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.