Documentation: Virtue and the Republic—What Catholics Contribute to American Democracy

The great division in America today is not between races, classes or sexes, but between the responsible and the irresponsible—whether our focus is on the marketplace and the workbench, on interpersonal relationships, on reproductive technology, on the political process or the urban underclass.

Indeed, the very idea of “responsibility” has come under great pressure over the past several generations. We hear much in contemporary America about “rights,” but precious little about “responsibilities.” In significant parts of our elite political culture the pursuit of the common good has given way to the quest for virtually unencumbered individual rights.

Nor has this individualistic quest for the radically unfettered self been without public consequences. For its public effect is to reduce America to what some have called a “republic of procedures,” a republic in which the only thing that counts, morally, is our agreement on certain processes of governance and litigation. One would hate to think that the American Republic, which once proclaimed itself a novus ordo seclorum, a “new order of the ages,” had come to this: that the only thing on which we agree are the rules by which we take each other to court. Although we have yet to come to that kind of moral impasse in our common life, I believe we are moving in that direction.

There is an interesting historical analogy that can be drawn between our present circumstances and the situation which our founding fathers confronted shortly after the American Revolution. Under the Articles of Confederation, the new United States had lots of procedures, but no institutions capable of forwarding the common good. As a result, America was coming apart at the seams. There were rebellions in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. New Jersey was threatening war against New York. New England was pondering secession.

The founders and framers, men who but 10 years previously had proclaimed that the “inalienable rights of man” included the right of self-government, saw themselves becoming the laughingstock of the world; as early as the 1780s George Washington worried about “the humiliating and contemptible figure we are about to make in the annals of mankind.”

Their answer to this sorry situation was to call the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia—not simply to write a legal foundation for the country’s central government, important though that was, but also to devise a system of governance that would allow the pursuit of the common good while defending the rights with which they believed “nature and nature’s God” had endowed human beings.

The framers of 1787 did their work of constitutional construction within a set of moral convictions: chief among them, that rights were secured by institutions and by the virtues or moral habits of a people. Indeed, the framers believed that it was precisely virtue which turned what otherwise would be a mob into a people. Put another way, the Constitution of 1787 was rooted in the understanding that self-government requires a people who can govern their individual lives in such a way that their own interest and the common good were simultaneously served.

It would be entirely fallacious, on historical grounds, to suggest that the men who wrote the Constitution of 1787 were personally indebted to Catholic social thought, or indeed had very much of an understanding of the “constitutionalism” of medieval Catholic political theory as developed in particular by St. Thomas Aquinas. Nevertheless, the framers’ political philosophy had important affinities with the classic Catholic understanding of the human person and human society. The political theory of the American Founding stressed human capacities for reflective thought and argument, which led in turn to reflective choice in public life. Similarly, in classic Catholic theory, human beings were characterized precisely by their ability to reflect and to choose. Indeed, classic Catholic social thought understood that we are most like God in our reflecting (“God is light”) and in our choosing (“God is love”).

In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council teaches that liberty in the public order requires the cultivation of that “interior liberty” which is the distinguishing characteristic of the human person (Gaudium et spes, 58). This teaching would have been wholly congenial to the framers who met in Philadelphia in 1787.

It is also a teaching of which Americans today of all political and religious persuasions need reminding. The liberties we enjoy as American citizens can never be taken for granted; and the first line of defense of those liberties lies not in our military might but in ourselves: in the kind of people we are and in the kind of communities we create. Unless rights are reconnected to responsibilities in our common self-understanding as a free people, we run the risk of what Washington in his own time feared: that Americans would be humiliated and contemptible figures in the annals of history.

The Recovery of Community and the Pursuit of Virtue

There are many signs of hope on the contemporary American political-cultural horizon. Prominent among them is the continued generosity of the American people. In 1988, almost $90 billion were given to charitable activities in the United States (and more than half of that sum was given to religious institutions). Whatever else may or may not be said about today’s alleged “culture of greed,” the American people remain the most charitable in human history. A sense of obligation that transcends and transforms self-interest is alive and well in the contemporary United States: as you, the people of this archdiocese, demonstrated so magnificently in your exceptionally generous response to the most recent Archbishop’s Annual Campaign for Progress.

Another sign of hope today is the re-emergence of the theme of “community” in political philosophy. Perhaps in reaction to the “rights-liberalism” of the 1960s and 1970s, rooted as it was in a radical individualism that took the “autonomous self” as the primary measure of human happiness, distinguished political philosophers are paying increased attention to the meaning of and necessity for community if we are to secure the blessings of liberty bequeathed to us through the American Revolution.

This new emphasis on community in American political theory is entirely welcome from a Catholic perspective. Catholic social thought derives from the belief that the human person is created in the image of God, who is triune, a community of divine Persons, a trinity of light and love. Men and women made in the image and likeness of the trinitarian God are men and women who in virtue of their very nature are called into community. Community, in the Catholic understanding of social reality, is not something “added on” after we have secured individual liberties. Community in the Catholic perspective is of the very nature of the human person.

Paradoxically, this classic Catholic understanding lately has been reinforced empirically by the horrific effects of the breakdown of community which confront us in each day’s newspapers. I am thinking in particular here of the crisis of urban life in America, the decay of our cities, the sexual abuse of children by adults, and the emergence of a completely new phenomenon without precedent in American history: a permanent underclass.

We have learned, through a pattern of human tragedy, that some forms of public assistance which tend to erode traditional patterns of community—particularly the family in both its nuclear and extended forms—exacerbate the very social problems they were intended to solve. Across the spectrum of debate on social welfare policy, there is today widespread agreement that the crisis of the underclass cannot be adequately addressed, much less resolved, unless there are new emphases on individual responsibility, the strengthening and maintenance of the family and the inculcation of virtue.

The American experiment requires virtuous individuals, whose disciplining of their own lives creates the moral habits necessary for the great adventure of self-government. And it requires a new birth of public virtue: a new care for the common good, a new recognition that it is only in communities of virtue and character that the rights of individuals are secured.

What do Catholics in America bring to this new debate over community and public virtue? We bring an understanding of virtue, derived from the Christian classics, as a “moral habit” or “moral skill.” Virtues, properly understood, do not exist in some vague realm of abstraction. They exist in individual human persons and in the human communities that nurture those persons. Virtues, private or public, thus require both definition and development. All of us, as individuals and as a community, grow into virtue.

Catholic Contribution

We bring an understanding of the human person as an individual ordered, by his or her very nature, to the pursuit of the common good. All of us—in our family life, in our work, in our participation in culture, and in our participation in public life—are called to seek the good of all, as well as our own individual good. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “the obligations of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to the common good, according to his own abilities and the needs of others, also promotes and assists the public and private institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life” (Lumen gentium, 30).

We Catholics also bring to the ecumenical, interreligious, and civic debate over the right-ordering of our lives, loves, and loyalties a short list of those “cardinal virtues” which the Christian tradition has deemed crucial to the pursuit of the common good. Those “cardinal virtues” are usually understood to be prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.

By “prudence” we mean that moral skill which allows us to know our moral duty and to discern the concrete ways in which that duty is to be accomplished. According to Holy Scripture, the prudent man or woman is one who can interpret his or her specific situation in light of the Lord’s will for His people; the prudent believer keeps watch, ever-mindful of his or her own human frailty and ever-expecting the coming of the Lord in glory (Psalm 90:12; Matthew 25:1-13; 1 John 4:1ff.). In the civic tradition of the West, at least since Aristotle, prudence has also been understood to be the chief political virtue. Prudence teaches us that public moral decision-making is to be conceived more on the analogy of a conductor interpreting a symphonic score than on the analogy of an engineer factoring an algebraic equation. Prudence teaches us, in other words, that the moral life is an art as well as a science. Prudence is the moral skill that allows us, as a community and as individuals, to choose wisely and to bring the skills of human reason, informed by grace, to bear on complex issues of public policy.

Prudence, viewed from another angle, is not a matter of splitting the difference between contending positions. Rather, it is the virtue which allows us to live amidst the inevitable ambiguities and uncertainties of life. Jacques Maritain, the great Catholic philosopher and layman, once reflected that moral theorists were “unhappy people. When they insist on the immutability of moral principles, they are reproached for imposing unlivable requirements on us. When they explain the way in which those immutable principles are to be put into force, they are reproached for making morality relative. In both cases, however, they are only upholding the claims of reason to direct life” (Man and the State). Through the development of the virtue of prudence, this “unhappiness” can be transformed into a measure of Christian joy.

“Justice,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is the moral skill by which human beings have “a firm and constant will to render each his due.” This “will to render each his due” operates through what traditionally have been termed commutative justice (what we owe each other in contractual obligations), distributive justice (how we order the goods of this world), and legal justice (the institutions and processes by which society pursues the common good). James Cardinal Gibbons’ support of the nascent American labor movement in the late nineteenth century, the “Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction” in 1919, and the leadership taken by many Catholic bishops in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s were examples of the Church’s efforts to help advance all three of these forms of justice in American society.

Championing Democracy

We should also note here one of the striking developments of Catholic social thought in our time: the magisterium’s emphasis on democratic forms of governance as the most effective institutional expression under modern conditions of a legal justice which acknowledges those basic human rights and responsibilities which are to be secured by the moral skills of commutative and distributive justice. The 1986 “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation,” for example, taught that “there can only be authentic development in a social and political system which respects freedoms and fosters them through the participation of everyone” (no. 95). Pope John Paul II has taken the discussion a step further by urging, in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, that nations “need to reform certain unjust structures, and in particular their political institutions, in order to replace corrupt, dictatorial and authoritarian forms of government by democratic and participatory ones” (no. 44). The pope’s challenge was directed in the first instance to the countries of the developing world, but his words bear reflection in the established democracies as well.

“Fortitude” is the moral skill by which we stand firm in hope against the pressures and fears of this life. Fortitude calls us to courage; but fortitude linked to prudence helps us to discern the difference between the truly courageous and the merely foolhardy. Fortitude armed the great civil rights movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s; fortitude was the moral skill by which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took up the yoke of leadership, knowing (as has been made clear by his recent biographers) that such leadership could well be at the cost of his life. Fortitude has also been a virtue sustaining the right-to-life movement in its persistent defense of the unborn. Against the intense pressures mounted by virtually all of the major opinion-shaping centers of our culture, the right-to-life movement has insisted that the abortion license as defined by Roe v. Wade does not settle the issue—a judgement which has been vindicated on its own merits as well as in the court of public opinion. It is my prayer that this fortitude will be vindicated in our state legislature.

Finally, there is “temperance,” the moral skill by which we learn to control our passions and emotions by reason and to order those passions and emotions to the common good. Temperance does not require us to be public scolds. Nor does it, properly understood, lead us to reject the goods of this life. Rather, temperance teaches us moderation as consumers, chastity in sexual relationships and modesty in all things. Temperate individuals are essential for the responsible society, the “society of solidarity.” And a public moral culture that prizes temperance is essential in the grand adventure of self-government.

The Catholic tradition reminds us that we live the moral life, as individuals and as a community, by grace, and not simply by our wits alone. Through grace—the outpouring of God’s life and love through the workings of the Holy Spirit—we live in both the City of Man and the City of God. We have here no abiding dwelling (see Hebrews 13:14), but we are called to build here a city fit for God’s people. Because we live in the City of God by faith, hope and love, we are freed—in the fullest sense of human freedom—to be of service to the City of Mankind.

The tradition of the Catholic Church affirms, in other words, that politics is not the most important reality; the Kingdom of Christ, which is to come in glory at a time of the Father’s choosing, is. But Christian faith in the final triumph of God’s will and purpose is not an excuse for indifference or sectarian withdrawal. We are called, in charity but also in truth, to the public square where the public’s business is debated and decided. The Christian layperson, convinced of the Father’s good pleasure in regard to the people He has called into being, can take up the burden of politics with a sense of proportion. Through baptism, Christians already live in an anticipatory way in the light and love of the Triune God. That reality of faith calls the laity to assume public responsibilities without making politics the final measure of the human good. In a century scarred by totalitarianism—the claim that the state is omnicompetent—Christian understandings of the limits of the political serve an important cautionary function: they put boundaries on coercive state power, and thus open up the possibilities of a politics of consent. Conversely, the classic Catholic claim that grace builds on nature orders us to a politics which is open to the critique of transcendent moral norms, a politics which knows that the state exists to serve society, a politics which promotes the common good while defending the inalienable rights of all people.

Virtue, Pluralism and Democratic Civility

Renewing the American experiment in ordered liberty requires, finally, that we deepen our understanding of the meaning of pluralism and its relationship to democratic civility.

To call America a “pluralistic society” is, in one sense, a matter of simple empirical accuracy. Television, telephones, Fax machines, interactive computer terminals and all the other artifacts of modern communications technology notwithstanding, America has not become homogenized. Regional vocabularies endure; so do patterns of ethnic identity, be they ex¬ pressed in music, dance, crafts or cooking. Americans are truly e pluribus unum—”one out of many”—as one of the mottos on our currency puts it.

But when we speak of American “pluralism,” we are referring generally to something other than the sheer fact of our racial, ethnic, religious and political diversity. We are, or we ought to be, talking about one of our qualities as a democratic people going about the business of ordering our common life. We are, or we ought to be, talking about a moral commitment we have made to each other: a moral commitment to engage our deepest differences within the bond of democratic civility.

In this sense, we misunderstand genuine pluralism if we equate it with indifference to those differences or with mere tolerance of minority opinions on matters of public policy. America is called not simply to toleration but to a true pluralism. And pluralism is not just the acknowledgement of differences, but their engagement in a vibrant and civil public debate. The paradox of pluralism lies in that we discover our unity more fully and at a deeper level when we engage our differences and work through them in a civil manner.

It is no offense against genuine pluralism, then, to argue that virtue is central to the life of the American Republic. The true offense against pluralism, and against democratic civility, lies in one of two directions: either in the imposition of radically secularized norms of behavior on the entire community or, perhaps even worse, in a bored indifference to the claims to truth which others of our fellow citizens are pressing in the public square. It is precisely in plumbing the depths of our own religious and philosophical tradition on this matter of public virtue—and in challenging our fellow-countrymen to a similar process of self-examination—that we transcend “pluralism” as a mere description of empirical reality, and make our most important contribution to pluralism as an attribute of the national character.

Will we be a people hospitable to the most defenseless among us? Will we be a people who once again decide to expand rather than contract the boundaries of the community of the commonly protected? Will we be a people who have understood that the quest for radical autonomy, for a life in which we are freed from the consequence of our actions, is in truth a quest for bondage and enslavement? Will we be a people who affirm in our culture and in our law that rights cannot be secured unless responsibilities are assumed and borne?

We do not offend against genuine pluralism or democratic civility by pressing these questions onto the public agenda, doing so with charity but also with a firm commitment to the truth. Indeed, if the founders and framers were right that the survival of republican democracy rests on the character of the people, we serve the republic by our insistence in and out of season that these questions be forthrightly engaged. We must continue to work for the right-to-life of the unborn, as we work for the dignity of all men and women regardless of age, race or class, because God wills it. But we also take up that task because we respect and honor our fellow citizens and wish our country to be true to her most endearing qualities.

  • Most Rev. J. Francis Stafford

    James Francis Stafford (born July 26, 1932) is an American cardinal of the Catholic Church. He served as Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary from 2003 to 2009. He previously served as President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (1996–2003), Archbishop of Denver (1986–96), Bishop of Memphis (1982–86), and Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore (1976–82). He was elevated to the cardinalate by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...