How can virtue lead us to a healthier politics?
April 18, 2019
When I wrote last month about the purpose of politics, that politics provides a forum for the practice of virtue, I was reminded of a scene from the film “Gladiator.” In the scene the upstart Commodus rejects the four chief virtues his father seeks in an heir: wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. Rather, he lists the virtues with which he has been gifted: ambition, resourcefulness, courage (not on the battlefield), devotion.
I thought of this scene because one of the difficulties we face in our culture is our skewed understanding of virtue. As we attempt to seek a healthier politics, how can we expect a more measured conversation in the public square when other virtues are touted or when the virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance are so thoroughly misunderstood?
Let’s take “justice” for starters. In our society, justice is understood almost exclusively by two terms: “rights” and “equality.” There is reason to associate justice with rights language. However, today rights are almost never associated with responsibilities. The truth is that the classical definition of justice, that is, the consistent choice to give what is due to one’s neighbor and to God, is about obligation to others more than it is about demands we make of others.
“Equality” is used as a kind of synonym for justice, but there are many situations in life where treating two very different people equally is actually unjust. What’s more, equality is too often viewed solely in terms of equality of outcomes instead of equality of opportunity.
This misunderstanding of justice results in the creation of alternative virtues, like those of Commodus. Today rage has become a form of virtue signaling. It certainly gives one a sense of moral righteousness over one’s political opponents. If one is not angry, then that person must be denounced. Recently, Taylor Swift, one of the top performers in the nation, had a birthday and expressed her gratitude and joy over a great 2017. She was roundly mocked, not for expressing the wrong political opinion, but for failing to express anger over the current political regime. Political virtue is now synonymous with rage.
St. Augustine is reported to have said, “The virtue of hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage.” I have never been able to find out where he said this, if he did at all. I have always found it tantalizing. Perhaps there is some truth to it. But today, in the effort to bring about justice here and now, our anger risks harming the humanity of the very people we hope to help. We end up sacrificing justice and charity on the altar of anger, and so hope’s two daughters become ungrateful mongrels (to borrow from Shakespeare’s King Lear) who supplant hope with constant rage.
To have a Catholic imagination about matters political, we need to have a better notion of justice and anger. Romano Guardini, a famous theologian of the last century, once wrote, “Justice is good. It is the foundation of existence. But there is something higher than justice, the bountiful widening of the heart of mercy. Justice is clear, but one step further and it becomes cold.” His words echo those of St. Pope John Paul II, who said in 2004, “By itself, justice is not enough. Indeed, it can even betray itself unless it is open to that deeper power which is love.”
As this new year begins, and with it a sense of renewal, let us all work to focus on virtue by focusing on mercy and love. Let us resolve to give up what makes us unnecessarily angry. Let us latch on, rather, to Christ Jesus, who provisions us with every real hope.
Deacon Omar Gutierrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.