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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Heat the World with the Warmth of Virtue, the Splendour of Right Teaching

The Catholic Church Deeply Cares About Principled Philosophy

"If anyone loves righteousness, her labor are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage.”(Wisdom 8:7)

by Susan Fox

Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) had his finger on the pulse of modern civilisation when he wrote the Encyclical Aeterni Patris on the Restoration of Christian Philosophy in 1879. 
After the Protestant Reformation, philosophy dived into a host of “ism’s” based on nominalism, a doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names without any corresponding reality; only particular objects exist. That made it impossible for the Catholic Church to forge a relationship with most secular philosophy.

This wasn’t the glory days of the Middle Ages when a Catholic realist, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), used the logic of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) to present revealed and created truth in a coherent manner. Such scholasticism reached its highest point under Aquinas, but it became closed in on itself. It could not address the hot new materialism that rose alongside the Reformation. Men wanted to take apart the universe and study it. They couldn’t do that with scholasticism.

"Whoso turns his attention to the bitter strifes of these days and seeks a reason for the troubles that vex public and private life must come to the conclusion that a fruitful case of the evils which now afflict…us lies in this: that false conclusions concerning divine and human things, which originated in the schools of philosophy, have now crept into all the orders of the State, and have been accepted by the common consent of the masses. For since it is in the very nature of man to follow the guide of reason in his actions, if his intellect sins at all, his will soon follows," Pope Leo wrote.

And in a very determined manner, Pope Leo recalled St. Thomas Aquinas, who “like the sun…heated the world with the warmth of his virtues and filled it with the splendour of his teaching.”

Pope Leo was right to be alarmed.
Pope Leo XIII
The word virtue was slipping from the English vocabulary. A search online shows that the use of the word “virtue” has declined dramatically since 1800 from 0.016 percent of English words used to 0.00279 percent in 2008, according to the
Ngram Viewer.

And why should we care? “Be all that you can be!” we sing. But we rarely reflect what that requires — living virtuously. Virtue raises the level of existence of the human person. By living virtuously, man reaches his ultimate potential. “The virtuous person is in such a way that, from the innermost tendency of his being, he realises the good through his actions,” said Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper in
The Christian Idea of Man.

And so Pope Leo begged, cajoled and encouraged modern philosophers to a practical reform of philosophy, “aimed at restoring the renowned teaching of Thomas Aquinas and winning it back to its ancient beauty.”

One year after Pope Leo died, Pieper was born (1904-1997). He answered the call of the Holy Father, giving us a beautiful new Thomism. Among his great works were The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance; Living the Truth; and The Christian Idea of Man.

More recently, Rev. Dr. Francis John Selman gave us the thoughtful basic introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas in Aquinas 101.

Both men answer the question, which began with Aristotle, “What is virtue?”

Fr. Selman dives right in with Aquinas, who defines a virtue as an act consistent with reason. The habit of virtue that perfects the powers of the soul and disposes it to do good is acquired by repeatedly choosing a good action, according to St Thomas. Fr. Selman — mimicking Aquinas — addresses three kinds of virtue: moral (justice, temperance and fortitude); intellectual (prudence, understanding and wisdom); and theological (faith, hope and charity).

But it is Josef Pieper who restores Aquinas to his ancient beauty in a manner attractive to modern times using Scripture. He begins his description of virtue by describing the Christian exemplar for man with one word: “Christ.”

Original man created in God’s image lived original innocence before the Fall, but an even more beautiful image of man emerged from the dust and ashes of Original Sin, and that is the Face of Jesus Christ. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. In doing so, He endowed us with an unfailing moral compass, the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ Himself “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48)

But how many of us have seen and observed the actions of Our Heavenly Father, who is invisible? Jesus said, “My Father goes on working, and so do I.” (John 5:17) When have we seen the Father working? When has He come to the office carrying a briefcase, or tilled a field accompanied by angels?

But we know Him! We recognise His perfection in the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.“The Son is
the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Col 1:15)

That is our moral compass. The norms of Christianity are contained in the four gospels especially in the Sermon on the Mount, which all describe the words, teaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is God’s thinking, not ours! The first will be last and the last first? Love your enemies? Pick up your cross? If you even look at a woman or man lustfully, you have already committed adultery in your heart? Marriage is an unbreakable bond? What, no divorce? From our perspective, God thinks like an alien. But that’s the way we are called to think and act as well. That is the redeemed image of man, and Pieper lays it out for us in seven theses.

Let’s categorise them according to steps on a staircase. Pieper begins with the theological virtues, which Fr Selman said, are for “reaching and uniting us with our last end, which is God.” Faith, hope and charity are the only virtues which cannot be acquired naturally. They need God’s grace.

A Christian, Pieper says, is a person, who in his faith is aware of the reality of the Trinity. We are created to know, love and serve God. Love begins with knowing. The next step is hope. We look forward in hope to embracing God in eternal life. The third step is love. We actually see and serve the Person of Jesus Christ in everyone we meet. This love for God and man offers us a supernatural form of seeing and is stronger than natural love. No virtue is possible without charity.

The fourth step is prudence. The Christian lives in reality. He will not allow his will to dictate to him without reference to the truth of the situation. This is exactly what Pope Leo was talking about — modern man does not live like that. He tries to create his own truth, to be his own god. His life is turned inside out following every selfish whim. So we see people choosing to change their sex through surgery and hormone
Richard Hernandez, now as lizard goddess Tiamat
treatment, and using plastic surgery to turn themselves into an alien or a lizard goddess. These are imprudent actions, not based on the reality of who is man?

The fifth step is the virtue of justice, the Christian living in truth with the other. The practice of justice is required of people living in community. It can almost be said that the individual (though he is the only one who can be virtuous) is not responsible so much as the “we,” the social whole, the people.

In the sixth step of Pieper’s theses, the Christian is ready to suffer death — if necessary — for the truth and the
Fortitude by Raphael
realisation of justice for himself and the other. This is courage or fortitude. It is especially exemplified in the lives of the martyrs.

The seventh step is moderation, also known as temperance. The Christian does not allow his desire for pleasure, possessions and enjoyment to become destructive to his own person.

These seven steps, the three theological virtues, which unite us to God, and the four cardinal virtues, (prudence, justice,
Hope, Charity & Faith
temperance and fortitude), have actually faded from the mind and imagination of modern man, Pieper asserts. It is the same alarm sounded by Pope Leo in 1879.

Fr. Selman is more practical when writing about Aquinas. I am glad to have read his text as it is very precise, but Pieper is the one who speaks Vatican Two-ese. Before Vatican II, we had — dare I say boring? — official Church text in many of our documents. After Vatican II, everything was enriched by Scripture. Pieper seems to have adopted this practice.

Fr. Selman calls the cardinal virtues the hinges of the door. One enters the house by the door— by the four cardinal virtues. The theological virtues come at the end. They are the last step, leading us to our end, God Himself, in Fr. Selman’s exegesis.

But Pieper argues passionately that the “first and most distinctive virtue of the Christian is the supernatural love of God and neighbor.” And therefore the theological virtues are of a higher order than the four cardinal virtues, which are rooted in the theological virtues.

I like both approaches. Pieper enlarges my understanding. But Fr. Selman is coming at the issue from the point of view of spiritual direction. In dealing with a soul, a priest — like a good carpenter — might oil the hinges on the door before he enters the house, so he begins working with the cardinal virtues. But if his goal is to get the soul to heaven, he will have to tinker with the theological virtues, which unite us with God, our last end.

This characterises Fr. Selman’s approach:

As you come to Him, the living stone, rejected by men, but chosen and precious in God’s sight, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “See, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and precious cornerstone; and the one who believes in Him will never be put to shame.(1Peter 2:4-6)

Which is the most important virtue? One really can’t have any virtue at all without having them all. But prudence directs all the cardinal virtues. The good accords with reality. Prudence allows us to choose the good based on real contact with objective reality. A woman decides her unborn child is a “blob of cells.” This untruth allows her to commit an abortion, an action imprudent, unjust, cowardly and intemperate. She is not in contact with objective reality. Many women, who have had an abortion, have subsequently suffered mental health issues.

That makes Prudence critically important. Pieper found that
Prudence in the Nave of St. Peter's Basilica
psychology confirms the necessity of an objective viewpoint for a healthy mind.

"The idealist ethics of the last century has largely forgotten and denied the determination of morality by reality,” Pieper wrote in Living the Truth, “But ethical realism receives very significant corroboration from the fact that modern psychology, beginning from an entirely different starting point, and influenced especially by the discoveries of psychiatry, emphatically declares that objectivity is one of the most important prerequisites of psychic health."

However, prudence requires the other moral virtues because the passions can blind the judgement of reason. And there is no virtue without charity.

“Everything in moderation.” Unfortunately, moderation or temperance has become the characteristic Christian virtue in popular thinking, according to Pieper. Moderation implies that man’s lower powers rebel against his spirit because of original sin, but modern liberalism has hollowed out this virtue and made Christianity emblematic of only this most private virtue, moderation. So Pieper says that moderation as popularly understood is overvalued, has given a negative meaning to passion and sensuality and must be considered to be the last of the four cardinal virtues, not the first.

While I personally find temperance (moderation) important on the road to holy happiness, the fact is that the world has minimalized Christianity to such an extent that we do need to emphasise more “manly” virtues like courage, perhaps by writing about the lives of the martyrs.

Passion is actually a neutral concept. It is neither evil nor good. Fr. Selman has a beautiful passage on passion, which he defines as emotion. He says when the body is moved by the soul in any strong emotion, we speak of being white with fear or radiant with joy. “The emotions are movements of our sensitive appetites when we apprehend things as good or evil.” A normal person is repulsed by evil, and attracted by good. Many philosophies in the world, like Stoicism and Buddhism, have sought to control the emotions by achieving a state of invulnerability. But Catholicism asks us to sanctify our senses and passions, not to deny them.

In 2001, as my mother lay dying of kidney failure and sepsis, she lost her sight. To the hospital, I brought a bouquet of herbs from my garden —rosemary, thyme, parsley, chive flowers, basil. Her sense of smell was still acute, and while blind for the first time in her 82 years, she did not fail to deeply appreciate the scent of those greens. She had lived a good Catholic life, and had deeply appreciated all that life offered. She did not deny her senses, she let God purify them. At the end of her life I watched her deep appreciation of living herbs when she could not even see them. It didn’t matter.

Pieper says the words “sensuality,” “passion,” “drive,” “desire” now have negative connotations because of the overvaluation of the virtue of moderation in the modern world. St. Thomas understands them to be all the stirrings of our faculty of sense and desire: i.e. love, hate, desire, pleasure, sadness, fear, anger. The Church Doctor — interested in everything — offers us remedies against pain and sadness. There are many kinds of pleasure (a form of rest from sadness) — tears, the sympathy of friends, contemplating the truth, having a good nap and taking a hot bath.

I have tried all these remedies, but I remember one sadness I had consistently for three days, which seemed to have no cause. I went grocery shopping across the street from a Catholic Church. As I loaded my groceries into the car, I looked up at the Church, and I said (to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist), “Hi, Jesus!” Suddenly my sadness ended. I was at peace.

It is comforting to think that St. Thomas found nothing intrinsically wrong in the emotions. They are only good or bad as they come under reason and the command of the human will in an act of virtue, Fr. Selman said. Without the reins of reason, the emotions can become a runaway wild horse. When not directed by reason (prudence), they cause disturbance. But in St. Thomas’ view we cannot have virtue without emotion because we are joyful when we act well and sorrowful when we do wrong.

The greatest evil is not physical pain, Fr. Selman said. It is guilt. What harms the soul is worse than what harms the body. “Thus not to think that evil is evil is a greater evil than any sorrow or pain, because this springs from a lack of judgement and right reason. To be deprived of these is an evil, because rationality constitutes the good of human nature. Thus repentance, like pity, is always a good sorrow,” Fr. Selman said.

And that is why Pope Leo was so insistently alarmed by the direction secular philosophy was taking. Besides losing the focus on objective reality as a basis for virtue, modern philosophy has almost erased discussion of the virtues. People realise their full potential made in the image and likeness of God by practicing virtue. Virtue is to imitate the beauty of the Incarnate God, who lived on earth 33 years and gave us His Church to lead us to Him in faith, hope and charity.

By grace enkindling these theological virtues, we are made sharers of Divine Nature, Fr. Selman reminds us, as wood shares in fire when it is set alight.

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."
(Philippians 4:8)

If you enjoyed this, you might also like Truth or Consequences? A Dark Churning Blindness Engulfed Humanity. It was Called Nominalism


Pieper, Josef. The Christian Idea of Man. Translated by Dan Farrelly. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011.

Pieper, Josef. Living the Truth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989. 

Selman, Francis. Aquinas101. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2007.

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