The Continuity of Virtue

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

Dr. 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 A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.