Courage, or fortitude, is one of that very special group of four virtues known as the cardinal virtues, the other three being prudence, justice, and temperance. They are called “cardinal” because of the foundational status they have with respect to all the other virtues. All the other virtues directly depend on them, and indeed are but more specialized exemplifications of one or another of them. The particular role played by the virtue of courage in the moral life, a very important one to be sure, is to enable us successfully to cope with the emotion of fear.
That fear can be a very powerful emotion goes without saying. So long as it is kept under the control of reason, it offers no problems; in fact, if properly controlled, it can actually be of positive benefit to us. Fear guided by reason is a fear that is directed toward something which is fully deserving of being feared. It is only when fear gains the ascendency in our lives, when fear itself, rather than reason, becomes the controlling factor, that we find ourselves in a very problematic state of affairs.
|Stoning of St. Stephen|
One of the direct and most troublesome effects of a fear which is in charge of our lives is that it inhibits, or even cancels completely, right action. Because of fear, we either hesitate to do, do half-heartedly, or simply fail to do, what it is our duty to do. We effectively abdicate our responsibility as moral agents. We succumb to moral cowardice. Now, none of us likes to be thought of as cowardly, and least of all do we want to think of ourselves as such, so what happens when fear becomes the controlling factor in our lives is that we become masters of rationalization. We manage to convince ourselves that what is clearly our duty is not really all that important; we anesthetize our sense of responsibility toward the tasks which go hand in hand with our state of life. Then the psychological games we play with ourselves become yet more complicated, for in order not to admit to ourselves how we are trafficking in rationalization, we distract ourselves, and attempt to distract others as well, by engaging in all sorts of busy-work which is in fact inconsequential, for it is activity which only serves as an escapist substitute for the activity we should be engaging in.
|At the Fountain|
Sad to say, there has been a noticeable lack of courage in the Church over recent decades, at all levels. What each of us needs to remind himself, getting down to the basics, is that there is a necessary connection between faith and courage. Someone who does not think it takes courage to be a Christian simply does not understand Christianity, is a complete stranger to the mystery of the cross. I am not speaking here of that heroic brand of courage which may culminate in physical martyrdom, but rather the rather plain, undramatic, day to day courage which is essential to living the Christian life as it ought to be lived. Beyond that elementary kind of courage, which must be part and parcel of the life of every serious Christian, there is a more demanding kind of courage required of the leaders in the Church, those whose special task, besides living the faith in an exemplary way (that would be part of their responsibility as leaders), is to teach, to defend, and actively spread the faith. It is especially this kind of courage which has been markedly lacking in recent times. Why is this so? There are, it seems to me, two basic reasons.
|Anxiety of St. Joseph|
The first reason comes down to a matter of human respect. Human respect might be described as an exaggerated, and therefore debilitating, regard for the opinions of others. We all like to be liked, and that is not a crime in itself. But if our desire to be liked, to be pleasing to and approved by our peers or by the powers-that-be in our society, takes precedence over the solemn duty we have to teach the faith clearly and without compromise, to speak out boldly and fearlessly in defense of the faith, then we are in a very bad way. We must be courageous. We must cease to be mealy-mouthed accommodationists, foolishly believing that there can be any benefits whatever in compromising the faith in order to be smiled upon by the world. We must wake up to the fact that we live in a society whose general tenor is no longer Christian, far from it; it is a society which, at least in some of its components, is actively and even militantly anti-Christian. He who thinks he can drive a bargain with the Devil will sooner or later be gobbled up by the Devil.
In identifying the second reason for the lack of courage which we find in the Church today I would begin simply by recalling a common phrase, “the courage of one’s convictions.” To have the courage of one’s convictions is to stand up for and staunchly defend what one believes in. It is an altogether admirable trait, and I think we even tend to admire people, albeit not without some ambivalence at times, who go to bat for their opinions even though those opinions, taken in themselves, may not be all that admirable. But if the object of our convictions is the Christian faith, then it should be all the more clear how important it is for us courageously to put our lives on the line for the sake of those convictions. For here it is not merely a matter of “our opinion,” but God’s own truth. What would be, from a psychological point of view, a rather obvious explanation for why many Christians today do not have the courage of their convictions? Would it not be that their convictions are not really convictions, or at least not very strong ones? It seems so. In short, then, the reason why many of us today lack the courage to fully live out our faith can be accounted for, in the final analysis, by the weakness of our faith. People do not rush to the ramparts for things they believe only tepidly, much less for things they do not believe at all.
D. Q. McInerny, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary