflection and practice by approaching Christian morality through the variety of gates of Christian spirituality. First and last is the awareness that all of life is a call to enter into the life of God and become holy as God is holy.

  1. David Ozar, "Teaching Ethics in the University: A Reflection on Aims," pp. 98-111 in Ethics on a Catholic University Campus, James D. Barry, ed. (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1980).
  2. Timothy O'Connell, Principles for a Catholic Morality (New York: Seabury, 1978), p. 209.
  3. The work referred to is Gilleman's The Primacy of Charity in Moral Theology which is a scholastic work of imposing length and difficulty. Note should be made of the work of Bernard Haring which is much more penetrable although still written for an academic audience. See his The Law of Christ and Free and Faithful in Christ.
  4. The Heart of the World (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 12.
  5. The Undiscovered Self (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1958).
  6. I am indebted to Henri Nouwen for suggesting this distinction to me.
  7. Seeds of Contemplation (Norfolk, Ct: New Directions, 1949), p. 13.
  8. Seeds, p. 21.
  9. Seeds, p. 22.
  10. Seeds, PP- 1-2.
  11. Seeds, P 22
  12. "Action and Contemplation: Personal Spirituality/World Reality," " in Dimensions of Contemporary Spirituality, ed. by Francis A. Eigo, O.S.A. (Villanova, Pa: Villanova University Press, 1982), p. 156.
  13. Ibid.