Please register to access this FREE content.
In a world where the Church and its principles are under constant attack, it is easy for faith to become defensive. In a world which embraces sins to an alarming degree, it is easy for faith to become negative. That is why it is important to remind ourselves of the positive principles of the Catholic faith.
I’m finishing up a course on Christian Morality, and it dawned on me that there are a few powerful first principles guiding and governing the Christian moral outlook — such that if one steadfastly latches on to these, many otherwise controverted topics fall neatly into place.
The Importance of Virtue
Virtue ethics connects two very important things: first, virtue is about fully actualizing the capacities of human nature in order to live a fully human life — that is, virtue ethics is about attaining true and objective happiness (not merely a subjective state of contentment). People seldom think about morality this way; but for the ancients, living a good life was about becoming a truly happy person. Second, a virtue ethic shows how all of our actions are not simply external to us; rather, they are modifying and shaping our character in the process. We are becoming a certain kind of person in and through each and every decision we make.
This second feature of a virtue ethic has many points of contact with athletics; take any kind of skill (e.g., pitching in baseball, shooting mechanics in basketball, or a golf swing): at first the process is awkward and clumsy; but over time and with practice, the execution of the skill gets smoother and more fluid. Conversely, practicing the skill incorrectly likewise inculcates bad habits, which over time become hard to break.
The point is this: the moral life — acts of virtue and vice — create ingrained habits over time. That is, we are becoming a certain kind of person along the way, ultimately, one who is free to be truly happy, or someone enslaved to vice.
Virtue Requires Training
I press this with my students because the youth (especially today) are prone to think something like the following: “Deep down, I’m a good guy — despite what I did last weekend.” In other words, our culture has a tendency to dissociate our actions from who we are. In reality, this is preposterous: over time, our actions determine who we are — because each and every action is making us into a certain kind of person.
The moral question, then, is not simply “what do I do right now?” but rather who do I want to be. If we thought of every moral decision as an answer to that question — who do I want to be — we’d probably live with a lot less regrets.
This is to say then that what we’re doing now is directly related to who we’ll be in five years. As I said, this is important for high school and college students to hear, since they often think they’ll “live it up now” and settle down later, and then just magically become a good husband or wife when the time comes. That is, they often don’t fully take into account the preparation — the necessary training in virtue — that it will take to make that happen.
A New Kind of Freedom
As already implied above, the practice of virtue gives rise to a deeper freedom. In teaching about this, I’ll often ask my class if they are free to speak French. Amused, they respond in the affirmative. Then I ask them to do it — to which many of them respond by informing me that they haven’t taken French.
In other words, they are free to speak French in a superficial sense — I’m not going to stop them. But they aren’t ultimately free to speak the language until they have mastered the skills which enable them to express any given thought fluently in the French language.
Similarly, virtues are the skills needed to live a life with excellence — the skills which give one the freedom to be the person they truly want to be (to be the father, husband, mother, wife, friend, doctor, businessman, etc. they want to be); that is, the freedom to be truly happy.
You Play How You Practice
Great examples of this deeper freedom are: learning a foreign language, a musical instrument, getting in shape, or any athletic skill that must be practiced over and over again before it becomes second nature.
A great player in any sport (or musician) is reliable and consistent; anybody can hit a lucky shot — whereas, someone who truly has the particular excellence can do such an action on demand. And such mastery makes the performance of the act more and more joyful.
So too with virtue: a virtuous act is at first arduous and difficult; but as one practices, say small acts of courage, over time they get easier and easier. One becomes more free to be the person they truly want to become. To be the hero when it counts, one must first have fought the small battles along the way. After all, what do coaches constantly say — you play how you practice.
A virtuous life is about discipline, about attaining self-mastery. And this self-mastery enables us to enter into life most fully — to give the best of ourselves, ultimately to God and neighbor. And perhaps paradoxically, only in such self-mastery — which leads to self-gift — can we find true and abiding happiness.
This appeared at Ascension Press.