By: Richard M. Gula, S.S.
Day by day, our life takes root as we respond to the action of God in the world. Can we see God during economic hard times? I want to suggest five virtues whose practice will enable us to face economic uncertainty and hardship with integrity and responsibility. We can respond to God by rising to the occasion of the current economic crisis.
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We need virtues, strengths of character, to carry out our responsibilities. Virtues are those natural capacities or traits that grow partly from observation, imitation—and practice—and partly from the way we choose to respond to adversity. Once acquired, virtues provide stability, sensibility, and momentum to persevere in the face of persistent challenges.
Turning to virtue as a way to reflect on these trying times enables us to bring together who we are with who we hope to become by means of how we respond to the challenges that face us. More than any other approach to moral living, virtue ethics connects our responses to the moral challenges of our day with the kind of persons we are. Or, as we said in traditional Catholic moral theology, who we are affects what we do, and what we do affects who we become. The virtues link us to right action by leaning us towards what human well–being demands.
Virtue ethics sees the ordinary, uneventful actions of the day as the place where the moral life happens and character grows. The daily cultivation of habits through the seemingly insignificant acts of saying, Thanks (or tossing a quarter in a cup when the stakes aren’t so high and the situation not so tense) will have a great influence on how we behave when things are tough. Being generous when times are good makes it easier to be generous when they are not; using our resources wisely when we can choose to do so eases the adjustment to living with less when we can’t choose not to. We are, after all, what we do habitually.
The current economic crisis causes us to ask, “What kind of persons shall we be to face these trying times?” In this Update we’ll look at some of the virtues that can make us a people who fulfill God’s hopes for us in calling us into being.
More than any other virtue, gratitude opens the imagination to an economy not based on Wall Street—the economy of grace. It is our window into the deepest reality shaping our lives: God’s love for us. “Thanks” is a simple word, but it is a precious fountain of faith in God, and it fills our hearts with a readiness to cherish everything we have. When grace has the first word and “thanks” the second, then our whole life becomes an exchange of gifts, a living dynamic of receiving and giving with grateful hearts. The failure to recognize grace, but to take the bounty around us for granted or to feel entitled to it as a right, is the root of our sin. Through a life of thanksgiving we can become responsible stewards of what we have received, seeing in everything the gifted nature of what we presume to possess.
Practicing gratitude as a virtue requires a disciplined way of living. Like all virtues, gratitude must become an intentional way of living, coming by choice and through practice. Each time we choose to be grateful, the next choice is a little easier, a little less self–conscious.
But still the choice to be grateful does not come without effort. The affirmation on which gratitude depends—that God is good and wills our well–being—doesn’t always seem to be true. A lost job, a foreclosed home and a devastated retirement fund are cases in point. So we must be careful not to push aside hard experiences to mutter a pro forma “thanks be to God” when life is tough. But the misfortunes so many are experiencing in these tough times can cause us to re–examine the meaning of life. It can cause us to pause and consider the value of all undeserved benefits we have received.
I am always moved by those survivors who can still find reasons to be grateful despite astonishing loss. They do not point to those who are better off, or pity themselves for having gotten the worst of it, or look for what is missing in their lives, or rehearse the “if onlys” that would have made everything turn out differently.
They have every reason to wrap themselves in resentment if they want to, and no one would fault them for it if they did. But they don’t. They still find a thousand reasons to thank God for the good experiences of the past, though these may have come in smaller sizes and with less frequency than desired.
Such a response is a sign of people who are grateful, deep down. They live with an abiding acknowledgment that goodness exists and they receive goodness as a grace, even amidst the worst that life offers.
How odd to advocate generosity in times of tight money, you say? But generosity flows from gratitude. It is the virtue of giving over as well as giving up. Not to be generous is to be petty, stingy, greedy or egotistical. The widow and her two coins is an argument for generosity by example (Luke 21:1–4). In the spirit of the Psalmist, generosity asks, “How can I repay the Lord for all the good done to me?” (Ps. 116:12)
As giving over, generosity makes a world of sense in our faith lives, in which we are called to be images of God’s self–giving love and to imitate Christ’s special tenderness toward those in need. The central symbol of God in the Christian faith, the Trinity, teaches us how to understand who God is and who we are to be as images of God. About God, the doctrine asserts a relationship of mutual self–giving; about us, the doctrine affirms that we are essentially social and made to share.
Generosity in a time of financial crisis is countercultural in a world where self–interest trumps service. We cannot properly express ourselves as images of God or imitate Christ without being in relationship with others and sharing our gifts for the sake of each person and the good of the whole community. Those who are willing to use our resources, even tax dollars, to help those who are under water with their mortgages witness to as much.
As giving up, generosity is ready to make sacrifices, to adjust plans, and to try to work things out so that everyone wins. In this sense, generosity is the virtue of a good neighbor—self–sacrificing and interested in the welfare of others. Families who have to postpone this summer’s vacation so that a son or daughter can go to school witness to giving up a little so that someone else may have at least some.
This social dimension of our Christian identity seeks an ongoing life in the virtue of solidarity. By this virtue, we do not understand society as a loose association of individuals bound together by mere self–interest. By contrast, it understands personal existence as inseparable from the interconnections that bind us with others, the earth and God.
In today’s world we are unavoidably in relationship with one another. Interdependence is a necessary quality of human existence. Solidarity requires that our situation of interdependence be structured in
ways that respect the human dignity of all. As such, solidarity stands in stark contrast to liberal forces that promote independence and separation as the norm.
Practiced as a virtue, solidarity constantly draws our attention to others. It is ordered to the common good by reminding us that we are not the center of the universe, that there are other centers of life, and that we are to give proper weight to their claims upon us. In solidarity we know that human life is a shared life and that give–and–take is better than grab–and–go. Solidarity also asks us to remember that while we want what we want, we might delay or forgo having it in the interest of the good of the whole.
Solidarity is a virtue of communities and individuals. As a virtue of communities, solidarity knows society cannot flourish if the interest groups within it fail to see themselves as part of a larger public. Solidarity retrieves the heart of public virtue: the readiness of an interest group to make some sacrifices for the common good. Only naiveté would expect a group to be wholly detached from its own interest. But solidarity, together with courage and generosity, requires that groups (the elderly, veterans, farmers, auto workers and others) make their interests known. Those groups, in turn, allow them to be qualified by considerations of the common good.
As a virtue of individuals, solidarity requires that we take time to educate ourselves about the society in which we live, its institutions, policies and practices, and the impact that these have on others. But coming to know cannot stand ignored alongside developing feelings of concern for and acting on behalf of those whose voices cannot be heard.
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It’s strength of character in the face of adversity. Through courage, we participate in the mystery of the cross. The employer trying to keep a business open, the young married couple facing foreclosure on their home, those nearing retirement hanging on for a few more years, government officials making hard decisions at the risk of their political future—all show courage, the virtue of a brave heart.
Courage is the apex of character. But it must not be confused with heroic foolhardiness that acts without fear. Courage is the ability to take fear along for the ride as we act in hope against whatever threatens us. We know when a situation requires courage, for we can feel the fear in our bones—we start to perspire, our knees tremble, our bowels rumble. But in the idiom of John Wayne, the courageous may be shaking in their boots and scared to death, but they saddle up anyway.
Courage is the ability to hang in there, to face danger, to withstand hardships with dignity, to risk rejection and to persevere with patient endurance. In a time of crisis, we need courage to make our interests known, to call those in authority to account, to change in our own lives what needs changing and to preserve our own integrity.
Hope is the virtue of the not–yet. It helps us deal with time. If we get caught in the tyranny of the present and feel that the sky is falling, then hope can release our imprisoned souls to fresh possibilities. Hope is an Easter virtue. Because we believe the cross did not have the last word, we are free to hope in the face of a social reality seemingly impossible to transform. Hope keeps the present in perspective and the future in sight.
Interpreting what is going on is always a dangerous task. Yet in faith we make certain claims that shape our interpretation: God loves us; God wants what is best for us; God will not abandon us; all possibilities for life and its future are under the care and goodness of God.
If God’s promise of presence is real, then we ought not to regard what is happening to us now as simply disastrous. If, with St. Paul, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28), then hope is more fundamental to a faith–filled vision of life than anxiety. Even things that go wrong are in the process of being made right. Because of hope, we may be bowed but not broken. Hope enables us to lean into these troubled times with an expectation that, no matter what happens, God is with us and for us.
In the midst of crisis, hope is a heroic virtue. Cynics see it as a waste of time and an excuse for passivity. But hope is not to be confused with that lazy kind of escapism that sits back and waits, or with wishful thinking that checks the mailbox on Sunday. As a virtue, hope trusts that tomorrow can be different from today.
Knowing that “this too will pass” is the wisdom of hope. It allows us to avoid despair when we come face–to–face with the personal and social sinfulness which has created our financial crisis, because hope knows that a part is not the whole.
Hope is liberating, too. In hope, we do not have to proceed with the determination to make sure everything turns out right. If we had absolute power to bring about the good, it would make
little sense to hope for it. Hope assures us that all will be well no matter how things turn out. Hope enables us to find meaning in whatever happens because hope rests in the faith–conviction that all is sustained by the graciousness of God and that whatever good comes is God’s gift.
These, then, are virtues affirming that character matters in the face of trying times. While we direct necessary energy towards solving the practical problems of our financial world, may we also remember: to be grateful, to be generous, to live in solidarity, to be brave and to hope—to rise to the occasion with the strength of virtues informed by Easter faith.
Pope Benedict on Solidarity
‘Openness to life is at the center of true development....By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action....’
—Pope Benedict XVI, Charity in Truth, #28
Prayer for a Virtuous Spirit
O Divine One,
Fill our hearts with gratitude,
that we may see your gifts.
Make generosity our second nature.
Fill our spirit with the solidarity
that we may be the voice of the unheard.
Give us the courage to walk into danger.
Liberate us from fear,
replacing our darkest thoughts with hope.
—prayer by Jeanne Hunt
1) Name a time of adversity in your life. Did you practice these virtues? Others?
2) What stands in the way of virtuous behavior?
3) How can we act in solidarity with those who suffer hardship?
Richard M. Gula, a Sulpician priest, is a professor of moral theology at the Franciscan School of Theology/Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. His books include The Good Life and The Call to Holiness (Paulist Press).
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