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Our Mirror of Virtue: A Meditation on Christian Morality

Our Mirror of Virtue: A Meditation on Christian Morality
Br. Frederick Cutter, OblSB
Knights of Columbus Council 2838
Lector Reading for 20 May 2014

“Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it” (G.K. Chesterton, “Tom Jones and Morality”, All Things Considered, September 2, 1915).

Morality comes from the Latin moralitas – for character of proper behavior – the sum of a man’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions which forms the conscience. We evaluate this character in ourselves, each other, and entire civilizations. But by what standard do we evaluate morality?

Modern society reduced morality to an egocentric, subjective statement: “My morality shouldn’t be judged so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” This statement presupposes three fallacies. First, that morality is defined by individual choice. Second, that the basis for its merit is whether it harms a social order. Third, that moral or immoral action should not be judged.

We don’t invent our own morality any more than we invent our own numbers or colors. Those who invent their own moral code either parallel existing moral laws and virtues, such as the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, the cardinal virtues, or they perpetrate crimes against each other, against society, against humanity. Moral truth is inscribed upon the very nature of the human conscience – it is why society has always sought to legislate itself. We don’t invent morality for it is already present as an intrinsic, genetic part of what we are in our creation.

“It doesn’t hurt anyone else” – the issue of harm to a social order. Running the red light at traffic intersections risks property damage, injury, and death. Straightforward legislation: running red lights is wrong because it disrupts an order established for the safety and welfare of society. Take a situation with zero traffic: Does the action still violate social order, or “hurt anyone else?” Tried in a legal setting, the defense of subjective morality’s lack of harm to others would not get very far with a judge and jury.

Perhaps the issue is the tenability of society’s moral norms. Society is an extension of the individual. Can society be any less fallible than the individual? What’s frightening is not that men like Hitler sought to rule the world through a regime of murder, but that he recruited your average next door neighbor to be his willing executioner. Societies can just as often become criminals against humanity, for they have murdered more than two hundred million people within living memory.

The obvious fallacy in the statement is that we should not judge immorality. We must determine by what standard moral virtue should be defined. This concept is anathema, scandalous, offensive to many in today’s world, to people who wish to live immorally without the inconvenience of judgment. But we should judge rightness of character with the same conviction of a mathematics instructor who is correct, if not obligated, to tell a student: “your answers are incorrect, they are wrong.” Have we no less duty to our fellow man to do the same with moral actions? Yet we see enraged eyes when we point out: “this action, this position you have taken is by its very nature immoral. It is wrong.” Modern society demands we stand idly by and watch as it destroys itself with its immorality while trumpeting accusations that we are intolerant, narrow minded, judgmental. We should be intolerant, narrow minded, and judgmental of immorality, with the same fervor of an academic that refuses to tolerate incorrect work.

By what standards do we make such bold assertions? Not individual, moral subjectivism. Not society, which is just as prone to fallibility as the individual. We judge against the source of our conscience, the natural law intrinsic to creation that governs everything from the mathematical precision of physical equations to the behavior of our interactions with ourselves and each other.

The standards of natural law in our behavior have been known throughout history as the classical cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence provides men sound reasoning and wisdom for discerning the truth. Justice moderates behavior. Fortitude provides the courage to act rightly even in the face of opposition. Temperance restrains the fulfillment of destructive desires. These virtues mirror our Creator’s nature: “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) and form the foundation for our claim to human equality in the Declaration of Independence, for our trial of war criminals at Nuremburg, for our examination of conscience, for the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity that transcend human nature.

The immoral man is often quick to praise, even admire those who espouse the virtuous life, and quick to ridicule those who similarly represent their antithesis. This contradiction, this inconsistency of the immoral man’s character itself speaks volumes and testifies to the truth of natural law.

Let the words of the Apostle echo in our hearts and overpower the obscenities and slanders we endure as we defend moral virtue in a society beset with crumbling values: “Have I now become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16).

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