Bottom line: The practice of virtue is essential not only for eternal salvation, but for the prosperity of families and nations.
In today's first reading Moses tells the Israelites that if they observe the commandments, God will make them into a great nation. Our own founding fathers also believed that the only way we could become a great nation was by following God's law. In establishing the first modern democracy, they knew our country could survive only if it encouraged its citizens to practice virtue. This is what they said: Every form of government must encourage a specific passion in its citizens. A dictatorship seeks to inspire fear; a monarchy cultivates honor, but a democracy requires virtue. They wanted the United States to become a "republic of virtue."*
For our founding fathers, virtue was not some far off ideal. It was an immediate, practical necessity. It only makes sense when you think about it. In a dictatorship citizens serve the governement; in a democracy it's supposed to be the other way around. But when people get selfish and greedy, it undermines a democracy. A government by the people will only last if people pursue virtue: honesty, fair play and so on.
It might surprise you, but one of the people who our founding fathers read and deeply admired was St. Thomas Aquinas. He defined virtue as a "good habit bearing on activity." Another way of saying it is that virtue is a disposition to do the right thing.**
Virtue grows when a person does the right thing. All of us have heard the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. When his father confronted him, he admitted what he had done. The story might be legendary, but it points to what people knew about Washington's character: He was a man of virtue. A man people could trust.
It's good to remember great men like George Washington, but what about us? Recently, I have been thinking about my life, especially since I turn sixty this weekend. I belong to a generation called the Baby Boomers. We had our good points, but we had a problem: We thought we could make progress without emphasizing virtue. What mattered was having the right technique, getting one's act together. The big thing was to affirm each other. I'm OK, you're OK. Well, what we discovered was that neither one of us was so hot. Thanks be to God, things are changing. People, especially young people, are recognizing the importance of virtue. Instead of books like "I'm OK, You're OK" we now have ones like "The Seven Habits..." which is based on embracing virtue - good habits - and practicing them.
Jesus speaks about virtue in today's Gospel. He says what defiles a person is not what they eat, but rather what comes from within, what comes from the heart. Instead of evil thoughts, God wants to give us a tranquil mind; instead of deceit, honesty; instead of unchastity, purity of heart; instead of greed, stewardship; instead of arrogance, reality. Vice is easy. It is like sliding down a wet hillside. Virtue demands taking one step at time, climbing to the mountain's summit.
Because virtue is demanding, sometimes people get the idea it is hard to figure out what it is. Well, if you take a look at today's Gospel, you realize Jesus is not talking about rocket science. He's a bit like the Greek philosopher Plato who just wanted to remind people of what they already knew. This is sometimes called this the "natural law." Deep down, we recognize certain things are wrong, for example: to deliberately deceive another person, to steal, to commit adultery, to take an innocent human life, to dishonor ones parents. We know those things, but we have a hard time practicing them. They requires virtue.
Even though we all have a sense of right and wrong, none of us is born virtuous. The men and women who founded our nation understood that practicing virtue requires education and training. As we start a new school year, it is good to remember that. We want our children to learn something more than survival skills. We want them to learn and practice those things which will bring them - and others - real happiness. In a word, we want them to learn virtue. I cannot speak for other schools, but that is what our parish school is about. Our overarching goal is the salvation of souls: to be happy forever with God in heaven. For that reason we teach our children moral values. To enter heaven it is not enough to simply say, Lord, Lord. We've got do the Father's will - that means keeping his commandments, the moral law.
Now, one of the interesting things about this is if we seek salvation, the kingdom of God, Jesus tells he will throw in the rest for good measure. Nowhere is this more clear than in terms of keeping the moral law, striving for virtue. John Wesley called thousands of people to radical conversion. He noticed that when men gave up drinking, gambling, womanizing and started dedicating themselves to their wives and children, little by little they began to prosper. Practicing virtue, following the moral law, not only lead to eternal salvation; it brings a better life here and now.
George Washington observed that the same principle applies not only to individuals and families, but to the entire nation. In his farewell address, he said: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." We cannot have a democracy unless citizens recognize the importance of virtue.
I am not saying that our relative prosperity means we are a virtuous people. Sometimes I have the feeling we are drawing money out of an inherited bank account and very soon we are going to get a notice which says "insufficient funds." The only way we can turn things around is to start taking seriously what Jesus taught us.
I hope you can see that, by virtue, I am not talking about being prim and proper. What is at stake are basic human values. Without them we cannot have a fair relationship with each other - and with God. These are the things we want to teach to our children. These are the virtues which, with God's help, we also want to practice. If we do, we will hear the words Moses spoke, "This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people."
*In the Great Courses series, Professor Daniel N. Robinson has a fine set of lectures on this topic: American Ideals: Founding a "Republic of Virtue".
**To the question "What is a virtue?" the Compendium of Catechism gives this answer: "A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good." It then gives a concise summary of human and theological virtues. For a lucid explanation of the virtues, I highly recommend Mere Christianity.
From Archives (Homilies for 22nd Sunday, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Plan B: Effective for what?, Melanie's Progress, Best Birthday Present)