The Catholic Thing
The Continuity of Virtue Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Thursday, 24 October 2013

Let’s start with a question. Who wrote this: “Moral teaching has become too negative; these reflections seek to do justice to the living majesty, nobility, and beauty of the good. We tend too much to view the ethical norm as external to rebellious man; here we shall regard the good as that which makes man truly human.”

Given the chattering in the media, you’re probably thinking this must be Pope Francis. If you’re a bit deeper in recent Church teaching, you probably know that it could just as easily be John Paul II or Benedict XVI, because they both, along with many others over the course of the twentieth century, took this positive starting point to prevent the Faith from narrowing into a mere moralism.

A whole modern school has explored the Sources of Christian Ethics – the title of an essential work by Servais Pinckaers, O.P.  It has been developing age-old insights and presenting them in fresh ways to show that rules are necessary, but not merely in themselves. They’re meant to lead us to happiness, in the deep sense, the kind of human flourishing that satisfies the restless heart and brings peace and joy into human communities.

The next time some Catholic or non-Catholic claims that Francis has begun a new approach, putting rules in a second place unlike his predecessors, you can be sure that you’re listening to the purest moonshine. Francis has been innovative, but not on this point.

That quotation up top is from Romano Guardini and appears near the beginning of his very fine book Learning the Virtues That Lead You to God, which has just been reissued in a very fine edition by the newly reinvigorated Sophia Institute Press. Guardini (1988-1970) was a mentor to Joseph Ratzinger especially in matters like liturgy, but he cut a wide swath in the Church as a whole prior to Vatican II.

When we talk about the “hermeneutic of continuity” vs. the “hermeneutic of rupture” these days, we often don’t really know what we’re talking about. A tradition both hands on what’s been received, and carries out change within continuity to meet a new moment. A tradition incapable of addressing a new situation is no longer a living tradition. A complete rupture is, almost by definition, the end of that tradition and the start of something new. Neither mere repetition nor complete rupture is part of tradition rightly understood.

These days, we usually think about such things in terms of how one pope compares with his predecessor, whether liturgy is or is not being reformed, or what future priests and theologians are being told about Catholic doctrine and tradition.

But there’s also a more popular, almost populist dimension to tradition that goes virtually unnoticed. More Catholics were probably disturbed by the radical liturgical “reforms” of the 1960s and 1970s than any other single change in the Church. And at an even more personal level, popular devotions and spiritual reading, which touched a wide range of people from all walks of life, disappeared as well. For centuries, Augustine’s Confessions, the Imitation of Christ, Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life, the spiritual writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were known to average Catholics – and still were not that long ago.

Guardini’s The Lord belongs in that company, and I re-read a lot of it every Easter. But any book of his – The End of the Modern World, the commentaries on Rilke and Dante, and several others can be revisited with profit. And now this previously unknown to me book on the virtues as well.

The pre-Vatican II master of the virtue tradition is Joseph Pieper, whose Four Cardinal Virtues you should buy and read immediately. Like Guardini, Pieper has that beautiful combination of German learning with the gentle manner of a consummate teacher. Guardini, whose name is obviously Italian, was born in Northern Italy, but grew up in Germany and embodies the best qualities of both nations.

Where Pieper mines the works of Aquinas to provide a magisterial treatment of the cardinal virtues, Guardini chose to present his material in a less systematic, but equally deep and humane fashion.

The brief chapters here started as oral lectures, but were clearly guided by an ambitious plan. He treats of truthfulness, acceptance, patience, justice, reverence, loyalty, disinterestedness, asceticism, courage, kindness, understanding, courtesy, gratitude, unselfishness, recollection, silence, and justice before God, in addition to more fleeting questions.

Among the many strengths of this approach, he’s able to take what can sometimes be quite forbidding material on moral questions and issues of character formation, and illustrate how they actually insert themselves in a human life. He keeps a firm grip on the content of morals and doctrines even while saying things like this in the chapter on truthfulness:

Surely we have already observed that nature does not know the absolutely “pure” tone, that there are always undertones and overtones forming a chord. A pure color does not occur, but only a mixture of colors. Similarly, a “bare” truthfulness cannot exist. It would be hard and unjust. What exists is living truthfulness, which other elements of the good penetrate and affect.
In other hands, this might be the short road to relativism or complaisance. In Guardini’s, note that it’s other elements of “the good” that also need to be present for a sound virtue of truthfulness to arise.

Perhaps it’s just my years reading Guardini that make me responsive to the beloved master’s voice. But I don’t think so. He says things about forming our characters to virtue here that you would be hard put to find elsewhere. It’s precisely in a wise, humane, steady mind of his sort that a living torch was passed – and might in this new edition be grasped again – to help heal over the abrupt shift the Church underwent in so many ways a half century ago. He’s got the old learning into still fresh wineskins.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, October 24, 2013
The distinctive character of Christian morality was emphasised by Jacques Maritain, when he declared that “Man is not in a state of pure nature, he is fallen and redeemed. Consequently, ethics, in the widest sense of the word, that is, in so far as it bears on all practical matters of human action, politics and economics, practical psychology, collective psychology, sociology, as well as individual morality,—ethics in so far as it takes man in his concrete state, in his existential being, is not a purely philosophic discipline. Of itself it has to do with theology”

In this, he echoes Maurice Blondel, who insisted that we must never forget “that one cannot think or act anywhere as if we do not all have a supernatural destiny. Because, since it concerns the human being such as he is, in concreto, in his living and total reality, not in a simple state of hypothetical nature, nothing is truly complete (boucle), even in the sheerly natural order”
written by Bangwell Putt, October 24, 2013
Fr. Servais Pinckaers, Dr. Josef Pieper: Sunrise came early this morning when I found these names praised at thecatholicthing. (I would add another; one whose writings opened for me a new path, a new way of thinking: Dr. Robert Spaemann). I have not easily found my way through the writings of Romano Guardini but am inspired to make a new and determined effort to do so.

My first reading after morning prayer is always this site. Before reading today, I had on my mind a certain ironic circumstance - that, in searching for material about Advent, the best internet site that I could find came from England. It is an Anglican site which offers, among many fine resources, a beautiful and moving meditation on Advent from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

For Catholics here and everywhere who at least attempt to think along the lines taught by Romano Guardini, loneliness seems unavoidable. I found consolation and companionship in reading and hearing all that is presented at the Anglican site and this in spite of many attempts to participate in Catholic life at the parish level here.

This does remind me of a period of time when my only access to a Catholic form of the Mass was found at a radio broadcast (WCRB) from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Boston.
written by Peter Northcott, October 24, 2013
"More Catholics were probably disturbed by the radical liturgical “reforms” of the 1960s and 1970s than any other single change in the Church."

I think back then it was a genuine concern. Today however, it seems to me when I listen to the liturgical ranters, they use Pope Benedict's work on the liturgy like a fundamentalist hammer to batter those who disagree with them, just like Evangelical Fundamentalists use Scripture for rationalising and justifying something which is actually their preferred taste, rather than something objectively vaild.

To me then, it seems people attend clown Masses to be entertained, and sadly, I would suggest many EF groupies attend EF Masses for exactly the same reason, except it's simply High Culture snobbery at work, and like the Fundamentalist who has 'scripture' on his side - out of context - so too with these 'Traddies' with the Writings of Benedict XVI.

Maybe I'm cynical, but it seems to me it's more a matter of coincidence that what they enjoy aligns with Sacrosanctum Concilium and Benedict, than a love of the fullness of the Christocentric truth behind them, which drives them.

I always think of Leonard Feeney or Michael Voris when I encounter anyone ranting about the Liturgy or 'dissent'.

You can't fault them on paper, as it were. They're 'squeaky clean', just like the irrefutable verses of my Evangelical 'friends', except, like these Evangelicals, they (rightly) respond to the 'Church of Nice', but through making themselves the 'Church of Nasty' in order to prove their point. Both are heresy, to my mind, because both contain truth, but only partially.
written by Bangwell Putt, October 24, 2013
Peter Northcott is offended by self-righteousness in all of its manifestations but particularly when it masquerades as true faith. He is correct in his condemnation of this tendency but, in my opinion, too harsh in the certainty of his judgment of particular persons (I am assuming he has particular persons in mind, i.e., "when I encounter anyone...".

God only can see into the soul. We have a natural and understandable tendency to judge others as if we could "see" as God sees. Christians can and often must condemn certain behaviors but not persons; never persons.
written by Nick Palmer, October 24, 2013
I hope Robert R checks in on today's commbox, as his ideas have led me to a few (probably simple-minded questions). Interestingly, Bangwell's last comments are a nice bridge to my perplexity. I'm not a philosopher, nor have I really studied philosophy or theology. Starting in my late 40's (about a decade ago), I started readings in this area. Perhaps my principal guidance has come from Rev. Schall's books and some email correspondence with him. I've traversed Schall, Sokolowski, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Plato, Augustine and others, and I've hit the wall on JP II.

I recently purchased Bonhoeffer's 'Ethics' at a used book store. I flipped to page 161 in the paperback, read a paragraph and was hooked (only $7.95). Then I went back to the beginning, and am finding it a fairly tough go with my limited background. Bangwell's caution about judgement seems to fit well with Bonhoeffer's discussion of "The Pharisee" in the first chapter -- one I found challenging. Per Robert's piece, DB starts by observing that Catholic ethics actually precedes understanding good and evil, as before The Fall, Adam and Eve knew neither. Now I kinda get this, and kinda don't. I know that when I make myself the arbiter of good and evil, I am "playing God." A bad thing. I actually went back to CS Lewis's 'Perelandra' to steep myself in his portrayal of "the Lady" of Perelandra in a pre-Fall state of communion with God. Helpful to me, but still much confusion.

So, to the question. As an armchair philosopher (Philistine??), which of the books Robert mentions are within my grasp, and in what order? I trust I'm not hopeless... and enjoy stretching my limits. Are there other, perhaps more basic books I ought to look to?

Thanks is advance. I pray that this request is consistent with TCT site rules and regs!
written by Robert Royal, October 24, 2013
Nick: You open up a large field. But the reason I wrote about this book by Guardini is that I think it's an excellent and not too technical intro. You might go from there to Pieper on Virtues. Stop back after that and let's see where you find yourself.
written by Nick Palmer, October 24, 2013
Thanks, Robert! Sounds like a good way to dive in.

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