Friday, August 26, 2005

Politics & the Four Cardinal Virtues

Another priest and I were out to dinner tonight, and after I told him about this talk I gave earlier this month, he suggested I put it on my "blog." So here it is.

When Fr. Reutter invited me to do this, he suggested I talk about “faith and politics.”

Now, I have a theory about why he did that. Partly, it’s because I used to work in politics.

But I think it’s because he’s heard some of my political ideas, and I suspect--no, I know--he thinks they are half-baked; and he hopes a talk like this will make me “bake” them a little better—which is true!

Or, maybe I’ll say something crazy, and liven up what can be a dry topic!

As you may know, I’m the new pastor of St. Boniface in Piqua; I was ordained two years ago. As mentioned, I used to work in politics. Remember the “Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy”? I was in it up to my eyeballs! I’m still in it up to about my ankles!

I worked in Washington, D.C., for a group called the National Right to Work Committee. “Right to Work” is the principle that no one should be forced to join or support a union as a job requirement. I believe that as important as the right to form unions, and to act collectively, is, it doesn’t make sense
unless it’s about workers’ rights as individuals as well as their rights collectively.

When I decided to enter the seminary, I left that job, of course; but at that time, I took on leadership in a prolife group, the National Pro-Life Alliance.

If you’ve gotten a prolife mailing from a “Martin Fox,” that’s I!

Some friends and I saw a need, back in 1994, for a new prolife effort,
and we formed the Pro-Life Alliance. When I entered the seminary, my friends asked me to head it up; I said, I can only give a few hours a month, they said fine; the Archbishop said OK, and I’m still at it.

“Faith and politics” is a tricky subject, because when it comes to how objective moral norms intersect with practical, prudential judgments, politics is Grand Central Station—they all come together there.

Since I only have 10 minutes, let me use, as a framework, the classic, four Cardinal Virtues: Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude.

Now, “politics,” broadly, is the business of the good of society: the Common Good.

Justice is the virtue of doing what’s right, “To each his due.” For the one, for groups, for the whole. So, justice is individual and social: I can mistreat you on an individual level; or, society as a whole may fail, in justice, to a person or group, in its midst.

The trouble we get into, with questions of justice, is to forget the virtue of prudence!

Prudence is practical wisdom about the means pursued. Thomas called it “wisdom about human affairs.”

Justice says: the poor must not be forgotten; prudence asks, given experience, history, etc.: what is the best means of doing that?

Notice: you can tip too far either way: in discussing poverty and economic justice, sometimes it’s all justice, no prudence. But the conservative-libertarian point of view can be all prudence, no justice!

Now, my order so far betrays my bias, and the bias we often have: I put Justice first; but St. Thomas put prudence first: Prudence is the “commander” of the other virtues!

One of Aquinas’ concerns is always balance, including balance in reason and passion. Passion isn’t bad, it’s good: it is what, in us, pursues something good, or flees something evil.

But passion is not its own justification. Yet it seems that way for many people, doesn’t it?

That brings us to the other two virtues: Temperance and fortitude. They apply reason to passion: one holds us back, as needed; the other pushes us, as needed. (By the way, I owe a debt here to a web-site I found online, called “The 60-Second Aquinas Lesson.” Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated in a few years!)

Some will say, “abortion’s bad, but don’t change laws, just change hearts.” Justice—and, I think, Prudence—says, No, the Law is a Teacher, and a repository of values.

I submit that argument is really a lack of fortitude, masquerading as “prudence.”

Now, of course, we can talk specifics, but at least take away from tonight, this framework:

* What is right, what is each ones due? Justice;
* When passion impels us forward, what bids us hold back? Temperance;
* Our passions draw us back; why go forward? Fortitude;
* What is the right means, in light of circumstances, experience, human realities, possibilities and limitations? Prudence.

Now, prudence and justice easily fit a group-focus, where fortitude and temperance may seem more about the individual.

But again, balance: and this is the political question: what belongs on the “group” level; and what belongs on the individual level? (By the way, that is the Church’s principle of subsidarity!)

Can virtue only be on one level, or the other? No—has to be both: and that’s why we must be involved; that’s the flaw of saying, keep religion out of politics. No, we bring them into politics and the marketplace.

Two final thoughts for reflection.

First, Pope John Paul made a distinction between “the state” and “society”—they aren’t the same!

Second: keep in mind the virtue of humility, and beware of idolatry.

And I’ll stop here.


Anonymous said...

A very prudent sermon, Father!

BTW, you asked what I specifically liked about last Sunday's sermon and I didn't make it back here to reply (once I start roaming around St. Blog's parish, I can get pretty distracted:-)

Well, I liked this reminder that the Church can stray off path but that the Helper always comes:

When the pope wasn’t being bold enough,
here comes St. Catherine of Siena!
here comes a Little Flower, a St. Francis, a St. Benedict;
Jesus never forgets his promise to his Church!

Also, I like your emphasis on humility. We rightly criticize secular humanists who have decided to play God, but that doesn't mean terrible acts have not been committed by people who were and are sure that God is in their back pockets. We must always be on guard against self-righteousness. (A good reminder for me, since I can really get up on my high horse once I lose my temper! Once I see the rightness or wrongness of a position, well, why can't everybody see it? Are they stupid? Blind? ;-))


mrsdarwin said...

What a great talk! I think I'll post a link.

I'd be fascinated to hear more about your work with the Right to Work group.

Fr Martin Fox said...

mrs darwin:

Well, perhaps I'll post about Right to Work sometime -- Labor Day is approaching!

Meanwhile, you can find a link to the National Right to Work Committee on my page.

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

I was pleasantly surprised by the balanced and scholarly treatment you gave here. Good job.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Why would you be "pleasantly surprised"? Didn't think I had it in me, huh? :-)