Recently, a friend of mine was complaining that one of her main hang-ups with the Church is the complexity of the moral law, and that once she started to just relax and not worry about what the Church said, life got easier.
Far from it, the ethics of the Church, in my humble opinion, is perhaps among the simplest around, theoretically. It is the practical application that gets you. But then again, given how many possible moral situations exist, that should not surprise anybody.
What it all boils down to is an imitation of Christ, a constant struggle to perfect ourselves according to Him.
Aquinas (he always gets mentioned, doesn't he?) said in his wonderfully short and simple devotional The Ways of God that we ought to perform every act as though the whole of our salvation hinged on it.
Now, of course, the controversy lies in the implications of all this. For guidance, I would say that three things need to be known.
1) The Decalouge (aka "The 10 Commandments")- The basis of the law given to Moses by God, this is important because it is this same law that Christ fulfilled. Also, when you consider that an exposition of the commandments constitutes an entire section of the CCC, you do get the impression they might be important.
2) The Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) Were I to reduce my list of three to only one, it would probably be this. In here is the Beatitudes, Golden Rule, the parable of the Narrow Gate (why, yes, it would seem that Jesus did in fact speak of people going to Hell for doing bad things. Imagine that!) and other classics that remind us that avoiding sin is just the start of the good life.
3) The 7 Virtues (Cardinal and Theological)
- Prudence-the virtue St. Thomas called "right reason in action", it is the cornerstone of all other virtues. It is also fairly fitting that the Church G.K. Chesterton called frequently a bulwark of common sense would have this as the base of all other virtues.
- Justice-giving to those what is their rightful due, such as obedience to authority, respect to humans, and love to God before others. It is the root of true peace, which St. Augustine felt was our highest good.
- Temperance-a moderation of desire, essential to any sort of self-control
- Fortitude-courage, basically. A patient endurance of adversity.
- Faith-of the three theological virtues, St. Thomas divided them up into two categories in his Summa. The virtues that originate in the intellect, and those that originate in the will. Faith was the only of the three that he felt came from the intellect. It is an intellectual assent that there are some truths beyond the grasp of human reason, and although the exact why's and wherefore's are not known, the fact that they exist is not doubted with this virtue.
- Hope- Here, I will give the description used by the CCC, as it is a far better description then I could ever give: "Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness."
- Charity-the pinnacle and summation of all virtues, it can be summed up as 'love ordered rightly'. There's more to love than saying everything is good, and more to piety than saying everything is bad. You love what you should love, and hate what you should hate. And love, for those who think it may be a mushy feeling or something beyond your control, is defined by the Catechism (1766), who took their definition from Aquinas (S.Th. I-II.xxvi.4), who in turn took his definition from Aristotle (Rhetoric, II.iv), that "To love is to will the good of another." That would also be why it is a virtue. It is not typically considered virtuous to do something which we have no control over doing. It is when we have a choice between two things and choose to do the good thing that we are called virtuous.
For further guidance, of course, turning to the Church (and good ol' common sense) is recommended, but any Christian armed with those three things should do pretty well in the "good behavior" department. Additional Church teachings on this matter are not confusing the issue, but rather clarifying definitively the meanings and implications of these virtues in our everyday lives. What we must do is clear, how to do it is not always so easy this side of paradise.
+Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam+
"There is no moral precept that does not have something inconvenient about it."