The various virtues — courage, compassion, generosity, and so on — still ring well in the secular ear. But the secular world’s interest in the meaning behind these positive sounding words is minimal.
Hypocrisy, as we have been told many times, is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. The various virtues — courage, compassion, generosity, and so on — still ring well in the secular ear. But the secular world’s interest in the meaning behind these positive sounding words is minimal. It is enamored with sparkle and apathetic about substance.
St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas warned against counterfeit virtues. They made it easy, however, for us to distinguish a true virtue from its imposter. All moral virtues, they explained, flow from love. If love is not present, neither is virtue.
The ancient root of the word "courage" is cor, which in Latin refers to the heart, a symbol of love. "Courage" without love is simply not courage. Another Latin word, fortitudo (from which we derive the cardinal virtue of fortitude), brings out the strength that courage must possess. But courage must possess both strength and love at the same time.
Everyone wants to be seen as having courage these days, but the term, unfortunately, has been grossly politicized and, as a result, thoroughly trivialized. Consider three recent recipients of "The Courageous Resister Award": James Pendergraft, a Florida physician who "courageously" continued performing late-term abortions in the face of strong public opposition; Dr. Wayne Goldner, who continued to provide abortions at a hospital even after it had come under the auspices of the Catholic Church; and the Rev. Gregory Dell, whose ministry was revoked by the United Methodist Church when he violated church law in presiding over the "marriage" of two men.
Praising another person for being courageous is always complimentary. But is it always justifiable? Does it attest to love in action? Or is it merely an opportunity to promote a cause by canonizing a hero?
The three award-winners mentioned above did stick to their guns, so to speak; they went ahead and did what they thought to be right under stressful circumstances. But stubborn, insensitive, fanatical people do the same. We must be more circumspect about our use of the word "courage."
A bishop should love his flock and allow courage to flow from his heart so that he can fulfill his episcopal responsibilities. Bishop Henry is the epitome of true courage: an expression of love in the face of danger for the purpose of serving what is good. The elements of love and goodness are essential to the true meaning of courage.
Courage poses another problem because people, by and large, regard it as the most dramatic, dazzling, and desirable of all the virtues. No one, at the present time, is giving out awards for humility. We have no best-seller entitled Profiles of Humility or The Humility To Be. This low-key virtue falls under the radar. It lacks pizzazz. Nonetheless, as various Doctors of the Church have pointed out, humility is the most important and most elementary of all the virtues, indeed, the "Mother of all Virtues."
"Courage" without humility is self-serving, reckless, and dangerous. Another problem with courage is that people believe that it is unusual. Therefore, any demonstration of courage deserves a special gala and an award presentation. Yet courage is as common as are love and goodness. Therefore, it is an everyday occurrence, expressed in a myriad of non-award-winning ways between family members, neighbors, and even strangers.
Courage is a beautiful virtue. But it is the one that is most publicly celebrated, and therein lies its danger. In the hands of the politically oriented, courage can easily be bent out of shape and used in this distorted form for political purposes. What we need to remember, above all, is that true virtue is personal. It belongs to and fulfills the virtuous human person and therefore does not require any public accolade.
Donald. "Courage." Lay Witness (September/October 2006): 10-11.
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
Copyright © 2006 LayWitness
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.