What Does Virtue Really Mean? | The Very Reverend Thomas Petri, O.P. (Part 1 of 2)

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Virtue is the means between two extremes, but how do we accomplish that?  How do we implement virtue in our daily lives?  How do we teach virtue to a society that seems averse to the concept of morality? Fr. Thomas Petri says to aim for the opposite extreme so that you’ll hit somewhere in the middle, which is where virtue lies.  He adds that the true definition of morality includes the knowledge of and the pursuit of happiness, which ultimately lies in our relationship with God.  Society is filled with praise of diversity, and the pursuit of morality and virtue is similarly diverse from person to person.  No two people achieve virtue in the same way because we are each unique. If we help society understand this approach to virtue, we can help lead them to a deeper relationship with God.

Sr. John Dominic I am honored to have this next guest with us today, however his title is quite long, so Father would you mind introducing yourself?

Fr. Thomas Petri You are correct it is quite long. I’m a priest of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph Eastern Province, and right now I’m assigned as the Vice President and Academic Dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. We are one of seven pontifical faculties in the United States, and the Holy See has given us the authority, which we’ve had since 1943, of granting degrees on the authority of the Holy Father himself. It’s a great honor. It means we have to be faithful to the Holy See, to the Vatican, to our Holy Father, and many seminaries value having professors with these sorts of degrees. We’re doing quite well as a school.

Sr. John Dominic In particular, Father, you’ve been so wonderful to all the religious communities, ours in particular, welcoming us there to study. You’re great on Twitter. I follow you carefully.

Fr. Thomas Petri I was very happy to give a retreat to your community, the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, this past week. Last week, I was teaching Cloistered Dominican Nuns on the mysteries of Revelation and fundamental theology. The week before that, I was preaching a retreat for the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters at their home in Atlanta, Georgia. They’re also a wonderful group of active sisters founded by Rose Hawthorne, who is the daughter of the Great American Poet, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Sr. John Dominic Their work is so wonderful for the incurable cancer.

Fr. Thomas Petri That’s what they do. They provide hospice for those who have terminal cancer who cannot provide for themselves. They have two houses, one in Hawthorne, New York, and another in Atlanta, Georgia. They never bill insurance or Medicare. As part of their rule, they’re not allowed to accept any donations from the family or the estate of the deceased for 35 to 40 years after that person dies. They’re not doing this for any sort of repayment. It’s just for the dignity of the person.

Sr. John Dominic That’s beautiful. You’re teaching at the college level and training people who will eventually be teaching that. We’re in 400 schools now. We’re in Singapore, so I guess you can say we’re international. We’ve also been working with the whole diocese this past year. We had the Diocese of Sacramento and Palmetto and all their schools. I’m taking the body of what you write. I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but you helped me in the very beginning.

Fr. Thomas Petri I do remember helping with this program: Disciples of Christ Education and Virtue. I appreciate the little cards that teach the virtue that are developed from drawings of children on what each of these virtues means. I’ve given these to families, and they use them with their children at the dinner table. They will quiz them on the virtues with those cards.

Sr. John Dominic One thing you said, which I think is important, is, “If you know what it is, just fake it for a while, and eventually, grace is going to kick in.” 

Fr. Thomas Petri That’s right. We all hear about the virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance, and people often think, “Well, how do I become courageous?” I always tell them, “Fake it.” Find someone who’s courageous and do what they do. The whole point of virtue is you have to grow in it by doing virtuous things, and it eventually becomes second nature. You’re not going to be able to do that unless you’re actually doing virtuous things, even if you don’t yet have the virtue. I always tell my students, “Fake it until you make it.”

Sr. John Dominic A lot of people watching these things are teachers, and oftentimes virtue is a new subject. I tell people that sometimes, when I give a talk, I’ll say, “Well, who can tell us about the theological virtues–” and I look out, and I can see there’s a sense of panic among people like, “Don’t ask me.” I’ll say, “Don’t worry. If you’ve been to Hobby Lobby and gone into Michael’s craft store, you’re going to know. You’re going to see faith, hope, and love there.” How can we bring people gently into this? How would you explain the virtuous life?

Fr. Thomas Petri I often begin with what people presume morality is about, because what you’re describing here is the moment you bring up the moral life or living morally in any conversation, the first thing people think of is you’re going to tell them how they need to live their life, which is not true at all. It’s unfortunate baggage that we have to deal with. I always tell people that they tend to think that morality is about rules. You’ve got to go to Mass on Sunday. You’ve got to go to confession. You’ve got to treat others as you wish to be treated. While that is part of morality, that’s not the main part. For Saint Thomas Aquinas, our great doctor of the church, our patron, and our model, morality is about two things. What does it mean to be a happy person, and how do I get there? When you look at the Summa Theologica, where he talks about morality, it’s basically those two issues. When we think about a virtuous person, they’re not someone who is simply living by the rules or doing things because he has to and does them begrudgingly. The virtuous person knows, “This is going to make me happy. I’m happy to do it, and I like doing it.” That’s what virtue is, and once you start that way, people start to realize morality isn’t so bad because everybody wants to be happy. It was Aristotle’s view that everybody wants to be happy. When you wake up in the morning, the whole point of putting one foot in front of the other is to get to happiness either today or someday down the road. Paying bills, changing diapers, taking out the garbage — it’s about getting to happiness. If you’re a person who can’t get out of bed because you don’t think you can be happy, well, then, we need to start talking about getting you help. Right? Happiness is the whole goal of all of this. Of course, as Christians, we believe that God is the supreme happiness and ultimately He’s the one that’s going to make us perfectly happy.

Sr. John Dominic That’s such an encouraging, joyful message, even in our time when people are looking for it and searching in so many different ways. When you get people living a life that’s not moral, the path to virtue is the easy way out, because if you’re struggling with a particular vice, you can practice the virtue that is the opposite of that. How would you counsel somebody?

Fr. Thomas Petri Aristotle says that virtue exists in the middle, not the extremes. Courage is in the middle between being foolish and being a coward. The soldier who pops out of the foxhole and runs towards the enemy in a hail of fire is not courageous. He’s a fool. The soldier who doesn’t pop out of the foxhole when he’s supposed to is a coward. That’s true for all the virtues. There are these extremes. My advice for people is always aim for the other extreme because, trust me, you’re not going to get to the other extreme. If you’re at this extreme and you aim for the other, you’re probably going to hit the middle, which is exactly where virtue is. This usually comes up in my interactions with a lot of families. There’s always the father or the mother with these personality types that everything has to be just so. Everything has to be in place, and when there’s a mess, they become very temperamental. They start to raise their voice, and they know this. They come to me and say, “I’ve lost my patience with my three children” or “I’ve lost my patience with my wife.” I’ll say, “You’re a person who likes everything in order and just right, aren’t you?” They’ll say, “Yeah, that’s me, Father.” I say, “That’s an extreme because you have a family of children and there’s no way of keeping all of that under control. What I need you to do is to think to yourself ‘You know, the last time I went to Father Thomas Petri and talked to him, he told me I need to just let some things go.’ I want you to give yourself and your family permission to make a mess. We’re going to throw everything around. Trust me, it’s not going to make a mess of your house because you’re not going to be able to do this, but if you can aim for it, you’ll end up becoming a more moderate, temperate parent. You’ll become more virtuous as a parent.”

Sr. John Dominic The other beautiful part of this approach is that there’s a freedom there. There’s a moral code, of course, that we have to follow, but when we’re living this life, there’s a joy and a freedom that comes with it.

Fr. Thomas Petri Saint Paul talks about being free in the spirit. Aristotle says that the young should not study morality because he knew that when we’re young, we all want to know the right way to live. We all want to know what it means to be happy and how to become happy. We want a formula — if I do this or that, I’ll be happy, but life doesn’t work that way. There’s no formula here. Certain things are black or white. If you do this, you’ve committed a mortal sin and you go to confession, but most of our Christian life is in-between. There’s a parameter beyond which boundaries we should not step, but inside those boundaries is a whole lot of freedom on how we should live, what it means to be virtuous, to be living in the Spirit, to have difficult conversations and how to do that, things that aren’t matters of mortal sin but of being good, happy, holy, and prudent. The Church and our Catholic tradition says a lot about those matters and hope that people will grow into it until it becomes second nature what it means to be a gentle person, but also forceful when needed, and essentially being prudent as a person.

You have to establish this language of virtue. You and I can talk about it because we’re so familiar with this. You’ve given the virtue cards to some of the families that have seen it, but how would you encourage schools that want to create this Catholic culture and this Catholic identity? How can you see from a pastoral perspective how this understanding of what the virtues are and [how they help] to make a culture of freedom and of goodness [can be implemented in schools]?

Fr. Thomas Petri The groundwork is, in some ways, already laid in this whole emphasis in the way our culture talks about diversity, equality, you being you. we see in our culture. In many ways, it is a bad thing, but it can be baptized to serve our purposes in helping people grow in virtue. These can be used by us because that’s what virtue is. My prudence is going to look a little different than your prudence. My courage is going to look a little different than your courage. That’s okay. There’s a diversity in how the virtues are lived out one person to another. Everyone ought to agree that even though we speak about freedom, diversity, inclusion, uniqueness, and equality, I don’t think anyone, when they put their minds to it, thinks that means everybody can live however they want without consequence. I think everyone believes that there is a lot of adaptability in the human person, and at the same time, this has to be channeled to the common good, the good of the country, my community, my family. Talking about virtue in that way is helpful as an entry point that the Church isn’t about trying to make you follow certain rules. It’s not about making you all the same. We don’t have a cookie-cutter mentality. It is about you becoming you. The only difference is that who you are is not necessarily who you think you are, but who God knows you are.

Sr. John Dominic I think that’s one of the beautiful things when we talk about Catholic education and you want to focus on the formation of the child is that they can become the person God has created them to be. God intended everyone to live in friendship and in His Grace, and original sin is what separates us from His Grace. This is appealing to people when I talk to them. If we look back at the state of original holiness and justice, we can see where the theological virtues are the life of holiness and the relationship with God. With justice, we look at the cardinal virtues. Original sin is this rupture that’s taken place, but when you begin to live the virtuous life, you can heal that rupture and bring back this friendship with God.

Fr. Thomas Petri The virtuous life, especially when it’s catalyzed and empowered by the grace of God, can be elevated in healing. At the very least. trying to be virtuous and to live well prepares us to receive the gifts of grace that God wants us to receive. We’re going to argue that everyone who’s walking around without grace, without living in friendship with God, even if they think they’ve got their life together and they think that they’re happy, still has a hole in their life, and it’s the hole that God’s supposed to fill up. This is how God created us. All of us are meant to be with Him. He created us for himself. People might think that they’re doing well and they’re succeeding in life. In the end, God is trying to get through to them to remind them that they’re really made for Him and to be with Him.

Sr. John Dominic That’s our destiny. Our eyes are focused on eternity, and as you said earlier, everyone wants to be happy. We’re seeking that, and we could lay out this path of understanding what virtuous is. Is there anything that you would recommend for education?

Fr. Thomas Petri I recommend for anybody to simply Google books written about Aquinas and virtue or grace, and you’re going to find a wealth of knowledge there. There’s a lot of great books that I think your audience will be able to relate to and understand. I think St. Thomas’ understanding of virtue and grace is still valid and speaks to the modern person because he’s the one who, even though it was 800 years ago, figured a lot of this out for us.

Sr. John Dominic When we’re trying to evangelize, we’re trying to reach the person on the street. You can go up to someone and say, “You want to be happy; let’s have a conversation.”

Fr. Thomas Petri That’s the Dominican way, right? We acknowledge that we have a lot in common at the starting point. We all want to be happy and help. Let me share with you what I think happiness is and how I’m going to get there, you want to come along? That’s St. Dominic.

Sr. John Dominic Father, thank you so much.