Lesson 3c: Virtue and Truth

On first reading, Veritatis Splendor does not seem to stress very much the place of virtue. That is not really true as one can read in VS nn.102-108 and 118-120. But also the place and importance of the truth about virtue is prominent in Chapter I of VS in its biblical introduction nn.16-27 about the place of the Beatitudes:

"In their originality and profundity they are a sort of self-portrait of Christ, and for this very reason are invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ" (VS, 16).

Commenting on Matt.19, VS says: "Jesus' conversation with the young man helps us to grasp the conditions for the moral growth of man, who has been called to perfection . . . Perfection demands that maturity in self-giving to which human freedom is called" (VS, 17). Come follow me (VS, 19-21) -- following Him, discipleship, is not an outward imitation only, but becoming conformed to him (VS, 21). Quoting St. Augustine, the Pope outlines the central place of virtue and the growth in virtue: "Does love bring about the keeping of the commandments, or does the keeping of the commandments bring about love?" St. Augustine answers: "But who can doubt that love comes first? For the one who does not love has no reason for keeping the commandments" (VS, 22). Again, Augustine states the dialectic of law and grace: "The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the law might be fulfilled" (VS, 23).

It is perhaps customary to think of Moral Theology in the framework of the commandments. Indeed, most catechisms over the past 400 years present moral teaching just that way. Academic manuals of Moral Theology, following the Jesuit model or plan of studies (ratio studiorum), do just that. There is admittedly great clarity in the framework of the commandments.

However, this is not the only way to approach moral teaching. Indeed, the Dominican tradition, following the outline of St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa theologiae, presents moral teaching in the framework of the virtues.

These two schools of theology do not disagree; there is no contradiction between the commandments and the virtues, rather they are complementary. They are different in their approaches, in their methodological starting points. There is great clarity and convenience in the framework of the commandments; but, the framework of the virtues offers pastoral and spiritual advantages that can sometimes get lost, or left out, in the framework of the commandments. In the video I asked whether there was a difference between two simple questions: 'Is it a sin?' versus 'What is the right thing to do?'

If virtue or the virtues are relegated to another discipline, e.g. ascetical or spiritual theology, then your Moral Theology is lacking an essential component. 'Virtue' is not an extra, an advanced placement course -- virtue is the key to Thomistic ethics and an essential component of Catholic Moral Theology, cf., e.g. "The Virtues" in CCC ##1803-1845.

The outline of the Summa theologiae is instructive, but its method may be an obstacle for those not familiar with it. St. Thomas begins every article with a question; then a series of objections arguing the opposite; then a Sed contra 'on the other hand' citing some authority divine or traditional; next, the Responsio his reply; finally, responses to all the objections raised in the beginning.

This method is unvarying throughout the Summa and might seem cumbersome to those unfamiliar with it. As a helpful approach, and not a substitute, I recommend that students read over the condensed version, Farrell-Healy, My Way of Life (1952), which is a summary in normal American English. Again, this is not a substitute, but rather an introduction, getting a 'lay of the land' so that the actual study of the Summa becomes more fruitful. Thus, in Farrell-Healy, virtues in general, Part IIa, chapters 6-8, pp. pp.223-224, and the whole of II-II in Part IIb, pp.312-439. After the students have read the condensed summary of the virtue or virtues in this pocket edition, then they should study the actual treatment in the Summa itself.

The entire Secunda-secundae, the second part of Part Two of the Summa, is about virtues -- all virtues. Unvaryingly, St. Thomas (1) defines a virtue; (2) notes part or ways to put that virtue into positive practice; and (3) considers vices opposed to that virtue. Thus, instead of asking only what is wrong and why, this framework of the virtues presents positive ways to put virtue into positive practice. This, I believe, presents a fuller and richer Christian life. It is possible to avoid grave or gross evil and end up standing still morally; i.e. no positive progress, no growth in Christian life and practice. It is only by the positive practice of virtue that we change and grow in the spiritual and moral life.

Again, as above, I suggest no contradiction between the Jesuit and Dominican schools of theology; indeed they can be complementary. In fact, one of the advantages of the new Catechism (1992) is in its treatment of the specifics of morality. Indeed, Section two of Part III 'Life in Christ' of the Catechism is the framework of the Ten Commandments (##2052-2557) but one should note that before the treatment of any commandment the pertinent virtue is first stated and introduced. In effect, the moral part of the Catechism combines these two schools.

There is no shortage of printed materials that treat morality in the framework of virtues: C.S. Lewis's apologetic classic, Mere Christianity, Part III 'Christian Behavior'; J. Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (1965); P. Kreeft, Back to Virtue(1992); S.Pinckaers, 'Rediscovering Virtue' The Thomist 60:3 (1996) 361-78.

The important place of virtue is not neglected in Veritatis Splendor. It is conventional to say that we only grow in virtue (character) when we do the right thing for the right reason. Acts done without reason or purpose are mere happenstance, they do not enhance or build virtue. As already noted in VS, 63, the Pope teaches that evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or non-culpable error may not be imputable but it does not cease to be evil. The Pope continues: "a good act which is not recognized as such does not contribute to the moral growth of the person who performs it; it does not perfect him and it does not help to dispose him for the supreme good" (VS, 63). In short, this is not virtue; it does not contribute to the moral or spiritual growth of the person.

Further, it is not just knowledge of God's law that makes people good: " . . . knowledge of God's law is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient: what is essential is a sort of 'connaturality' between man and the good (ST, II-II, q, 45, a.2). Such a connaturality is rooted in and develops through the virtuous attitudes of the individual himself: prudence and the other cardinal virtues, and even before these the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. This is the meaning of Jesus' saying: "He who does the truth comes to the light (Jn.3:21)" (VS, 64).

That Gospel text Jn.3:21 is crucial -- 'He who does the truth comes to the light'. Moral growth is not just book knowledge, footnotes and learned citations; but by living the truth one comes to the light. This can explain why sometimes unsophisticated people -- in worldly estimation -- can have much to teach us about the moral and spiritual life. The reason is -- they live the truth! It is no accident that all serious spiritual directors and writers suggest that we read the lives of the saints -- they lived the truth, and, there is great light in that.

Thus, it is wise to learn of all the theological (faith, hope and charity) and moral (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) virtues (Cf. CCC and NCE). That effort is not really ascetics, nor spirituality, it is part of Moral Theology -- what Chapter I of VS calls imitating the self-portrait of Christ, the invitation to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ (VS, 16); the conditions for the moral growth of man (VS, 17); indeed, following Christ is the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality (VS, 19); following Christ means "becoming conformed to him" (VS, 21) and that is the work and life of virtue.


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