‘Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous person is happy to practice them’.
This is a quotation (section 1810) from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, shown here, the basic source book for what the Church believes and teaches, which we use for RCIA programmes and other courses (easy to buy and also available online for free at the Vatican website). Although it is a very short quotation a lot is packed in; and yet if we think about the words care-fully they give us a lot of help in looking at some of the problems in our world.
We teach that what we call virtues are attitudes which gov-ern our actions. They help us to lead a good life; we acquire them by effort with the help of the grace of God. The quote above mentions education: this is one reason why schools are important to us in the Catholic Church – in them we try to instil virtues in our children and young people. To build up virtues, to try and lead a virtuous life, is a lifelong task. A danger for us is if we think we can do this by our own efforts: the catechism makes it clear that we need God’s help, what we call ‘grace.’ An extension of this is that if we do feel we’re getting somewhere, if we feel we succeed in being better people, we can easily be-come vain and proud. Knowing our sinfulness and our utter dependency on God is crucial to the practice of the virtues. The extract goes on to say that the virtues ‘forge character’. This is crucially important both in terms of self-knowledge and, at times, prudent judgments which we need to make about other people. We’re warned in the Bible about making unfair judgments about others resting on a mistaken belief that we won’t be judged ourselves: but at times in every walk of life we do have to assess and evaluate other people, in fairness and humility. We do so in education, we do so in the world of work, we do so in our families and we do so in the life of the Church. Such a judgment will involve looking at someone’s character: has the person we are looking at led a virtuous life? Have the virtues forged the person’s character? Is the person one who practices ‘the good’? In a homily at the beginning of this month, on All Saints day, I pointed out there is some-thing deeply flawed about a society in which the phrase ‘do-gooder’ is pejorative or even a term of abuse used by politicians, journalists and others – we really have lost our way. When Christians try to emulate the saints to become virtuous, we all try to be ‘do-gooders’, we try to do good. It follows that one area of life where we are entitled to make a judgement about character is public and political life. The way someone behaves, in short, tells you what sort of person he is. As we saw here in Beckenham back in the 1990s, it is a concern if a politician’s allegedly ‘private’ life brings scandal on him and the community he represents. If a politician is an adulterer, the way he treats his wife tells you something about him – including something about what sort of politician he is. Infidelity in marriage, or a general selfishness with regard to personal relationships, is not something incidental to your professional or political life: it speaks volumes about you, about the sort of person you are. Moral relativism, particularly with regard to personal relationships, is so ingrained nowadays in this country that it really does fall to the churches, for all our own faults, to point these things out.
This has actually become more important during the current pandemic. As in most areas, things we were perhaps dimly aware of have become much clearer. Politicians who have been shown to be serial liars, over many years, will carry on lying to save their skin during a crisis: they are unlikely, on the whole, to change their behaviour. They act like this, moreover, because of their characters. For when we assert the importance of virtues, of moral goodness, of truthfulness and integrity, at the same time we are claiming, perhaps uncomfortably for some people, that the opposite qualities are also to be found – a contempt and disparagement of ‘the good’, and serial mendacity. These sinful attributes are so often to be found in what psychologists call narcissism – for such a person, he or she is at the centre of their universe; no one else matters.
And we will all be judged by God in relation to this when we die: so thinking about character and virtue is something we should do when we think about death in the month of the Holy Souls.