It should be evident to most Catholics in today’s world that mainstream society considers itself opposed to traditional Christian values, perhaps beyond them. Many now propose that there is more to life than holding to an old “myth” that God became man and died for us, and any antiquated ideas of good and evil that come along with it.
Yes, we Christians have heard such refutations all before. I’ve come to the realization that, along with “old” ideas of reality and right and wrong (as they call them), society has lost its understanding of certain essential virtues.
I will now examine three of these virtues and their respective importance in our society.
The Meaning of Purity
The first such forgotten value is purity. When Christians hear the word “purity,” it’s often treated as synonymous with “chastity,” right conduct in regard to sex, a perfectly acceptable definition. But purity as a whole means more than that. In a broader sense, it might be interpreted simply as goodness, that is, being pure from evil. However, much of modernity has rejected the entire notion of evil. A general mantra might be “It’s good if it feels good,” rather than the previously accepted precept of “Do good, avoid evil.” Purity might also be defined as keeping oneself pure from stain.
But from what “stain” might men desire purification? Whatever impedes them from true humanity. Certain kinds of people throughout history have been described as subhuman—Adolf Hitler and Grigori Rasputin come to mind for me. What these two men had in common was very evil deeds. Loss of humanity might then be defined as any inclination to evil. No matter its regard for God, a society very rarely treats its villains as heroes merely for their villainy. But, in order to have an undesirable trait removed, one must acknowledge its existence in the first place. Thus, without a concept of evil, modernity treats of both evil and purity as ridiculous ideas.
Another of these values is freedom. A basic definition of freedom might be “absence of constraints.” Based on that definition, modern society might then consider the absence of right and wrong, often thought of as the ultimate constraints, to be the ultimate freedom. However, rather than an absence, I think freedom might be better be defined as a presence, namely, the presence of mastery. What does mastery then have to do with freedom?
Consider an opioid addict, for example. Let’s say he has his drug fix available and can administer it easily, even legally. In that context, then, it seems like there are no constraints upon him and his fix. But, if he is truly addicted to the opioid, does he have a real choice in administering it? As free as he is to say yes to it, is he also free to say no? That’s an important question.
Furthermore, a lot of drug addicts have convinced themselves that their choice of the drug is totally free. If they refuse to acknowledge that they are, in fact, enslaved to the drug, then they will never be free in the true sense. The first step toward fixing a problem is recognizing that it is there in the first place, but slavery is always slavery even if it is chosen freely.
The Universal Need for Temperance
A third value mainstream society lacks is temperance or self-control. Obviously, this helps men to regulate their passions in accordance with God’s law, as we Catholics see it. However, the lack of temperance, which can cause drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, gluttony and the like, has consequences not only for those of us who believe in sin, but also for those who do not. Gluttony has mainly physical consequences, and drunkenness is similar, but with a wider reach. These physical consequences harm the perpetrators, but the consequences can also tear apart families, destroy careers, and spark conflict.
Additionally, despite the persistent efforts of MADD, AA, and other organizations, the obvious problem of drunk driving is still rampant, as are corresponding accidents and deaths. Promiscuity may have the most far-reaching effects of those I mentioned, ranging from the rise of abortion and STDs to the degredation of the family.
Previously, the importance of self-control had been acknowledged for most of human history, even if it was known by other names. It was easily understood, for example, that a bunch of drunkards would be made sport of in battle, and that greedy women who wanted the best of everything only for themselves would not be very good wives and mothers. So why has modernity rejected what was previously a universal value? Clearly some of it relates to industrialism, since the nature of work has been fundamentally changed since its advent.
For example, heavy drinking still doesn’t correlate well with fighting on the front lines of a battle, but there are plenty of other professions in which it would be possible to drink heavily and keep one’s job—most of them, in fact, if one could practice even such basic temperance as confining his drinking to his days off. Furthermore, while bad husbands and wives have always existed, now they are encouraged by society to abandon their families entirely. Self-indulgence is nearly always condoned, if not celebrated.
Now imagine someone who is free in a different sense from the above drug addict, such that he can choose to indulge his passions, or not. Every choice he makes is then entirely his own, and no one makes them for him. He can choose the good or the bad, wholly as he pleases. Could there not be some joy in having total mastery over himself? Personally, I am very far from reaching this point, but I think there would, just as there is joy in making small good choices, no matter how imperfect the decision that leads to them.
Why Are These Virtues in Decline?
Based on my observations, I would say the single basic cause these problems share is not abandonment of religion itself, bad though that is, but abandonment of traditional moral values. The words “pure” and “temperate” are no longer heard in normal conversations, and “freedom” seems to have been wholly re-appropriated. Though I chose to explore only these three values, there are many others that society no longer understands.
The underlying cause is relatively simple—get rid of a basic moral foundation, and then all the virtues that proceed from it essentially go out the window, even those that may still be acknowledged on the surface, like honesty. Excuses for going against these values become easier, and reasons for consistently holding to them become less and less important. In short, leaving behind the foundational moral code means most morals will become weaker and weaker, perhaps even disappear entirely. Without the faculties necessary for understanding purity and freedom (since the concept of temperance is easier to understand) everything is diminished.
Are They Really so Antiquated?
Finally, I offer a suggestion. Say next time you have a gut impulse to do something you know to be wrong, like getting angry at someone, instead of giving in, you decide to contain it. You have then resisted a small inclination to evil, so you are more purely yourself. You have also freed yourself, at least momentarily, in that you have made an unconstrained choice in whether or not to be angry.
Now that you have experienced this for yourself, are you more inclined to say ideas like purity, freedom,and self-control are antiquated, or something more?