As Catholic men, we are all too familiar with what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death,” which treats people as dispensable commodities rather than as persons made for eternity. Every day we are witnesses to myriad offenses against human life and dignity. Many of us respond by supporting pro-life organizations and by participating in the political process.
These responses are extremely important, but they’re not primary. After all, the culture of death is not merely “out there,” cordoned off from “good Catholics” like us. Rather, the culture of death is lurking within us: It is the reality of original sin on a societal level.
We’re probably sincere when we say we love Christ and desire to be faithful to his Church. But something may be lacking in the execution, as we frequently do the very things we say we hate (cf. Rom 7:19). Through our sins, we become complicit with the culture of death: We—and I’m speaking here primarily to men—become part of the problem. “Men behaving badly” isn’t just a sitcom. The phrase epitomizes the widespread failure of today’s men to lead well.
Thanks be to Jesus Christ, who through the sacraments imparts to us his saving grace. Yet despite the awesome gift of divine mercy, we still bear within ourselves sinful tendencies that incline us to commit the same sins over and over again.
It’s true that in this life we will never reach the point at which sin ceases to be an issue. However, we can make great progress in our spiritual journey—and in the process, build up the culture of life—by striving to grow in virtue. Then, when tested, we’re disposed to act in accordance with our values—in other words, to act virtuously.
Virtues are “character muscles.” Let’s look at it this way: We may desire to accomplish some athletic feat (such as win a race or break a record.) but to reach that goal we need physical muscles. We need to be in shape. We can’t show up and expect to succeed if we haven’t put in the requisite effort. Similarly, if we want to live happy, godly lives, the virtues are the muscles that enable us to reach our goal.
A virtue is a good habit that inclines us to perform morally good actions, as opposed to a vice, which is a bad habit that inclines us to sin. Virtues enable us to do the right thing with:
Ease: A habit allows us to do something with relative ease. We say something that has become a habit has become “second nature” to us.
Two men—Al and Bob—notice a pornographic magazine on a co-worker’s desk during the day. Al knows he is alone and could easily skim through the magazine without being caught and he tries to rationalize why he should do just that. After mulling it over for awhile, he decides not to open the magazine.
Bob, meanwhile, sees the magazine but doesn’t even consider looking at it. Rather, he continues on to the copy room to complete his task. Both chose well, and neither sinned. But which of the two acted virtuously?
Bob acted with ease and lack of interior struggle, demonstrating how virtue empowered him to do the right thing. Virtue is more than one act, or even multiple acts, but rather involves a firm interior disposition—a habit of acting that forms character.
Readiness or Desire: A couple years ago I was putting with my family on a large practice green. I must have tried a particularly long, difficult putt 20 times and never came closer than about three feet from the hole. My wife walked up and asked if she could try it. She doesn’t play the break, strikes the ball way too hard—and it goes in.
Maureen’s great shot was not “virtuous” —she has no desire whatsoever to be a good golfer. That’s fine when it comes to golf, but when it comes to Christian virtue, a hallmark is the desire to live well, to choose the good, to deliberately aim at a goal. Are we truly committed to Christ and doing things his way? It should go without saying, but if we shoot at nothing, we’ll hit it every time.
Satisfaction or Joy: Virtue makes us want to do the right thing and actually enjoy doing it. This notion runs counter to the perception that virtue is unappealing, as though it takes away our fun. After all, the popular TV show in the 1980s was called Miami Vice, not Miami Virtue!
How much better off are we if we learn to enjoy eating vegetables, rather than not eating them or eating them only under compulsion.
The word virtue is derived from the Latin word vir, which means “man.” Through the centuries virtue has been linked to words such as strength, power, and ability. While a good physical workout gives us added strength, endurance, and satisfaction, building virtue brings about a comparable, in fact more profound, sense of well-being.
Effectiveness: We desire to live a beautiful life that is ordered to our happiness. Despite trial and error, we discover over time that we have made progress in our spiritual lives. We eventually get better, become more “effective” Christians.
I’ve been teaching my teenage daughters how to drive. At first, I didn’t feel safe, so until they became used to driving we stayed in parking lots. Now they have (somewhat) acquired the virtue of driving and are able to drive on major highways. Our moral decision-making skills likewise benefit from practice—probably at first in the relatively safe “parking lot” of our family home.
Where to Begin?
When we begin a new exercise regimen, we want to get our entire body in shape, but typically we do that by focusing on one muscle group at a time.
Similar, there are hundreds of virtues, but they all relate to seven fundamental virtues—seven muscle groups. First are faith, hope, and charity—these are the specifically Christian virtues. Then there are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—the moral or cardinal virtues.
Men who want to be more effective adversaries of the culture of death should make sexual purity and overcoming sexual sins a top priority. The muscle group needed for this is the virtue of temperance.
What Temperance Isn’t
Temperance not only is undervalued but also misunderstood. It does mean moderation, but not in a quantitative, mathematical sense. I could probably eat a dozen donuts, but that would be excessive. Yet not having any donuts would be excessive in the other direction, so I decide to eat only a half dozen. That’s a compromise, but not a temperate one!
Temperance is not pleasure avoidance, even though Prohibition was brought about by the “temperance movement.” And temperance is not merely “sin avoidance,” namely the mere absence of serious sins of gluttony or lust.
What It Is
Temperance is all about living the good life. Here’s a textbook definition: Temperance moderates the attraction of the pleasures of the senses and provides balance in the use of created goods.
Let’s simplify that: Passions (also known as feelings or emotions) are a “given.” They are not good or evil in themselves, but must be harnessed by the intellect and will lest they run amok.
When emotions such as fear keep us from pursuing the good, we need the virtue of fortitude or courage to press on.
Other times our desires pull or even seduce us to seek what isn’t good for us. In those instances, temperance is the virtue that moderates these desires and directs them in a good and healthy way.
Temperance involves staying strong during a storm of passion. We know those storms: “munchies,” sugar cravings, a cold beer or two, sexual urges, anger, the thrill of a gamble or athletic competition, or an exhibition of speed.
Let’s face it, our sins tend to be rooted in disordered desires, so we need the virtue of temperance lest our desires take control of our lives. The various vices of intemperance will lead to addiction and enslavement—spiritual and at times physical and psychological as well.
The virtue of temperance when specifically applied to the area of sexuality is called chastity.
Everyone is called to chastity. It’s a manly thing, and it’s a difficult thing. Chastity does not mean denying our masculine sexuality, nor does it necessarily mean abstaining from sexual activity, though single men and men who have taken vows to remain celibate are to abstain from sexual intimacy.
The vice that corresponds to chastity is lust, one of the seven deadly sins. We can’t overcome lust without growing in chastity—which empowers us to give fully of ourselves to God and to others, especially our spouse.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: Either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (CCC 2339). God made us to be free, not to be enslaved to our passions.
The Catechism also says that those who want to remain faithful to Christ in the area of sexuality must adopt all the means for doing so (see 2340). This is real work, and it never completely ends. The great thing is that Christ doesn’t expect perfection overnight. Just the opposite: Our imperfections and sins teach us to trust in his mercy and redouble our efforts to grow in Christian virtue.
When it comes to attacks on our sexual purity, we have to be aware that there is much working against us, both outside us in our culture, but also inside us, because of the effects of sin. Temptations are said to come from the flesh, the world, and the devil, and that’s certainly true in the sexual arena.
When it’s not assaulting us, the world is sneering at us, telling us that virtue will hurt you, meekness is weakness, chaste makes waste. We need to be strong. We need character muscles.
We can’t just go with the flow in a clueless, thoughtless way and expect that we’re going to be immune to sexual temptation and sin. It’s not going to happen, any more than we can lie around day after day on the sofa drinking beer and eating chips and expect to be able to run a marathon. It doesn’t work that way. We’re in a “culture war,” not a “culture lounge”!
The starting point is reconciliation with God through the sacrament of confession, especially those of us mired in sexual sin or who haven’t been to confession in years. Part and parcel of that is to walk away completely from the sin in our lives. Examples include:
- Terminate extra-marital (and pre-marital) sexual activity
- Throw away the pornographic magazines
- Use filters to block online pornography
- Discontinue the premium cable channels that carry “adult” movies
All that is a great start, but we’re likely to go back to those things if we don’t maintain our chastity “muscle tone.” And how can we claim any moral authority on key culture-of-life issues if we lack integrity in our own personal lives? So here I’ll close with eight exercises to help men build their character muscles.
1. Avoid temptation: We need to know ourselves well enough to know our weaknesses. It may seem counterintuitive, but the manly thing to do is flee temptation, not engage it. Good football teams have “take out corners.” They’re able to neutralize a star receiver; as the team essentially says, “you’re going to have to find another way to beat us.” Similarly, with some self-knowledge and foresight, we can take out of play some of our recurring temptations.
2. Practice self-denial: Penance is part of any healthy spiritual life. Beyond that, since chastity is related to temperance, intemperance in our eating, drinking, entertainment, and pleasure-seeking can easily carry over into the area of sexuality!
3. Discipline the eyes: Rather than “check out” women, let’s strive to look women in the eye, as a person, and not as an object. It’s also important to limit or better yet avoid “surfing” the TV or computer.
4. Manage alcohol, stress, and fatigue: When our defenses are compromised, our moral judgment can easily become clouded. In this regard, we should watch how we use our downtime. If we’re tired or bored, it may not be the best time to watch TV or log onto the computer if those have been areas of difficulty.
5. Foster real friendships: Chastity leads to forming friendships, to treating others as persons created in God’s image, rather than using people as objects of our own desires or agendas.
6. Confess regularly: Lust thrives on secrecy. We shouldn’t treat confession as mere crisis management for really big sins. Rather, regular confession gives us the grace to nip sin in the bud as we build our character muscles.
7. Be accountable: In addition to the sacrament of confession, it’s important for us to be accountable at home and at work. In addition, many men are now involved in various study groups where there is an opportunity for friendship and godly conversation in a faith context, which is very important.
8. Meditate daily: We need new wineskins. We need to be different, to be better, to become more like Christ and see reality through his eyes. Spending time with him in the Gospels is simply an irreplaceable part of this exercise program, as is frequent recourse to the Eucharist—including, if possible, daily Mass or time spent in eucharistic adoration.
As we renew our efforts in this area, may we come to a deepening realization that the “culture of life” truly begins at home.