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The Fading of Three Christian Virtues

Christianity brought three new virtues into the ancient Greco-Roman world: chastity, humility, and love of neighbor. Without them, life in our Western world would have been quite different.

(1) Before Christianity, chastity had been a virtue – a feminine virtue only. Men were expected to be temperate in their sexual activities, but not truly chaste. It wouldn’t be held against a man that he committed fornication, or visited a brothel; and not much held against him if he committed adultery or had homosexual relations with a slave. But if he neglected military or political duties because he was distracted by an adulterous affair – that would be held against him.

By contrast, it was very shameful for an unmarried woman to lose her virginity and for a married woman to have sexual relations with anybody except her husband – except in Sparta, where women were free to commit adultery in order to help populate the city. Lucretia was a model Roman woman. She was so chaste that she committed suicide rather than live with the shame of having been raped.

So when Christianity made chastity a virtue, it was not introducing an entirely new virtue into the world. Rather, it was universalizing what had been a merely feminine virtue. It was making chastity a virtue for men as well as for women. This was something new.

Despite the insistence of modern feminists that Christianity, especially Christianity in its Catholic form, is a masculine religion (a “patriarchal” religion), a good case can be made that Christianity is a highly feminized religion. A religion that promotes chastity, a feminine virtue, to the status of a universal virtue, and a very high virtue at that, can hardly be called a masculine religion.

Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1533 [National Gallery, London]
Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1533 [National Gallery, London]

(2) Humility had been found in the world prior to the coming of Christianity. But it was not a virtue. It was simply an attitude appropriate for a slave. If you were a slave (and slavery was very widespread in the Greco-Roman world), you were a lowly person, at the bottom of the social ladder. Your status was humble, and unless you were totally unrealistic you adopted an attitude appropriate to your status. If you did not have an attitude of humility, you were an annoyance to your social betters, or you were laughable.

Christianity converted humility, this slave-like attitude, into a virtue; and not just a virtue of slaves but a universal virtue, a virtue appropriate to all persons, even the most socially exalted. Rich men and aristocrats and even emperors were expected by Christianity to be humble. You may be a great man or great woman in comparison to other Greeks and Romans, but you were nothing in comparison to God. The gap in dignity between God and humans was so immense (in fact, it was infinite) that the finite gaps in dignity between the higher and lower classes counted for little. The Christian was nothing more, and nothing less, than the slave of God. And slaves must practice humility.

(3) In pre-Christian days people were expected to love their neighbors, or at least to love their fellow-townsmen. But this was a love based on the principle of reciprocity. That is, I would be generous to you in the expectation that you would, in turn, be generous to me. But Christianity introduced a new kind of generosity, a non-reciprocal kind. As a Christian you were expected to be generous to others even without the expectation that you would be paid back. Of course, you might expect to be paid back in Heaven, but on earth you did good to others without any expectation of return payment. This at least was the ideal. This was the new Christian virtue of charity.

In modern societies, societies for example like the United States, in which a de-Christianization process is advancing rapidly, we might expect to see a decline in these three old Christian virtues. And we are seeing exactly that.

Apart from a relatively small number of holdouts here and there, chastity has ceased to be a virtue. Today’s dominant culture believes in the opposite of chastity: sexual freedom. And sexual freedom is promoted almost everywhere: in the mass media, in schools and colleges (for example, the community college where I teach distributes free condoms), and above all in the entertainment industry. To be sure, sexual prudence is encouraged: don’t spread disease, don’t get pregnant unless you want to. But sexual prudence, meritorious though it is in certain ways, is a far cry from chastity. We Americans today are at least as unchaste as were the ancients prior to the coming of Christianity.

The virtue of humility has not vanished from modern society as completely as chastity, but it’s on the wane. Humility as a virtue makes little sense apart from a vivid belief in God, and since our collective belief in God is growing weaker, so is our belief in the value of humility. We teach children to feel “proud of themselves,” in the belief that high levels of pride (or self-esteem, as we usually prefer to call it) will lead to achievement. We have Gay Pride parades every summer in every large city in America. More and more we think of humility, not as a great virtue, but as an unfortunate state of mind.

We still admire selfless love of neighbor – which is evidence, perhaps, that Christian morality has not totally disappeared from our world. But even here there is a decline. Many of us have redefined love of neighbor as tolerance. I show my love for my fellow citizens by tolerating whatever he may choose to do or to say, provided he does not obvious and tangible harm to another. Now, this kind of tolerance is not without merit, but it bears little resemblance to Christian charity.

What will a society that lacks these Christian virtues look like? We’re already pretty far into the experiment, and it isn’t pretty.

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.

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