Daily Archives: December 16, 2010

Heroic Virtue Versus Virtue Versus Justification

Too often, people treat their Catholicism as a lowest common denominator thing. Catholic moral theology is far more complex than most people give it credit for being, and that complexity is too difficult for most people to handle, so they like to oversimplify it.

For example, there is the concept of “justice.” In Catholic thought, as in Platonism, Justice means trying to negate an evil in society to create balance. Put another way, justice almost always means a legal sanction to do something that is normally wrong. Catholics who identify with either of our political parties tend to focus on certain kinds of justice at the expense of others.
Normally, it is intrinsically evil and mortally sinful to bind, imprison, enslave, maim or kill another person. However, in some cases, it is morally justifiable for the state to bind, imprison, enslave, maim or kill certain people out of justice. (I would submit that the Church is kind of ambiguous about whether it’s morally permissible to torture or mutilate someone who has already been convicted by due process). Yet, even when it is *justified* to do that to a person, that does not mean it’s morally obligatory. It means it wouldn’t be wrong to do that. However, if the state wants to show clemency to a repentant criminal, that would be not just justice but virtue.

Normally, it is mortally sinful to take property from another person. However, in civil and economic justice, it is morally justifiable for the government to take property from people for purposes of settling an economic or legal debt, for taxation, or for alleviating the economic hardship of the unemployed or underpaid (*HOWEVER AGAIN*, it would be best to take the money from those who, according to Church teaching, are not getting their money justly to begin with).

Normally, it is mortally sinful for individuals to “take the law into their own hands”, but it is sometimes justifiable to do things that are otherwise wrong out of extreme necessity.

However, too often, Catholics take that “justifiable” and equate it with “virtuous” or “necessary.” Again, war or the death penalty may be morally justifiable, but they’re never obligatory or necessary options. There is always a higher alternative.

St. Gianna Baretta Molla chose to avoid legitimate, morally justifiable, medical procedures that risked the life of her unborn baby. By doing so, she was practicing heroic virtue. That’s why she’s a Saint. She would have been morally justified in getting the medical treatment–it wasn’t a procured abortion–but she chose not to.

Heroic virtue means, when faced with two alternatives that the Church allows, you choose the one that is *more* virtuous yet *more* challenging and risky. Capital “S” Saints are people who exemplify heroic virtue par excellence, but all Catholics are called to practice heroic virtue in our lives.

And that is what bothers me, especially when talking with my fellow Catholics about political or economic issues–the fact that the merely *justifiable* is so often favored over the heroically virtuous. The heroically virtuous option is often derided as impractical, or imprudent, or even *against* Church teaching since the Church “allows” the justifiable option.