December 8, 2019
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The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology: A Virtue Perspective — William Mattison


What difference can faith make for
morality when people today recognize that people of various or no faith can
live a virtuous, honorable, moral life? I think a lot of people struggle with that
question, particularly people of faith, and what a robust moral theology can
offer that conversation is a way to articulate the commonality between
people of different or no faith and also the difference that a faith perspective
makes on living life of faith. I’m a Catholic moral theologian and my focus
is on virtue. Virtue ethics is concerned first and foremost with true human
happiness or flourishing. Virtues are those stable character traits or
dispositions that incline us to act in a way that we find true fulfillment. If you’ve
read Cicero, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, all of their ethical treatises begin
with reflection on what is true happiness. My most recent project is an
attempt to really combine moral theology and Scripture by looking at the Sermon
on the Mount, which is Chapters 5 through 7 in Matthew’s Gospel. What is this
approach to morality that Jesus presents and how can it relate to virtue. In
Christ’s own words we have the kind of standard worldly conceptions of
happiness, not turned on their head but certainly further illuminated and further
specified then what we might find in Cicero or Aristotle. So we learn
for instance that it’s the merciful, it’s those who hunger and thirst for justice,
it’s the peacemakers, the clean of heart, these are the people who are truly
happy according to Christ. So really a stark recasting of common conceptions of
happiness. Next up for me is another book on virtue. If it’s the case that truly
virtuous living in this life entails activity that’s constitutive of true
happiness, really what that means is that part of how we live in this life is a
foretaste of or a very participation in eternal life, That’s an extraordinary
claim and we really need to better substantiate that. What is it about the
Christian life or the life of grace that is actually a beginning of eternal life.
I love to bring my research into the classroom when I teach undergrads. And
what I try to lead them on a journey to see is that the ultimate questions are
things that all human persons face and that a religious tradition like the
Catholic faith offers answers to these questions and I think this is what
really sparks joy in the students. They get to see how these perduring
ultimate questions actually have impact on how they lived their everyday lives.
At Notre Dame cutting-edge research is being done that I was fortunate enough
to experience as a graduate student here and now I’m blessed to be able to work
on with our graduate students. The opportunity to work with these students
on my own research in a way that nourishes what I do but more importantly
gets to nourish their own careers and their own vocations as theologians is an
enormous gift. I think it’s a real exciting time to be doing Catholic moral
theology today. There’s so many avenues to contribute to broader conversations
that aren’t limited to the Church but also simultaneously to contribute to how
the people of God live out their lives in the context of their faith.

Otis Rodgers

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