The Church Must Reclaim the Cardinal Virtues

Let us follow the example of St. Augustine and pray for a renewal of virtue in our shepherds

Fra Angelico (1395-1455), “The Conversion of St. Augustine”
Fra Angelico (1395-1455), “The Conversion of St. Augustine” (photo: Public Domain)

St. Augustine regularly had dinner with bishops and priests from North Africa, and he felt the need to carve into his table the injunction, “Thou shall not gossip,” although he expressed it more poetically as follows:

Who injures the name of an absent friend
May not at this table as guest attend.

His companion Possidius tells us that Augustine one time sternly rebuked gossiping bishops, saying that either he would have to leave the room or those verses would have to be erased from the table.

I confess some nostalgia for days in which clerical misdeeds consisted of gossip and days in which a bishop took the dignity of a person so seriously that he would humiliate those who violated it. I muse, too, wondering what a present day Augustine, a real leader in the Church, would have carved in his table, as he dined with fellow priests and bishops.

St. John Paul II perceptively called human formation “the basis of all priestly formation.” Human formation is above all formation in the virtues. Hence, instead of expressing today’s tabletop approbation as a prohibition, I recommend expressing it in terms of virtue and vice:

The Lord has no use of mediocre men
Vice of any kind does not recommend

The Catholic Catechism and the Greek philosophical tradition identify four cardinal or “hinge” virtues.

Wisdom: It is good and natural that a camaraderie form among the clergy just as it would among soldiers sharing a trench together. Yet it is wise to not neglect the whole. Priests often refer to “brother priests” and bishops “brother bishops” but they should realize that that exclusive fraternity all too easily insinuates the idea that they need to look out primarily for other clergy.

Let the clergy practice thinking and speaking of lay people as brothers and sisters in the one Lord.

Temperance: We need to face squarely the interdependent web of complicity built around addictions of various sort that fester in the clergy. Immoderation of any kind renders one vulnerable to various webs of deceit. Chastity and moderation liberate one for transparency and truth.

Let the clergy return to fasting as a regular practice of mastering one’s appetites and freeing one up for the movements of grace. Let them also gather as friends and challenge one another to virtue, holding each other to account.

Justice: Predators and their enablers must be brought to justice. Only public penance, prison time (where appropriate), and permanent removal from ministry can reconcile these unfaithful men to the Church.

Let the clergy realize that justice is not something cold and inhuman; justice is the virtue that heals the effects of evil and restores dignity to the wronged.

Courage: Too many bishops think of their job as managerial. Therefore their goal has been to avoid scandal with the result that the ignored scandalous matter becomes compounded to biblical proportions.

Let the clergy embrace the mandate to make the truth known, even when it involves public humiliation for the Church and themselves.

The details of the Pennsylvania report reveal that our shepherds are fighting not just against their lower appetites, but against the wily power of evil. Hence, virtue, while essential, is not sufficient. Shepherds can only be the shepherds they must be thanks to grace.

Let us follow the example of holy leaders such as Augustine and pray that our cardinals, bishops, and priests practice the cardinal and theological virtues. When they do not, thereby exposing the Church to ridicule, the saintly course is to rebuke them.

Chad Engelland, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas.