The Virtue Driven Life

Father Groeschel reintroduces the seven virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity. He makes them meaningful for modern men and women, demonstrating how each has a real role in a whole and holy life.


VIRTUE HAS BECOME a forgotten word. Today if someone says to you, “Oh, she’s very virtuous,” it is not likely to be seen as a compliment. The word conveys to many people an image of someone who is “soft and fuzzy” or “tough and prickly.” Virtuous is often used in a sarcastic, cynical way by those who have no regard for virtue themselves and criticize it in others. This is a frequent phenomenon in the pages of newspapers and various other organs of public confusion, which, out of the morass of moral relativism, oddly set themselves up as the moral judges of the world. This reminds me of Yuri Andropov, who succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as premier of the Soviet Union. For several years Andropov had been director of the KGB, the Soviet secret police — hardly a position known for great virtue. I remember that he once accused somebody else’s foreign policy — it may have been ours — of being insincere. 1 How little we know ourselves.

Virtue, therefore, is a very odd word in our world, and we don’t get much help from many theologians today. In fact, they are something of a hindrance. Some theologians have recently embraced the idea that virtue is nothing really significant, just a trait of behavior.2 In fact, the philosophers and, recently, some of the psychologists are much more help.

Certain behaviors are often considered good traits: friendliness and even-temperedness, for example. Traits that are pleasant or helpful we tend to call virtues. This misses the whole point. This is, in fact, the view of the experimental psychologists, who look at human beings as complicated animals. Experimental psychologists study pigeons or white rats or even glowworms to figure out what people are going to do. If you take that worm’s-eye view of human nature, you would just say that virtues are series of behaviors that we have decided to identify as good. And since we don’t know what goodness means, we might say “nice.”

According to these people, virtues are neither good nor bad. This notion of virtue would ultimately have to be traced back to a philosopher whose name we all know. We seldom realize, however, the damage this well-meaning person caused. He’s living proof that kindly, virtuous people can do all kinds of damage. Immanuel Kant, relying on pure reason, sought to avoid giving values to things, at least in his most influential work. You may think that one thing is good; another person may think something else is good. Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. Kant, fortunately, did not live by this theory, because he was a devout Christian.3 He seemed a pious old man who was neutral about everything except his own life, which was virtuous. But Kant’s interpretation of the process of knowing is a dangerous point of view. It took into account neither right nor wrong.

Humans vs. Animals

WHEN I WAS STUDYING cognitive science at Columbia University, I decided to do an exercise in academic freedom. I argued with my professors on a very limited view of human nature made popular in our time by the famous experimental psychologist B. F. Skinner. His teaching incorporated a view of human nature that represented a school of psychology called behavior- ism. It included MacDougal, Guthrie, Hall, Clark, Watson, and Skinner — all of which are Scottish names. These men were raised in the Scottish Calvinist tradition, which firmly denied free will. Having given up their Presbyterian affiliations, they then decided that people were complicated animals. Before his death, Skinner admitted that he was really not an atheist but had pretended to be an atheist because he didn’t know what to do with God. He eventually seemed to return to the view of the radical Calvinism of his youth. In his autobiography, as well as in a popular article in Psychology Today, he refers to three of the four Gospels (see, for example, Luke 17:33). He pointed out that it may strike some people as strange that the idea of gaining one’s life vs. losing one’s life “should be, as I think it is, the central theme of a behavioral science.” 4 He never gave up a behavioristic point of view. He still thought of people as complicated pigeons. He wrote a book called Beyond Freedom and Dignity, denying that human beings really had either one.

Probably the most radical of all of these behaviorists was Edwin Guthrie. I never knew anything about his personal life, but he must have been unusual. Guthrie described human beings as a torus. A torus is a doughnut, a round thing that has a surface on all sides. Human beings were tori. I’ll leave you to think of the biology of this idea. According to Guthrie, a human being is a torus, on the surface of which are receptors for stimuli. Life is just a series of responses to these stimuli. This is a somewhat narrow view of human nature! It is really a description of a paramecium, a little creature that simply crawls around and looks for things to eat. The idea of a torus does not do justice even to pet dogs and cats — or even birds for that matter.

Although it was useful in experimental psychology, the behaviorist point of view has been very destructive in modern life, and many acute moral issues facing the human race are based precisely on this view of human beings as complicated animals. When animals get too complicated and are not cooperative, what do we do? We put them to sleep. A man who falsely claimed to be very virtuous, who sought to create a nation of virtuous people according to his definition of virtue — a super race — gassed millions of people to accomplish his goal. I have walked through the gas chambers at Auschwitz, where almost a million people were put to death because they did not fit his idea of virtue.

What does this have to do with Holy Scripture? Holy Scripture takes a very different view of man, as, for example, in Psalm 1, known in Latin as Beatus vir:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:1–3)

I would say the psalmist has a clear idea of goodness, of virtue of the blessed man. And he has an idea of the unblessed man:

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish (Psalm 1:4–6).
If we look for virtue in the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are flooded with texts. Perhaps it would be helpful at this point for readers to meditate on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7).

It is obvious that Sacred Scripture and religious books of other traditions call for a life of virtue. In contemporary jargon, however, the good man makes value judgments. This means that some of us white mice like to do this and other white mice like to do that, and we call it virtue. I would much rather my idea of goodness be based on the Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount.

A Revolution in Psychology: Virtue Comes Back

THE MORAL PHILOSOPHERS of ancient times, especially the Greeks, and the Church Fathers and mystics were the first students of the mind; in fact, they were the first psychologists. They were all interested in virtue, qualities of the human personality that moved people toward consistently good behavior, toward the “good life.” They were also interested in character strengths like loyalty and perseverance, which are components of a virtuous life. Then in the nineteenth century came behaviorism, with its denial of insight and dignity; its close companion was determinism, with its denial of virtue and freedom. This leads to something oddly called moral positivism, a theory that sees what most people think and do as right. Positivism is presumably that which does not need proof.

The immense influence of popular (pop) psychology led many to deny the existence of character and virtue, or to substitute for them something called values clarification. This was a ritual for determining what people really wanted and getting them to recognize the contradictions inherent in their goals. Naturally, because virtue is always there, people often wove into values clarification various virtues, but they could not be identified as such. What has emerged is a group of people who are like a fleet of ships without rudders, compasses, or maps — or, better still, like a city without foundations.

However, more humanistic theories about human nature began to emerge — ideas related to free will, meaning, human relationships, culture, affirmation, and the recognition of the autonomous self.5 Theorists with explicit religious and moral values, like Father Adrian van Kaam and Gerald May, also began to be read. Then a powerful voice for self-understanding, coupled with common sense, was raised, and Aaron Beck introduced cognitive psychology into therapy. This opened the door wider for concepts like freedom, personal responsibility, and even religious values. The idea that we are not merely a collection of our thoughts and impulses, that the individual may direct his or her thinking and behavior, seems obvious to many people, but actually Beck was a pioneer of the obvious that had been forgotten.

Finally, by a logical historical process, positive psychology came into existence, led by Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, and Christopher Peterson. They were joined by many others who began to embrace a positive psychology that was focused on human strengths rather than on weakness and pathology. Paul Vitz, in a most enlightening article addressed to readers who are not professional psychologists, sums up this important development. After evaluating negative psychology, he writes:

What is needed to balance our understanding of the person is a recognition of positive human characteristics that can both heal many of our pathologies and help to prevent psychological problems in one’s future life. Positive psychology therefore emphasizes traits that promote happiness and well-being, as well as character strengths such as optimism, kindness, resilience, persistence, and gratitude. These positive characteristics, sometimes called “character strengths” or even “ego strengths” by psychologists, will be recognized by members of all major religions and by most philosophers as names for what used to be called “the virtues.”

Vitz praises Peterson and Seligman, who invite psychology to “reclaim the study of character and virtue as legitimate topics of psychological inquiry and informed societal discourse. By providing ways of talking about character strengths and measuring them across the life span, this . . . will start to make possible a science of human strengths that goes beyond armchair philosophy and political rhetoric. We believe that good character can be cultivated, but to do so, we need conceptual and empirical tools to craft and evaluate interventions.”
Of course, this new insight introduces new terminology. How do we define virtue? Peterson and Seligman write that virtues “are the core characteristics valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.”

They give historical surveys of these virtues. Character strengths “are the psychological ingredients — processes or mechanisms — that define the virtues. . . . [T]hey are distinguishable routes to displaying one or another of the virtues. For example, the virtue of wisdom can be achieved through such strengths as creativity, curiosity, love of learning, open-mindedness, and what we call perspective — having a ‘big picture’ on life.”

Although we are using the classical list of four moral virtues and three theological virtues — not quite the same list used by Professors Peterson and Seligman — we are covering the same material. Our approach is more classical and perhaps easier for the average reader to deal with, especially for readers familiar with authoritative writings on the spiritual life. Those particularly interested in moral theology, ethics, or serious approaches to education, child rearing, and character development would do very well to review their landmark book carefully.

What Is a Virtue?

THIS IS AN INTERESTING QUESTION, although not very practical. There have been millions of virtuous people who could not even think of defining virtue. Positive psychology bases its definition on what might be called a canvassing of recognized moral and religious figures, sages, and saints. This gave the positive psychologists a good start. They indicated the character strengths that make up a virtuous disposition. Peterson and Seligman and their associates do this with great care and creativity. One must ask: Is there something more? Dietrich von Hildebrand, who carefully pondered this question, defined virtue as a quality of someone’s character.9 The virtue is present even when it is not operative or actualized. (He refers to this as being “superactualized.”) For example, a chaste person is chaste even when asleep. I would go even further and say that the person is chaste even if sleep brings sexual dreams containing images that would be unchaste if they were wel-comed in times of watchful responsibility. Virtues go beyond present thinking. A patient person who becomes unexpectedly impatient for a moment will quickly return to the customary patient disposition when the situation has passed. I say this as someone who has experienced the mild impatience of two or three people who are likely to be canonized one day as saints and who were generally patient to a heroic degree. We have only to think of various testy passages in the Pauline epistles to see how a saintly person may for a moment become impatient.

Virtue, therefore, is more than a series of good deeds. It exists in a person’s depths. Presumably, there must be some neurological component because we are made up of body, soul, and spirit. However, I think there is something beyond the physical, not perceptible to scientific comprehension — an aspect of virtue that rises from the depth of the soul. Psychology, understood as a science or as philosophy, cannot deal directly with this mysterious aspect of virtue, which in turn is part of a greater mysterious reality that we call the human being.

Natural (Human) Virtues

GOOD TRAITS, OR VIRTUES, can exist in a number of ways. First of all, there are the naturally decent people. We may not know a thing about them — whether they believe or disbelieve, whether they pray or they don’t pray. Or perhaps we know that they do not believe or pray, but they are honest and kind. They are willing to speak up at the right moment, are respectful of their neighbors’ rights and needs, and do not lead an indulgent life. They have what is called natural virtue, which can coexist with a lot of other things that are not so naturally virtuous.10 Naturally virtuous people, like supernaturally virtuous people, can have lots of faults and sins, and they fail here and there. Basically, they seem to be pretty good people, but you do not expect them to be perfect.

I have a friend who identifies himself as a retired Eurocommunist, which means he is a communist with a swimming pool in his backyard. Definitely very upper-middle class, he was nevertheless sympathetic to the more humane communist causes until the collapse of communism. Disclosures from the former Soviet Union revealed that those who presented themselves as the benevolent benefactors of mankind could be quite as ruthless and bloody as the Nazis. Current or former communist sympathizers often conveniently forget that the Bolsheviks and the Nazis were military allies for a couple of years.

My Eurocommunist friend would profoundly despise the murderous actions of the Bolsheviks. He is a decent and generous man. His son became a devout Catholic, although he had no Catholic influences at all. I pray for my friend, who is a physician and a naturally virtuous person. On the other hand, I know people who have some supernatural values but are nowhere near as decent as this man. They operate on something else. They may have faith, but with regard to virtue they are doing a lot worse. Our Lord told us that not everyone who says to Him, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21). Some believers do not do very well living up to their beliefs. Remember the admonition of Saint James: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder” (James 2:19). Saint Peter’s second epistle recognizes that faith requires virtuous acts:

For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.  (2 Peter 1:5–7)

So, natural virtues are good, decent qualities that are often passed on by environment, especially by the home. We know very well the importance of care, love, concern, and good example in the raising of children. Some traits may be passed on by genetic inheritance — qualities like even-temperedness — that are consistent with virtues.

Therefore, natural virtue is a good thing. In his great book The City of God, Saint Augustine praises the natural virtue of the ancient Romans who established the Roman city-state, right up to the time of Julius Caesar. Augustine said that the empire was falling apart in his time (the barbarian chieftain Alaric had sacked Rome in 410) because the Romans had given up natural virtue. It is all too obvious today that Western European countries are busy undermining the foundations of natural virtue in their own societies. For example, the widespread use of pornography undermines any natural dignity and regard for the human rights of those who are represented only as objects of lust. The United States is not far behind Europe.

An Important Distinction

IT IS UNFORTUNATE that the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not sufficiently distinguish between natural (human) and supernatural moral virtues, which is a classical distinction made by Saint Thomas Aquinas and many other authors. Although all virtues call us to do good, those that are the result of grace and lead to a holy life need to be distinguished from natural virtues or simply good human qualities. These supernatural virtues, which are an expression of grace, are sometimes called infused moral virtues, indicating that they rely on the grace of Christ won by our Savior on the Cross. Wherever they exist, they depend on His grace.11

Supernatural Moral Virtue

BEYOND NATURAL, OR HUMAN, virtue there are supernatural moral virtues — that is, good qualities and character strengths of the natural sort raised to the supernatural order by the mysterious reality called grace, which strengthens good qualities, makes them more consistent, and changes their goal or motivation. Why, for example, is someone prudent or just? If you know why somebody is doing something, that will explain why they do it in a certain way and why they do it even when they are under great pressure not to be virtuous. The ultimate goal of mature Christian virtue is to please God and to come at last to His embrace in eternal life. The goal of natural virtues is to lead a good life in this world.

There are many lists of virtues. The shortest and most comprehensive list comes from the Greek and Roman philosophers — but it would also be acceptable to Chinese and Oriental philosophers — and would include prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These are called cardinal, or pivotal, virtues. Contemporary writers on positive psychology add two other categories: humanity and transcendence. These two open the door to some consideration of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. However, since these writers cannot and do not make an assumption of the Christian faith, they cannot really describe the qualities related to transcendence in terms of the supernatural. They merely offer the possibility of considering qualities of humanity that extend beyond what human relationships demand. They also offer the possibility of the human relationship with the divine, which of course depends on revelation.

From prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance come many other virtues: benevolence, kindliness, chastity, honesty, a certain courage in the face of life, and stick-to-itiveness. There are all kinds of good qualities in human nature that can be raised to the order of the supernatural, like justice and kindness. However, the supernatural virtues always include as their first motive the desire to please God and to do His will.

One of the natural virtues is the virtue of religion (not the virtue of faith), which we will examine later. William Bennett in his Book of Virtues makes a little mistake — on purpose, I suspect, so that people will understand what he is trying to say. The Book of Virtues is about the first four virtues and their different departments, and at the end he places the virtue of faith. But when we read it, we realize that he means the virtue of religion. The virtue of religion is a good quality that makes decent human beings worship their Creator and try to fulfill His laws as they understand them. For this reason no society is without religion.

Enver Hoxha, the brutal communist dictator of Albania, now gone to his eternal judgment, bragged that he had the only totally nonreligious country in the world. He was kidding himself. No sooner had his yoke been taken away than religion resurfaced, and my good friend, Father Rock Mirdita, pastor of the Albanian Catholic church in Scarsdale, New York, was ordained archbishop of Tirana and primate of Albania by Pope John Paul II in Albania, in the presence of Mother Teresa, Albania’s most famous citizen ever. So much for Mr. Hoxha and imposed atheism.

If the seventy years of Bolshevik persecution of religion have proved anything, it is that religion buries its undertakers, and it does not seem to make much difference whether the militant atheists have attacked Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or anyone else. They will all be there at the funeral because the virtue of religion is part of human nature.12

Peterson and Seligman, struggling to be as general and objective as possible, and using terms like religion and faith, put all religious actions under the name of transcendence. They understandably stick with a largely sociological description of faith, which in this context means works or actions inspired or directed by faith. They do not attempt to explore the content of faith, leaving that to theologians, spiritual writers, and others.

Time magazine reported a few years ago that 94 percent of Americans pray and believe that their prayers are answered. Don’t assume that that is faith. That could be the natural virtue of religion, for which we are grateful. The European Values Study twenty years ago revealed that 6 percent of the atheists in Ireland believe in the divinity of Christ. (The Irish can be very complicated when it comes to matters of religion.) Consider James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, both of whom were identified as Irish atheists. After preaching nihilism and meaninglessness for years, Beckett in his old age was quoted as saying, “Please God” and “God bless.” “God bless” is a devout Irish way of saying good-bye. Nikita Khrushchev once said, “Next year I will go to Washington, God willing.” Even American atheists will somberly sit at a meeting of the League of the Militant Godless, and when somebody sneezes, they will all say, “God bless you.” Nature will simply not let us escape from God.

Theological Virtues

WE MUST ALSO LOOK at the theological virtues. They are the kind of virtues that go beyond any natural human experience.

They are faith, hope, and charity.

You may say, “I believe in the American way of life and in God, the Father Almighty.” If you believe in both the same way, your belief in God stems from the natural virtue of religion. The theological virtue of faith is completely different. If someone says to me, “I generally accept the teachings of the Church, but I don’t accept this one because I don’t understand it,” they are showing a lack of faith. They are talking as if their problem is with the virtue of religion and are not even aware of their problem with faith. We can have degrees of faith. The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” Our Lord says, “Oh, you of little faith,” so we can have more or less. If we disagree with Church teachings in one or more areas, do we realize we are going against the faith of all those in the past: apostles, martyrs, Church Fathers, popes? Do we want to disagree with all those people on a matter that may pertain to our salvation? It is worth thinking about.

I once preached at a Unitarian Church on what Catholics and Unitarians have in common. It was a short sermon. I accepted the invitation to preach because the minister told me half the congregation were ex-Catholics. I said to the minister before I began, “What is the theological climate here?” He answered, “Well, they’re about 75 percent agnostic and 25 percent atheist.”

“What a mysterious religion,” I thought. What a mysterious religion! Why would anyone get out of bed on a Sunday morning if they do not believe in God? The answer lies in the natural virtue of religion, not in the theological virtue of faith.

We are going to consider in these chapters the natural virtues and then the same virtues lifted by grace to a supernatural level, which I will refer to as supernatural, or Christian, moral virtues. Psychology has insisted for years that a human being is impelled to relive the past in response to biology and inheritance. This kind of psychology is generally called clinical— an adjective meaning “bedside” — because the focus was on getting rid of pathology, or sickness, rooted in the past. As we have noted, the attention of psychology is moving toward a more positive view of human nature, toward strengths of character, good values, and virtues. We are no longer focused exclusively on a life driven by need or illness. What we are looking for is a life motivated and moved by forces for good — that is, a virtuous life.

Then we will look at the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity; they are called theological because they are gifts from God alone. They are quite different from the supernatural moral virtues in origin and object. As we will see, they bring the mysterious and intangible into human experience. In his illuminating book Introduction to Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that when we are dealing with the gifts of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are beyond what is visible and comprehensible to our minds.13We are on the threshold of what Einstein meant when he referred to “the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty that our dull faculties can comprehend.” It can be said in a carefully qualified way that the new psychology is pointing in the right direction and to important things. We need to be careful to acknowledge that faith, hope, and charity go beyond all that nature, even at its best, can provide to humans on the journey to an incomprehensible eternity.

The Christian on this road must be impelled by the virtues the philosophers recognize and by the supernatural virtues that are these same qualities raised and ennobled by grace. Saint Paul, the great psychologist, says that faith, hope, and love are the things that bring us to salvation won for us by Christ on the Cross. If we truly seek these, we will lead a virtuous life.

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