Virtues, powers, and authorities

Every now and again the thought comes to me that we don’t talk much about “virtue” any more. The next thought is always about how important the virtues are. So from time to time I think of the “powers” or “authorities” that are given Jesus Christ’s disciples to navigate the depths and shoals of a secularizing culture.

The powers that take us deepest into our secularizing culture are the theological virtues. We have the power to grasp God’s constant creating of all things great and small. We have the authority to declare that the evils humankind now suffer grow directly out of our pride, selfishness, and hatreds – and to call them sins against God and one another. And we also have the authority to announce the Good News that God is creating each of the seven billion persons now alive, and Jesus Christ shed His blood for each person now alive. This is the power of faith – a very great power in a secularizing culture.

Were we endowed only with faith, we could be severely tempted to despair. Just look with clear eyes at the horrible mess we have made of our lives and our earth. But by God’s great goodness, we are also given the power to hope for a better life. We can declare authoritatively that we will remain faithful to a spouse through light and dark, joy and failure. This is the power and authority of hope.

And above all, we have been endowed with the power and authority to look at every other human person and see dignity and holiness – even when the person we are looking at is encrusted with violence or misery, or sunk in ignorance or animosity towards us. When I was teaching high school decades ago, one of the boys complained that I was expecting too much of them. He blurted out in class, “Aw sir, you think we’re better than we do.” That gave me an assurance that I was on the right way.

That way makes a demand of the gift of love that is given to us. It demands that we love even our enemies and those who hurt us. Our power is to declare from our hearts that Jesus Christ is a brother to every single human being, even to our enemies. This gives us the genuine joy of feeling that “Appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love,” as Pope Francis puts it in The Joy of the Gospel (274). This sounds like optimism – until you really try to apply the power and authority.

I guess that during Lent of 2015, I’ll be spending time reflecting on the “virtues.” There are plenty other powers and authorities given to us, and they are like the muscles of our frame. If we exercise them and call on them, they grow stronger. If we don’t – well, they are still there, waiting.

This is a pious thought. So the power and authority of “piety” is next.