Father Robert Barron

Displaying heroic virtue is what makes a saint a saint

Sunday, April 10, 2011


and Culture

As the date of John Paul II’s beatification draws nearer, some have raised objections concerning the late pope’s sanctity. They wonder, for example, how the pope who reigned during the clergy sex-abuse crisis and who supported Father Marcel Maciel, the corrupt founder of the Legionaries of Christ, could possibly be honored as blessed.

Now whether John Paul was in any sense truly culpable in regard to the scandal or to Maciel, I will leave for another day. I want simply to make the point that the declaration of a person’s blessedness or sanctity has nothing directly to do with his (or her) practical judgments. For example, I can enthusiastically affirm with the church that Pope Pius V was a saint, even as I contend that his decision to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth I was a disaster.

So what precisely does the church mean when it solemnly proclaims that someone is a blessed or a saint? It means that the person in question exhibited in the course of his life virtue to a “heroic” degree. And what exactly is virtue? The church has identified the “cardinal” virtues of justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude and the “theological” virtues of faith, hope and love. For the Catholic Church therefore, a saint is not, primarily, someone who has seen visions or performed miracles or exhibited flawless practical judgment, but rather someone who has remarkably embodied these moral and spiritual excellences.

Therefore, in order to understand sanctity, we have to delve a bit more deeply into the meaning of the virtues. Let us begin with the most fundamental of the cardinal virtues, namely, justice. Plato characterized justice as “rendering to each his due,” giving to each person what is properly owed to him or her. Thus, I am performing an act of justice in writing this article, for I have contracted with various publications to produce a column a week. Similarly, when a Catholic attends Mass, he is acting justly, since he owes God praise and thanksgiving.

In order to be instantiated in the concrete situation, justice requires the virtue of prudence. Prudence has nothing to do with “prudishness;” it is rather a feel for the right or just thing to do here and now. A great quarterback like Brett Favre exhibited a kind of prudence throughout his career in the measure that he was able so effectively to “read” a defense and make just the right decision to pass or to scramble or to call an audible. The morally prudent man or woman is able to discern in the ever shifting and complex circumstances of the moment exactly what to do in order to achieve justice.

Now the doing of justice can be threatened by external dangers. Thus the soldier who knows that the right action is to stand his post and fight finds himself overwhelmed by fear. Or the politician who knows that justice requires him to pass a given law but finds himself afraid of losing the upcoming election if he casts an affirmative vote. Both of these figures require the cardinal virtue of courage, which is the capacity to withstand external pressures that militate against doing the right thing.

By the same token, justice can be threatened by internal opposition, that is, resistance coming from within the moral subject himself. Thus, a woman who knows that she shouldn’t drink excessively is nonetheless compromised by her excessive desire for alcohol. Or the man who strives to be faithful to his wife is undone by his disordered sexual passion. Both would require the fourth of the cardinal virtues which is temperance. Again, this has nothing to do with a fussy puritanism; rather, it is the virtue by which a person moderates and controls the often unruly impulses within that work at cross purposes to justice.

These virtues were recognized by the classical philosophers and they were given the designation “cardinal” (from the Latin cardo, meaning “hinge”), for they are the excellences upon which the entire moral life turns. In principle, any person of good will, from any religious or non-religious background, could appreciate the central importance of these qualities. Now the church has taught that these ethical virtues are completed, elevated and perfected by the three “theological” virtues, so called because they flow, not from reason, but from revelation. St. Paul identified them in his first letter to the Corinthians as “faith, hope and love.”

Faith is not irrational credulity or superstition. It is not, if you will, below reason, but rather above reason. Faith is the surrender of the entire person to the God who has revealed himself; it is that attitude of trust in God which is on display in Abraham, Isaiah, Jeremiah, David, Peter and Paul. Faith is that virtue which allows one to say “my life is not about me” and “there is a power already at work in me which can do infinitely more than I can ask or imagine.” Hope is closely tied to faith, for it is the virtue that enables one to look beyond this world to a fulfillment and peace on high with God. From a purely natural perspective, pessimism seems the right frame of mind, for everything in this world passes away. None of our achievements, friendships or institutions will last. Hope is the virtue that enables us to recognize the presence and activity of God in, through and ultimately beyond the evanescent things of this age.

And love, which is the greatest of the theological virtues precisely because it is identical to God’s own life, is the willing of the good of the other as other. Most of us are kind to others that they might be kind in turn to us. Or we practice justice so that others will be just in return. But these aren’t moves of love; they are strategies of indirect egotism.

To love is to break out of the black hole of one’s own selfishness and truly want what is good for someone else. It is none other than a participation in the being of God, who makes the world and sustains it even though it adds nothing to his perfection. Faith, hope and love invade the cardinal virtues and radicalize them without suppressing them.

To be a saint is to have lived all of these virtues to an heroic degree. Is John Paul II a saint? You tell me.