Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A very important concept

John Zmirak has written a truly interesting, thought-provoking article at InsideCatholic today:
There's something else going on. As Dorothy Sayers once observed of Goethe's Faust, "He is much better served by exploiting our virtues than by appealing to our lower passions." Some of the worst crimes in European history were committed by men devoted to Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. These values, as John Paul wrote in Memory and Identity, are secular forms of the theological virtues Faith, Hope, and Charity. Why should it surprise us that the Father of Lies can mislead men into misreading even these? I've written here before of the toxic trap that Mother Angelica calls Misguided Compassion. What if we are nowadays facing, even among the most sincere Catholics, distortions of the theological virtues -- Blind Faith, False Hope, and Bankrupt Charity? While the genuine articles are infused directly by God, such counterfeits are cobbled together out of one-sided theology and our sentiments.

There's one sure test for determining whether an action really lives up to the theological virtue we hope we're practicing. It's simple: Does this action violate any natural virtues along the way? For instance, a citizen who listens to clerics pontificate about politics and follows their lead in supporting policies that destroy the sovereignty and civic order of his country may think that by deferring to churchmen he is practicing the virtue of Faith. But if the laws he favors violate Justice, he's deeply mistaken. A priest who fears that his congregation won't obey the moral law, so for the sake of their salvation he decides not to preach on controversial topics like contraception -- how sound is his Hope for their souls?

Coming back to Cardinal Castrillón: When he held the paternal bond between a bishop and his priest as more sacred than the right of the community to punish sex abusers, was he upholding the bond of Charity that ought to unite those who head the Church to its members? It must have seemed so at the time. Such sins smell and look like lilies. But they flank a coffin.

Lying dead and stiff inside that box is natural Justice, an attribute of God as much as His Mercy. Simple Justice is what each of us owes the other in an unconditional debt. We cannot violate that Justice in pursuit of Faith, Hope, or Charity. When we contemplate any action that stokes in us the sentiment that we're being "more radically Christian" and really "living the gospel" by going beyond "merely natural" virtues, every alarm bell in our conscience should start going off. We can no more attain theological virtues by violating the natural ones than we can build the dome on a cathedral by pulling steel from its foundations.
I can't tell you how important I think this is, and how few Catholics there are who understand it; I myself have only really started to understand this within the recent past. The four cardinal natural virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and as this article so clearly points out, these virtues are not to be dismissed just because we think a theological virtue (faith, hope, or charity) demands it. Yet to look at just one example--how many members of the Legion of Christ or Regnum Christi understood this? How many times were they asked to ignore prudence ("Sure, you can take on another apostolate for the Kingdom! God is asking you!"), justice ("Your family will just have to learn that your work for the Movement is important, more important than fulfilling your wifely or motherly duties!") fortitude ("Stay away from all those anti-Legion websites and their hurtful rumors, or your faith might be shaken!") or even temperance ("You know, other families in your daughter's Challenge group bought ten tickets each for the PureFashion show...").

But I'm not just singling out the Legion here. I've heard good, intelligent Catholics of every sort react to the notion that prudence should have some play in their decision-making as if the person making the suggestion was in league with the Tempter; why, faith in God is all that is necessary, even if one's actions repeatedly cause one to end up broke, or exhausted, or the victim of some new swindle dressed up to look like a legitimate Christian ministry. Justice and fortitude are perhaps less often swept aside, at least from the vantage point of an ordinary Catholic laywoman, but temperance--ah, temperance! Within the Catholic world, as within the wider secular world, there are two extremes when it comes to temperance, which the Catechism defines in part as "...the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods." (CCC 1809). Catholics, no surprise, are often as bad as everybody else when it comes to pursuing the consumerist dream our culture holds out as the highest possible human achievement--but what really makes it bad is when some fellow Catholic has bought into that "Prayer of Jabez" nonsense and decided that God really, really wants His friends to be rich and successful.

The point is, God never asks us to lay aside prudence, justice, fortitude, or temperance--or, indeed, any other virtue--as a test of our faith, or of our hope, or of our charity. He may, and does, ask us to lay aside other things to follow His will: selfishness, laziness, fear, inertia, anger, pride, and so forth; but these things are not even remotely virtuous, and laying them aside to embrace His will is a natural and necessary thing to do.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for drawing important and useful conclusions from my arguments. It isn't that often that I LEARN from comments on my pieces!
John Zmirak

Erin Manning said...

I'm honored that you'd say so! Thanks so much!

freddy said...

Two of my favorite Catholic writers on the same page! Cool!

Thanks guys!