The Virtues of Reform

Published August 1, 2019

The Catholic Thing

“Virtue” is a word that doesn’t get as much use as it ought to these days. When it is used, it’s often misused to mean something like “moral talent” – an innate quality that some people just have while others don’t. But virtue, unlike talent, isn’t something you are born with. We all begin life, not as virtuous men and women, but as tyrants: morally innocent, perhaps, but tyrannical, nonetheless. God’s grace notwithstanding, growing in virtue requires a lot of work..

The very idea of the virtues is antithetical to a certain modern sensibility, the reluctance to acknowledge that we are somehow responsible for becoming more than we already are. It’s much easier to simply assert ourselves and demand, with ever more vehemence, that we be celebrated for our inadequacies rather than called out of them. When mercy means never having to say you’re sorry, why go through the trouble of growing in virtue?

Perhaps this is one reason that talk of virtue is sometimes considered quaint. The old definitions of virtue – a habit of soul in accord with reason and nature and moderation – rest on concepts (nature? reason?) that are unintelligible to much of our contemporary world. Talk of “a still more excellent way” in some contexts, even within the Church, is practically a micro-aggression.

Pope Francis has rightly insisted that genuine reform must consist in more than protocols and procedures. However important and necessary recent administrative and legal reforms may be, the Church cannot regulate herself out of this crisis. True reform always comes from fidelity to Christ and the Gospel. Without conversion to Christ, the best-crafted reforms will prove ineffective. Genuine renewal requires both paths to reform: structural and administrative changes, as well as ongoing conversion and growth in holiness.

While holiness and virtue are not exactly the same thing, the latter is the surest way to the former. Grace builds on and perfects nature. The highest of the virtues, the theological virtues –faith, hope, and love – will better take root the more we possess the cardinal virtues: temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice. The need for these virtues can be seen most acutely in the consequences of their absence.

Temperance is the virtue by which one controls the appetites for natural goods like food and drink and sexual pleasure. Temperance consists, not only in mastering the appetites, but in knowing rightly which appetites are suitable given your state in life. So temperance isn’t just about keeping control of bodily appetites, it is about knowing what these natural appetites are actually for, so that they can be directed accordingly.

A man who does not know what bodily desires are properly for will find it hard to acquire the virtue of directing them well. And he will have difficulty naming vice in those who are as intemperate as he. That the vices exemplified by the allegations against Bishop Michael J. Bransfield – sexual harassment of seminarians, excessive drinking, lavish spending – are found together shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Then there is fortitude. Would anyone claim an abundance of this virtue among the higher clergy? Surely there are some courageous men among the bishops, but has the behavior of the bishops collectively shown a willingness to confront, head-on, the collapse of credibility they have brought upon themselves? Does any American Catholic doubt that a false collegiality –bishops refusing to correct their brother bishops – has become one of the hallmarks of the bishops’ conference?

Where are the bishops with the courage to say things in public that their brother bishops don’t want said in public? Where are the shepherds who value the souls of their flock more than they fear the disapproval of their brother bishops, or even Rome? If the bishops can’t bring themselves to be candid with each other, how can the flock ever believe they will be candid with us?

Of course, fortitude is more than a willingness to rock the boat or pick a fight; sometimes it demands the kind of endurance and forbearance that can appear to some as the opposite of courage. Knowing which kind of fortitude is required in which circumstances is part of prudence.

Prudence is a virtue to guide the other virtues. All the abuse prevention protocols and programs in the world are never going to eliminate the need for sound judgment from our bishops on very difficult questions.

How should the diocese respond to aggressive investigations by civil authorities? How should the bishop balance the demands of justice for abuse victims with his responsibility to safeguard the patrimony of his diocese? How ought a bishop be a spiritual father to his priests without compromising transparency and accountability, on the one hand, or succumbing to a corporatized, sanitized, human-resources model, on the other?

And how does a bishop distinguish genuine mistakes and errors in judgment from malfeasance, neglect, and malice? How do we? Prudence, it turns out, is a prerequisite for the fourth cardinal virtue: justice.

Justice. What a dearth of justice there has been in this whole sordid, interminable mess! How many victims were denied justice because their stories weren’t believed? Or worse, because their stories were ignored?

How many friends and family members shared the suffering of a loved one who was abused, and then suffered again when the Church made a mockery of justice by neglecting the victims and protecting the abusers?

How much righteous anger from the faithful has been met with condescension or indifference from bishops who rarely suffer themselves from the consequences of their own malfeasance.

Virtue isn’t just for the bishops, of course. It’s for all of us. And the next generation of priests and bishops will come from somewhere. Those of us who will never wear a miter or carry crozier should never forget that, or our children may. If structural reforms are to bear fruit, they will need to be embodied and enlivened by men and women of integrity and virtue.

That is work for us all. It can’t wait.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today

More in Catholic Studies