Temperance in the modern world

In Pope Francis’ continuing diagnosis of the world’s ills, elaborated on thoroughly in his most recent encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), consumerism — excess consumption of material goods — ranks consistently at or near the top of the list. Consumerism is one face of the maldistribution of wealth, the other face of which is poverty. The pope calls it a “poison” that reflects “emptiness of meaning and values.”

Collective consumerism is among the symptoms of what Pope St. John Paul II called “superdevelopment.” This aberration, he explained, arises from “excessive availability of every kind of material goods, for the benefit of certain social groups” and is expressed in an obsessive quest to own and consume more and more (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, No. 28).

The cure for this disease of the spirit, considered as a social problem, is the practice of social justice in economic policies, practices and laws.

On the individual level, too, each of us is tempted to consumerism and has social justice responsibilities. But how are ordinary people to practice social justice? The answer is temperance.

Cumulatively, temperance can make a real contribution to social justice. One person living temperately gives a good example. A multitude living temperately can change a nation, or even the world, for the better.

Pope Francis makes much the same point in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, where he uses the word “sobriety” to describe an attitude equivalent to temperance. Living this way, he writes, means “living life to the full ... learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them” (No. 223).


By long tradition, temperance has been understood as the virtue of moderation in food, drink and sex. And so it is. But temperance should also be seen in broader terms — an insight dating to Aristotle.

Writing about “detachment” in a little book called “The Forge,” St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, remarks: “Whoever really lives his faith knows that the goods of the world are means, and uses them generously, heroically.”

What this means is that temperance, along with closely allied virtues such as detachment and chastity, isn’t just about avoiding this or that. Temperance, detachment and chastity serve a fundamentally positive purpose. They tell us something of great importance about using the goods of this world — as St. Josemaria says — generously and even “heroically.” Temperance is about growing in freedom. It’s about making us, through our acquisition and use of worldly goods, increasingly more able to choose the right thing in the right way for the right reason, and to act accordingly.

Certainly temperance does involve moderation in regard to food, drink and sex. But it also functions in regard to other things as well. Here some examples might help.

For starters, then, how about something like using money well? What about seeking power and prestige not for their own sakes but only for the opportunities they provide to be of service to others? Or avoiding workaholism — giving too much time and attention to the job at the expense of other important things like family life? Maybe making a place for recreation and hobbies in your life but not allowing them to dominate it?

One of the best dramatizations I’ve ever seen of what intemperance looks like is the famous American movie “Citizen Kane,” directed by Orson Welles and starring Welles himself in the title role. “Citizen Kane” tells the story of a man with exceptional vision and leadership gifts, together with the intention — at least at the start of his career — of making good use of them. Over the course of a lifetime, though, he is corrupted and in the end morally destroyed by his intemperance that takes the form of a towering, insatiable lust for power. The film is a memorable character study — and a frightening one.

Societal pressure

Movies and literature aside, it’s easy to find illustrations of intemperance in everyday life. Here is one instance drawn from personal observation.

I live in a pleasant neighborhood of attractive old houses. In recent years, it’s become a routine thing for a developer to buy one of these houses, tear it down and replace it with a new house that’s too large for the lot, too large in relation to the houses around it and too large for the neighborhood as a whole. And, of course, carrying a too-large price tag as well. Here is what might be called architectural intemperance, driven by vanity and the profit motive.

It hardly needs saying that our secular culture does a lot to create the insidious pressure that’s constantly brought to bear against the practice of temperance. Advertising has a big role here.

Some years ago, I was invited to draft a statement on advertising for one of the Vatican departments. Trying to be as positive as I could, I concluded that advertising does serve some very useful purposes — disseminating information, keeping the economy humming and even providing entertainment (often, the ads really are better than the shows).

I also found that the fundamental purpose of advertising is to get people to feel a need for something they didn’t need before — a product or a candidate for office, as the case may be. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that approach if the product or the candidate is truly beneficial. But if not, the advertising is harmful. Consider the army of ads for luxury automobiles and high-priced electronic stuff.

It is possible that somebody actually needs these things and will benefit from having them. But most of us would derive few if any real benefits from acquiring such items. In which case, it’s wrong for advertisers to attempt to manipulate us into feeling that we somehow need things that are so inconsequential.

Acquiring the virtue

In the face of all the inducements against the practice of temperance that the world throws at us today, how can people hope to acquire this indispensable virtue?

The first step is introspection. Getting to know ourselves better — in this case, getting a realistic understanding of the species of intemperance that’s a problem for each of us. Almost certainly it’s something, and to fight it we have to find out what it is. Eating or drinking too much? At least those are fairly obvious faults. But if it’s something more subtle, it may require some serious effort to bring it out into the light.

In that case, we may benefit from an experienced adviser who knows us well. That’s what spiritual direction is all about. Not that a spiritual director will tell you flat-out what your problem is and what you should do about it. But a good one can help guide you to finding those things out for yourself. Bear in mind, too, that regular, repeated acts of voluntary self-denial are classic means for acquiring the habit of temperance. And among them is fasting. In recent times, the Church has greatly reduced its laws on fasting. That leaves it up to us to take up the slack for ourselves.

Here it may be useful to recall something the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper says in the chapter on temperance in his wonderful book “The Four Cardinal Virtues.” (Pieper wrote the book before the Church relaxed its fasting laws, but what he says is still eminently sound.) Fasting, he remarks, is often thought to be “something extraordinary,” something only for ascetics and saints, but St. Thomas Aquinas calls it “a commandment of the natural law ... intended for the average Christian.” Pieper goes on:

“Whoever has not reached the maturity of perfection — that is, all of us ordinary Christians — could not preserve, without recourse to the medicine, the discipline, of fasting, that inner order by virtue of which the turbulence of sensuality is kept in check and the spirit liberated. ...

“Our natural duty obliges us to pay dearly so that we may become what we are by essence: the free moral person in full possession of himself.”

Temperance, supported by a tried and true practice like fasting, is the key to doing that. And the reward is great. As Pope Francis says in praising sobriety, “Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer” (Laudato Si’, No. 223).

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.