Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I have noticed a trend in my local pro-life circle that is somewhat bothering me. I am hearing the term "heroic virtue" being used to describe mothers who choose to not abort their babies. Do you think it is heroically virtuous that a mother does not kill her child? I guess I am conflicted. To me, it seems that allowing a child to have the right to life is the bare minimum a mother should be responsible for. Heroic virtue implies going above and beyond what is required of us. On the other hand, if the mother was tempted to abort and everyone around her was telling her too, maybe it would require heroic virtue to choose life.
I know that I would not label my husband as having heroic virtue if he decided against engaging in an affair. Staying faithful to me would seem to be a bare minimum, just like choosing life for a pregnant woman. What do you think?
I think the comparison between a husband not choosing to have an affair and a teenage girl under intense pressure to abort her child choosing life is apples and oranges. A person who chooses to have an affair is typically acting with much more freedom than a frightened, confused teenage girl whose entire culture is telling her that not only is it okay to abort, but she will be severely punished if she does not do so, both by rejection by parents and by boyfriend. The nature of the girl's temptation is very different from that of a spouse who is "bored", or whose vanity has convinced him he needs a trophy wife, or by some other factor much less compulsory. So I think "heroic virtue" may very well be the term to describe many a mother in our culture who chooses to keep her child.
Heroic virtue is one of those things that is partly culturally conditioned due to particular pressures of different cultures. It does not, for instance, require heroic virtue in early third millennium America to say that a black person should be allowed to vote. It merely requires common sense. 150 years ago, in Mississippi, it would have required heroic virtue to say it. Similarly, it requires no heroic virtue to say in 2012 America that a Jewish person should have the same rights as everybody else before the law. In Hitler's Germany, it did.
In some places in our culture, it now requires heroic virtue to say things like, "I believe human life is sacred from conception to natural death" or "I am a Roman Catholic who believes the teaching of the Church completely." In other ages and places, such statements would have been non-controversial.
Might there be instances where the temptation to have an affair requires heroic virtue to resist? Sure. A man with, say, an insane, shrewish wife or a wife with a neanderthal brute husband who is suddenly thrown into a work situation with a kind, warm, loving member of the opposite sex who stands in stark contrast to some domestic hell awaiting them at home can feel a temptation as powerful as any to which flesh is heir. But in general, I would argue that a frightened teenager facing a pregnancy and choosing life for her baby is doing something far more heroic than a bored husband who can't be bothered to take responsbility for his vows to his wife and his duty to his children.