Assumed Virtue

‘Assume a virtue if you have it not,’ says Hamlet bitterly to Gertrude (Hamlet, Act 3, Sc 4). In the days since the General Election, those words have come to have a different meaning for me. Both in the press and online, writer after writer has claimed the moral high ground through the simple expedient of labelling those they disagree with as ‘stupid’, ‘evil’ or worse. I have sometimes wondered whether we are back to the ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ simplicities of Animal Farm, because very little actual argument is involved, only the trading of insults, many of them in the brutally unimaginative language of the four-letter word or personal attack. In vain does one point out that none of us can predict the future; in vain does one protest that supporting a particular political party does not imply a monopoly of righteousness and good sense. It seems no one wants to hear such inconvenient truths, only to shout their own views.

There is an important point here. We often ascribe to others views we would be horrified to have ascribed to ourselves. How can anyone else know what we really think? We don’t even know ourselves sometimes! But more than that, how can we condemn others for a lack of compassion or sense of justice, for example, when our own conduct shows that we are rather deficient in that area ourselves? Those who followed the post-election ‘debate’ on Social Media will probably have been struck, as I was, by the reluctance of many to accept that, imperfect as our democracy may be, we were all free to exercise our right to vote, and as a corollary, must accept the result as legitimate, whether we like/dislike it.

The tendency to assume that being angry or aggressive equates to being virtuous is becoming quite widespread, but I believe it is a tendency we need to check. Some will say I am merely substituting middle-class ‘niceness’ for passion, but I would argue that passion is not in itself a validator of anything. The more keenly we feel an injustice, for example, the more determined we should be to work for its being put right. The verb there is crucial: work for. That, for me, would involve prayer, reflection, argument and doing what I legitimately could to achieve the desired end.

When we turn to the Church, we can see similar positions being held. It beggars belief that many who call themselves practising Catholics can write of others in the terms they do. Very often they assume an infallibility that makes one chuckle when it does not make one weep. There will always be those who dislike whatever the current pope/bishop of the diocese/parish priest or whatever is doing, and there will be occasions when we need to speak up to right some wrong; but we need to scrutinize our own motives first. Sometimes, we launch into an attack because we happen to dislike something, not because it is wrong or injurious. All too often the debate becomes deeply personal and leaves its scars long afterwards. It is scant comfort then to say the Church is big enough, and old enough, to weather such typhoons in a teacup because what matters is holiness, and the urgent pursuit of holiness through a life of charity and virtue. Scant comfort, but surely true?

Some will say that such a view of the Church’s fundamental mission and purpose is naive. I’d say it is not so much naive as getting to the heart of the matter. Church politics are very like party politics, and just as capable of leading to unintended consequences if pursued without sufficient thought or reflection.

Today, as we pray for a renewal of the gifts of the Holy Spirit within us, we might pray not only for right judgement but also for an increase in charity and compassion — and the ability to know when we would do well to shut up.


7 thoughts on “Assumed Virtue”

  1. Thank you.

    I read a blog post earlier which was hosting a plea by Tanya Marlow for a sense of compassion from the government when dealing with further austerity, pointing out the unintended consequences of existing cuts.

    Many comments on the blog from self-proclaimed Christians were unkind and cruel and labeled her in different ways, but most of all, shouting down for those who supported her.

    I read the blog, because I was interested in her message – I now will be much more careful about reading the comments pages.

    There is such an absence of grace, that I despair.

  2. Good to read this! People forget that politicians are ordinary people and neither totally good nor totally evil, like the rest of us! Someone has written in the comments book in our church “God has gifted David Cameron with the wisdom of Solomon and the compassion of Jesus Christ to govern our country”. I wonder if this will degenerate into pantomime with subsequent visitors writing “Oh no he hasn’t”, “Oh yes he has”. Anyway, he certainly needs praying for!

  3. Thank you for the clarity of your exposition. Christians need to be able to stand back from the current trends and reflect on what Jesus would have said or done when confronted with similar problems.
    His love, humility and compassion for humanity will always lead us toward a path of peace and hope and to be inclusive of the needs of everyone. We are all God’s loved children.

  4. Pope John Paul I, in his book Illustrissimi, discusses a story of Tolstoy about a cook (“John the third” )

    As well as, of course, recognising myself as the cook, the relationship between government and commentariat is like that between the cook and the dogs. I pray that the government make wise cooks.

  5. I love reading your posts, they are always full of wonderful advice. I am not Catholic but I think these are lessons that all Christians, regardless of denomination, need to learn. Thank you for your inspirational posts!

  6. I have just discovered this being home on sick leave and having the time to find all the fantastic things that God is doing through technology. I walk each morning for an hour and half way through I come upon the parish church. It is too big now and the cavernous space makes me sad as I think about the number of churches that will be up for sale in the next ten or twenty years…….however nothing is forever and here we all are together searching for God and one another on the net. Thank you Dame Catherine and your community for you vision and work. I never had a vocation to religious life but I am going to love being a digital nun!

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