Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Role of the Virtues in the Life of Christ

sistineEven though the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is past its tenth birthday, many commentators have failed to notice that part three, “Life in Christ” is ordered around “virtues” and our “happiness” as human persons created male and female “in the image of God.” Although the Catechism interprets happiness in a Christian sense as divine beatitude, the idea of ordering the moral life according to our happiness begins with the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, particularly Aristotle’s Nichomachaean Ethics.

For Aristotle, the idea of happiness (eudaimonia) implies not simply a matter of feeling, but a fulfilled or worthwhile life. As a starting point Aristotle assumes that a worthwhile, or fulfilled life must be about something more important than simply pleasure, money or honors and power. (cf. CCC 1723) A person might use his or her freedom to over indulge in alcohol or food consumption and have a temporary feeling of a type of fulfillment, but very few would argue that a lifestyle oriented to such over-indulgence resulting in alcoholism or gluttony was true fulfillment. The life of eudaimonia implies that one is living according the proper or ultimate end of the human person.

Imagine for one moment that a small child begins typing randomly on a computer keyboard, is there even the slightest likelihood the result could be something like Catechism of the Catholic Church? The very existence of the Catechism implies an intrinsic purpose or design for such a work which far exceeds the random act of a child. On the other hand, a Catechism could be used for some ignoble purpose—a door stop, or perhaps fuel to light a fire, but this would be a distortion of its intended design, the excellent end for which the Catechism was created.

In the same way the very existence of human beings implies for Aristotle that human life is ordered to some end (telos) or purpose which is intrinsic to our nature. This intrinsic order which guides us toward fulfillment Aristotle called aretē or excellence. This can have two senses, first the stable dispositions of one’s moral character, and secondly one’s skill at living. In both cases the character or skill must be ordered towards excellence. The Greek term aretē was taken over by the Romans and given the Latin term virtus from which we derive the English word “virtue.” The Catechism defines virtues as:

A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. (CCC 1803)

The happiness or fulfillment sought after is the most complete end and one which is sought after for its own sake. It involves the integral exercise of the intrinsic organizational end or purpose which, in the case of humans, is found in the rational soul. The natural desire for happiness found in the heart of man draws us to God’s own happiness or beatitude as an individual and personal vocation. For each and every person this becomes a unique vocation to holiness which allows us to become partakers of the divine nature.

The virtues in the Christian tradition are divided into the human virtues and the theological virtues. The Catechism describes human virtues as;

… firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good. (CCC 1804)

The four cardinal human virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. James B. Stenson has suggested the following modern day common-sense alternatives to the traditional terms;

  • Prudence is sound judgment and conscience.
  • Justice is a sense of responsibility and fair play.
  • Fortitude is courage, persistence, “guts.”
  • Temperance is self-mastery, self-discipline, self-control.[1]

What philosophers and theologians call human virtues, those internal invisible qualities that represent the greatness of the human person, we might call character. Individual virtues represent tangible facets of an often complex matrix of qualities we call character.

The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, on the other hand, are not learned but infused by God into the souls of the faithful. They are the foundation of Christian moral activity and inform, animate and give life to all the moral virtues. The existence of infused theological virtues in no way diminishes the responsibility for moral education.

The human virtues are rooted in the theological virtues and animated by them but the acquisition of human virtues still requires the effort of formation. The human virtues are “. . . acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace” (CCC 1810).

Education in the virtues involves three aspects. Example, guided practice and in the last place direct instruction of rules and theory. Learning the theory of music or the rules of soccer will not in itself produce a flutist or soccer forward, much less the rules of water safety a swimmer, or a textbook on the theory of flight a pilot! What is evident when we examine how moral development takes place is that it requires initiation into an embodied tradition with its own models and rules and structures. This embodied tradition takes the form of various structured communities or institutions with their own history, standards, and models. In the realm of moral development the first and most basic institution to influence all of us is the family, but a successive host of other institutions join in our initiation into the practice of moral reasoning. It is usually the role of various institutions in civil society and not the role of the state to educate us in this realm. One could perhaps even argue the state only has a temporary legitimate right to intervene when civil institutions fail in some aspect of moral formation relevant to the common good.[2] On the other hand, the state has an obvious duty to support civil institutions which provide communities supporting character development. This is a duty that many modern states have been reluctant to pursue. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has recently argued that we need to restore balance and validate the importance of families, communities and voluntary networks. Social goods are not merely an end—they are an end in themselves—intrinsically valuable. Society is the community of communities which belongs to the tradition of classical liberalism as opposed to libertarianism. “Classical liberalism saw the cultivation of virtue and the protection of the institutions in which it was sustained as on of the greatest responsibilities of the polis[3]

Returning to the family and parenting as an embodied community of moral education, it can be seen that merely teaching children the rules and creating a structure that keeps them out of trouble, will not succeed in fully initiating them into the life of moral reasoning. Such common moral failings such as laziness, intemperate consumption, or difficulty controlling the sexual appetite are not a failure to know the rules of the tradition but a failure to live the virtues of diligence, order, discipline, self-control and modesty. Furthermore the restlessness of the human heart which naturally seeks the fulfilled life in pursuit of the good turns to counterfeit goods when the virtues are absent. These counterfeit goods seek to compensate the heart for its true longing, but they can never satisfy. The dream of the false good never equals the reality of true beatitude.

The virtues are the matrix through which are heart finds its rest in God. Animated by the theological virtues, made alive by the Holy Spirit the human virtues are the foundation and ongoing path of holiness. They are the bond that holds our families together, and the very substance of what makes life rich and worth living. They are also the foundation of our civil society and the pathway to peace and justice in the political and international realms.

Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.


[1] James B. Stenson, Compass: A Handbook on Parent Leadership (New York: Scepter Publishers, 2003) p. 18. Stensen’s book is an excellent, common-sense guide for parents to learn how to instill character in their children and to form supportive parent communities concerned about their children’s moral development.

[2] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004) paragraphs 185-189 on subsidiarity.

[3] Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Hope, 2nd ed. (London: Vintage, 2000) p. 232.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Paul’s Second and Third Missionary Journeys (Acts 16:6–19:20)

Scholars are generally agreed that Luke recounts three missionary journeys in Acts. Paul’s second and third missionary journeys (Acts 16-19) read like an ancient travel log. Paul, Silas and later Timothy, travel through the central part of what is now modern day Turkey. Initially they seek to visit the new Churches Paul founded in Syria, Cilicia and Galatia, travelling until they reach the coast at Troas. In the night Paul experiences a vision and he immediately sails across the Aegean Sea to Macedonia (Acts 16:9).

469px-St_luke_displaying_a_painting_of_the_virgin_guercinoThe narrative perspective becomes more vivid at this point as Luke begins to narrate as an eyewitness of this part of the journey. He notes, “we sought passage to Macedonia at once” (Acts 16:10). They soon arrive at Philippi which was a leading city of that region and a Roman colony (Acts 16:12).

On the Sabbath Paul and Silas begin ministering to the Jewish community. In this section Luke recounts two conversions, one of a prominent women and one of a man. It appears that Philippi did not have a quorum of men to found a Jewish synagogue. Paul visits “a place of prayer” by the river and preaches to a number of women. One of the women is a wealthy merchant named Lydia. Luke calls her a “worshiper of God” (16:14) and this may imply that she was a Gentile who was attached to Judaism but not yet a convert. Lydia “listened, and the Lord opened her heart” and she came to believe. As a result Lydia and household are baptized.

Later Paul and Silas cast out a demon from a slave girl who makes money for her owner through divination. The owner of the slave had Paul and Silas arrested, beaten and thrown in jail. Later Paul and Silas are miraculously freed from jail by God through an earthquake. The Philippian jailer, thinking he has failed his superiors and allowed the prisoners to escape, tries to fall on his sword. Paul stops him and the jailer and his entire household believe and are baptized. The authorities finally discover that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens and apologize for their illegal mistreatment but nevertheless ask them to immediately leave their town (16:40).

Paul and Silas then travelled to Thessalonica, the capital city of this province, where they preached for three weeks in a Jewish synagogue and persuaded many Jews and a great many devout Greeks and even a few of the leading women to become believers (17:4). Soon after this some of the others Jews became jealous and “set the city in an uproar.” Paul and Silas were forced to leave and to travel on to Borea. In this city they again began to preach in the synagogue and are very successful. Many Jews and Greeks believed. Luke tells us that the Jews in Beroea “were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all willingness and examined the scriptures daily to determine whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Soon the Jews in Thessalonica heard about Paul’s ministry in Beroea and they came “stirring up and inciting the crowds.” Paul leaves by sea but “Silas and Timothy remained there.”

AreopagusPaul arrives in Athens and preaches in the synagogues and market place each day. Eventually he meets some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who invite him to speak in the Areopagus. Paul attempts to connect the message of the gospel to an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God’ (17:23). Initially Paul intrigues them with his talk of the “God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands” (17:24) but when he mentioned the resurrection of the dead, some began to mock him but a few believed (17:32).

“After this he left Athens and went to Corinth.” (18:1). Here Paul met a Jew named Aquila and his wife Priscilla who were also tentmakers by trade, so Paul lived with them. Following his usual pattern Paul preached in the synagogues attempting to convince both Jews and Greeks. After the arrival of Timothy and Silas, the local Jews opposed and reviled him so he moved next door to the synagogue to “a house belonging to a man named Titus Justus.” Many Jews and Greeks were baptized including Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, “together with his entire household.” (18:8). Paul, having received a vision, “settled there for a year and a half and taught the word of God among them” (18:17). Again persecution broke out and Paul was brought before Gallio the proconsul of Achaia, but he dismissed the matter. After staying a while longer Paul sailed for Syria, together with Priscilla and Aquila. He stopped briefly to preach in the synagogue of Ephesus and then sailed to Caesarea and returned to Antioch (18:18-22).

After staying some time in Antioch Paul begin a new missionary journey travelling again in orderly sequence through Galatia and Phrygia and arriving in Ephesus. Here Paul and his companions met a Hellenistic Jew from Alexandria, named Apollos, who had apparently been instructed about Jesus but was not baptized. Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos preach and “they took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately.” At Ephesus, Apollos “vigorously refuted the Jews in public, establishing from the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.” (18:28)

While ministering at Ephesus, Paul met an unusual group of disciples who had only received John the Baptist’s ‘baptism of repentance’ rather than a Christian baptism. As a result they had not received the Holy Spirit. Paul preached to them and baptized them, laying his hands on them. They immediately received the gift of the Holy Spirit. At Ephesus Paul once again begins preaching in the synagogue until he faces rejection. Luke tells us that Paul preached daily for two years performing many miracles in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. As a result of these miracles and exorcisms many who practiced magic arts were won over to the faith. Luke reports, “And a number of those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all” (19:19).

The history of the early church reminds us that the Christian faith is life transforming and that as Christians begin to live the holiness of their common Baptismal calling society and culture are transformed by this live giving encounter with Christ.

Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.

© Scott McKellar published in the Catholic Key newspaper May 11th, 2012.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Acts Of The Apostles: The Antioch Chronicles

After Stephen’s martyrdom a severe persecution broke out against the Church in Jerusalem. At this time King Herod had the Apostle James executed by the sword and the Apostle Peter thrown in prison. Peter was placed under heavy guard by four squadrons of Roman soldiers.  Each squadron would take a three hour watch during the night.  With the assistance of an angel, Peter made a spectacular jail break. The angel removed Peter’s chains and opened the iron gates allowing him to pass by all the guards without their notice.  The next morning “no small commotion” broke out among the guards and Herod discovered Peter’s escape and had the guards tried and executed for their apparent neglect of duties (Acts 12:19).  Later, Luke tells us that Herod was himself struck down by an angel and “eaten by worms” because he did not offer honor to God when a crowd ascribed divinity to him.  The Jewish historian Josephus recounts the same story, telling us that Herod developed severe stomach pains for five days before he passed away (Ant. 19.346-50).  Death by worms was often seen as the proper fate of tyrants.

We can see a series of reversals in Luke’s account.  King Herod began by seeking to harm the Church (Acts 12:1) but then ends up being eaten by worms (12:23).  We begin with Herod beheading the Apostle James (12:2) and imprisoning Peter (12:4) but end with Peter’s escape, Herod’s death and the growth and prosperity of the Church (12:24). The Jewish authorities were ‘stiff-necked’ and did not observe the law even though it was ‘transmitted by angels’ (Acts 7:53).  Now angels assist the leaders of the Church.  A young man named Saul guarded the cloaks of those stoning Stephen (7:58), but now he appears in the narrative as a prophet and teacher in the Church (13:1). This same man will soon be known as the Apostle Paul (13:9).

The whole narrative of Acts now shifts from a ministry centered on Jerusalem and the Jewish people, to the Church centered in Antioch and the Gentile mission.  Peter’s vision and ministry to Cornelius (Acts 10), the mission to certain Gentiles in Antioch (11:20) had already opened the door to this ministry but now the full missionary effort of the Church breaks forth under the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Luke tells us that there were certain prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch. As they were worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit said to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).  In the original Greek, the command, “set apart for me” is very emphatic and the verb “to which I have called them” emphasizes past completed action.  All Christians are called to bear witness through their daily lives, but the Holy Spirit was giving Barnabas and Saul a more specific missionary calling.  It is interesting to note the two parts of this calling.  We can see the implied interior prompting of the Spirit in the hearts of Barnabas and Saul, but also the validation of this calling by the Church.  This was not the first moment of their calling, for the Holy Spirit had already called them. This was an inspired recognition of their calling by the Church. Luke tells us that the leaders “laid hands on them and sent them off” (13:3).

In the next section, Luke recounts Paul’s first missionary journey to Cyprus and Galatia, with Barnabas (Acts 13:4-14:23). They took along Barnabas’ cousin John Mark as well. Paul’s first missionary journey began by travelling to the port city of Selucia sixteen miles from Antioch and then sixty miles by sea to the island of Cyprus.

When we think of Paul’s missionary journeys we should not think of him bouncing from place to place leaving newly catechized Christians behind in each city.  He seems to have moved slowly, staying for extended periods if possible, and not moving on until he had left a firm foundation.  Paul usually only moved on when circumstances forced him to do so.  He also seems to have targeted major cities, especially the capitols of Roman colonies. As general strategy he went first to the “the synagogues of the Jews” (Acts 13:5) and then, if rejected, to the Gentiles.

Salamis was the old capitol of the Island of Cyprus in the Greek period but the Romans had moved the capitol to Paphos.  In this city Barnabas and Paul are resisted by a false prophet and magician named Bar-Jesus who tried to prevent them from preaching to the Proconsul Sergius Paulus.  Paul rebukes the magician with a Spirit-inspired curse, calling him Bar-Satan and telling him “you will be blind” for a time.  Like Saul at his conversion the magician is blind for a time and needs to be “led by the hand.”  Seeing this, the Proconsul is ‘astonished’ and is led to believe (Acts 13:12).

When they prepared to set sail for Perga, their assistant John Mark , “left them and returned to Jerusalem” (13: 13).  The expression “left them” could be translated “deserted them” (cf. Acts 15:38).  While Paul was opposed to working with John Mark after this incident, we know that their relationship was later restored (Philemon 24; Colossians 4:10; and 2 Timothy 4:11).  This same Mark is traditionally thought to be the author of the Gospel of Mark.

Upon their arrival in Perga, Paul and Barnabas continue on an arduous journey over the Tarsus Mountains to Psidian Antioch. As was their pattern they begin preaching in the synagogue and “many Jews and devout converts to Judaism” followed them (13:43).

The next Sabbath “almost the whole city gathered together to hear the word of God” (13:44). This incited jealousy from some of the Jews and a persecution broke out which “drove them out of their district.” Paul and Barnabas “shook off the dust from their feet against them, and went to Iconium” (13:52).

Iconium is the easternmost city in Phrygia, and some ninety miles south east of Antioch.

Paul and Barnabas begin their ministry in Psidian Antioch by preaching in the synagogue with great success and then as usual they are persecuted.  Nonetheless “they remained for a long time, speaking boldly” (14:3). Eventually they learned of a plot to stone them so they fled to Lystra and Derbe (14:6).

At Lystria Paul healed a man lame from birth and the locals suppose that he and Barnabas were the Gods Zeus and Hermes (14:12). Paul and Barnabas “scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (14:18). Later some Jews from Psidian Antioch and Iconium arrived and again stir up the crowd. Paul was stoned and left for dead (14:19). When he recovered, Paul and Barnabas left for Derbe. The cities of Iconium and Lystra were on the paved main Roman road but to reach Derbe one had to travel an unpaved road about 60 miles. 

At Derbe they conduct a successful mission making many disciples and then they returned briefly to Antioch and Iconium appointing elders for them in every church.  Passing through Pamphylia, they now preached in Perga, before traveling to Attalia; and finally they sailed to back to Antioch in Syria (14:24-28) and gave a full report of their success.

St. Paul’s missionary journeys became the model for the Church’s missionary efforts around the world.

Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.

© Scott McKellar published in the Catholic Key newspaper April 20, 2012.