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.

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