The Apostolate of the Laity

Waxing philosophical in communion with one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

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I am just a sinner who holds fast to the notion that every human being on the planet is the result of a thought of God.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Virtues Gone Wild

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are , indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.

C.K. Chesterton - Orthodoxy

It's tempting to blame the ills of society on a single generation. This author stands guilty as charged as he doesn't blanch at his professed disappointment with his own Baby Boom generation. And for good cause. How many of the advances in science, technology, and social constructs trumpeted by this demographic of free love actually moved people closer to God compared to steering souls towards a lifestyle of introversion where nearly all attention gets focused on giving to self versus actually making a gift of self?

And while Tom Brokaw affixed the label of "Greatest Generation" to those who did indeed sacrifice and ultimately triumphed during the depression and World War II, clearly Chesterton's observation written in the early 1900's brings to light that the parents and grandparents of the Boomers were already showing the signs of wear and tear brought on by the fractioning of Christianity some 300 years earlier.

Saints Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas drew upon Plato to champion the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. That word cardinal comes from the Latin and means hinge. Thus morality hinges or pivots upon these four primary virtues. Today, very few could tell one what any of those words really mean. They have largely faded into obscurity in the modern vernacular save justice which has taken upon a different definition more closely related to law and order.

In the spirit of it's never too late to learn...

Prudence: Most assume that this word has to do with chastity as in, "Mom is such a prude!" In reality prudence deals with the ability to distinguish between what is virtuous and what is wicked. This applies not just to the big ticket items such as breaking any of the Ten Commandments but equally important to the everyday pragmatic decisions such has how much money should one spend on lunch?

The challenge, today, lies in the reality that modern man has redefined previously thought of wickedness into acceptable norms. Divorce, abortion, co-habitation, pornography, are a mere sampling of the more recent acceptable virtues in the American culture. Given the right circumstance and intent, any virtue's antithesis becomes acceptable and those who attempt to cry foul are labeled as intolerant. The resulting confusion breeds a host of victimized classes of people all demanding recompense from the society at large.

Perhaps the greatest blow to society as a result of the loss of prudence is that nothing really matters anymore beyond one's own personal opinion. A perverse equality of ideas has developed where the only qualifications for credibility are a pulse and the ability to communicate. As such truth does not exist and therefor prudence as a virtue has an unsteady and shifting foundation for one to discern good and evil.

Temperance: This is simply the practice of moderation in all things. This is classical Greek philosophy and was intended to help individuals govern the passions instead of being governed by them. In modern culture great liberties have been taken with temperance to the point that few things are wrong as long as one doesn't do too much of it. And this mindset has been applied to things that are not of the passions, for example, religion. It's okay for one to go to church on Sunday, but one is discouraged from expressing one's faith in mixed company.

In this year's presidential election candidates have all moved so far to the position of moderate that one can hardly distinguish one party from the next. The phenomena of temperance in attitude lest anyone be offended leaves one starving for true leadership that none of the candidates seem able to muster.

Sacred scripture gives one of the best examples of termperance as this cardinal virtue was intended.

Do not aim to be valiant over wine, for wine has destroyed many. Fire and water prove the temper of steel, so wine tests hearts in the strife of the proud. Wine is like life to men, if you drink it in moderation. What is life to a man who is without wine? It has been created to make men glad. Wine drunk in season and temperately is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul. Wine drunk to excess is bitterness of soul, with provocation and stumbling. Drunkenness increases the anger of a fool to his injury, reducing his strength and adding wounds.
Sirach (RSV) 31:25-30

Fortitude: "Moral courage" gives a good description of this gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the grace to hold fast to the abosolutes whose foundations are in Christ and His teachings. In other words, the ability to choose to take a hit from the culture at large for adhering to what is good and right in the eyes of God even to the point of martyrdom. Fortitude can be active or passive.

Modern culture confuses fortitude with intolerance. Often the righteous man gets pressured by society to accept all points of view regardless of their moral good. To bravely take a stand means risking reproach by the masses who adhere to a philosophy of equality regardless of the evil that may be propogated. As a result a person without fortitude can quickly find one's moral compass unable to find true north.

A classic example of this might be the pro-choice camp's proposition that abortion is a personal decision. The more compassionate advocate of abortion might very well agree that killing a baby in the womb is indeed evil, but counter that reality with the justification that every person should have the right to choose whether to do that evil or not. The freedom to choose to kill has become the greater good in this person's mind. Were fortitude present, the person would realize that murder is never a moral choice a culture should support.

Justice: This virtue frequently gets a juridical quality applied to it when in point of fact, charity is the closer cousin. Justice involves making sure that everyone receives that which belongs to him, especially with regard to human dignity and moral order. This goes beyond the modern obsessive preoccupation with individual rights. Philosopher Peter Kreeft describes justice this way:

"Virtue is simply health of soul. Justice, the overall virtue, is the harmony of the soul, as health is the harmony of the body. Justice is not just paying your debts, not just an external relationship between two or more people, but also and first of all the internal relationship within each individual among the parts of the soul."
“Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation:
The Four Cardinal Virtues”

While justice begins with the individual its reach is communal. To be just involves an ever congnizant awareness of the needs of the members of the community, both sinners and saints, and a recognition that not all needs of people are necessarily equal. Some need less and some need more. It is probably the most important of the cardinal virtues as without justice, the other virtues have a difficult time standing. How can one exercise moderation if one is unaware of one's needs? Fortitude without knowing the needs of society is the breeding ground for tyranny or simply dumb management. Prudence without justice is virtually impossible for without knowing the needs of the culture or individual how can one possibly distinguish between what is wicked and what is good?

Finally, it must be pointed out that while the grace to practice the virtues comes from the Holy Spirit, they are fruitless unless put into practice. Some Christian faiths would have it that these gifts of the Spirit are in and of themselves sufficient and in a sense supplementary since in their understanding one is saved by faith alone, and if one practices the virtues it is simply proof positive that one has been given grace; however Catholic Christians hold fast to the reality that salvation is a combination of God's infinite mercy, justification by faith, and the good works which hinge upon these cardinal virtues.

At the risk of sounding terribly intolerant, any other design could only lead to a moral system based in relativism...which is precisely where much of Western Christendom finds itself, today.


Blogger Stina said...

Excellent post! Always a good topic for reflection.

God bless!

8:26 PM  

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