Today I continue my series inspired by Sam Guzman’s book, The Catholic Gentleman: Living Authentic Manhood Today (San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2019). (For the two previous articles see “Are You for Real?” and “More from “The Catholic Gentleman”)
Today I would like to reflect on what Guzman says about “virtue” and “code.” Here, I refer to a question I proposed in the first article, “Are You for Real?” in this series, “do you want to act nice or do you want to be nice?” Virtue is not simply acting nice. After reflecting on the dedicated service of the soldiers who stormed Normandy on June 6, 1994, Guzman writes, “Virtue is what makes a man. It’s what made those men plunge into icy waters and fight and keep fighting for an idea, a principle – freedom” (44).
There is a saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It is true that as we grow older, we can become set in our ways. Sometimes we find ourselves giving up on trying to change our bad behaviors. We might think it is too late to change or that if we haven’t changed by now, we aren’t going to. That doesn’t have to be true. Guzman writes, “Interestingly, modern neuroscience has discovered something scientists call neuroplasticity. This means that the mind is not static but, rather, grows and develops over time, adapting itself to repeated actions” (45). We can change. It may be difficult. When change seems impossible we can turn to God.
Paul tells the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, see also 2 Thessalonians 3:9). Today, saying we imitate someone often means we act like someone. To be an imitator of Paul and, thus, Christ, is not simply to act like them. It is to become like them. It begins with acting like them but it is deeper. In following their example and practicing good acts, “It will become a habit…If we repeatedly do the right thing, it will become easier for us to do the right thing. And the easier choosing the good becomes, the harder it will be to do the wrong thing” (Guzman, 45). We make the habit part of who we are. Here is virtue.
We need virtue. Guzman writes, “A man without virtue, on the other hand, is helpless. He is led by his appetites, his passions, his passions, which scream at him all day. He has no ability to control himself, to say no to his whims and impulses” (46). If virtue is lost, as is happening, we lose the good. So, we ask God to help us as individuals and as a society to rekindle in us the light of faith and virtue.
Guzman then discusses “On the levels of nature” (46) the four virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. He writes, “Prudence is the ability to make wise judgments, to see all the factors and make the best choices. This ability doesn’t come automatically. Left to ourselves, we are impulsive” (46). We see something we want and we take it. We need to grow beyond this. Guzman uses the example of the child who eats the candy regardless of what it does for their appetite for dinner. He writes, “The adult, the man however, is prudent. He can see where things are going” (46). So, we resist the candy (well, at least we try) because we want to save room for dinner. We see beyond the moment to make wiser decisions.
Turning to justice, Guzman writes, “Justice is the firm resolve to give to God and neighbor what is owed to each” (47). Justice is not about revenge. It calls us to care for one another. It calls us to respect one another whether we agree or not. Thus, as Guzman writes concerning justice, “It ultimately leads toward the common good and the flourishing of society” (47).
Guzman describes fortitude as “stick-to-it-iveness,” meaning, we are determined to purse the good. In fortitude, we have the courage to do what it right (Guzman 47-48). As such, we should remember that fortitude is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Turning to temperance, Guzman says “Temperance is moderation in all things” (48). We need to limit ourselves for a greater good. Here Guzman writes about drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol is not immoral. “What is immoral, however, is abusing alcohol” 51). We need to control how much we drink so that we remain in good behavior. As Guzman writes, we should never drink because we are unhappy. If we drink in order to escape distress, all we do is cover it up for the moment. On the other hand, he writes, “drink for conviviality. Conviviality is a word we don’t use enough these days. It simply means the joy of being together” (52).
We need something to guide us. We need something to live by, a code. Here Guzman writes, “If there is one thing we can say about modern men, it is that we do not live by a code…Modern men are frequently pragmatists. We do what is convenient and comfortable in the moment, whatever causes the least pain” (60-61). Part of this is that we sometimes keep silent to keep the peace. Jesus did not come to keep the peace. When we believe in him, there will be division between us and those who do not believe (see Luke 12:51).
We need a code to live by. Guzman writes, “But for a code of life to exist, a man must acknowledge a higher law, an objective truth…To live by a code, one must believe in unchanging principles that aren’t mere feelings or opinions but are true at the deepest level” (61). Where do we find this code? It is not determined by the individual choice of human beings. For a code to be unchanging, it must come from something that is unchanging, eternal. This is God. God sets this higher code. It is God who defines the objective truth. In seeking God’s Truth, we find this “higher law.”
In seeking virtue and the higher law, we develop intrinsic values that lead us to look beyond ourselves to do what is truly good even knowing “we will get nothing in return” (Guzman, 61). These intrinsic values are better than extrinsic values where we are motivated by our desire to win the approval of others (Guzman, 62).
When our primary motivation is to do what others think is good, even when it is a majority, what is defined as good is ever-changing. Since it is always changing, our commitment remains low, We are not willing to die for it. God gives us something worth dying for. We see proof of this in the martyrs. Guzman writes, “The martyrs went joyfully to unspeakable torments because they were convinced that Christ is real, that the Resurrection is real, and that heaven is real” (62).
Guzman continues, “The question we must ask ourselves is: What do we believe deeply enough to die for? Until we can answer that question, we cannot know what we are living for” (62).
Are you willing to die for Christ? He died for you.