If vice is a habit of sin, virtue is a habit towards moral excellence. It is part of the character of good, strong individuals, and the word comes from the Latin word “vir” meaning man, as our cultural ancestors considered these virtues to be manly characteristics. We might imagine fathers conveying these expectations to their sons as they taught them to hunt, to fight, to learn their traditions and their laws, to lead men, and to be a respectable spouse, father, and citizen. Roman fathers strove to raise their sons in manly virtues, so that the next generation would have the courage and strength to hold civilization and culture together.
While pagans had some virtues we can admire, there were others we find appalling. For Romans, reputation was everything. These were imperial men with a vision, but they were also violent men who destroyed whole civilizations in their quest to dominate the world. Pagan men in Roman culture could own slaves and concubines, force their children into political marriages, wed teenage girls decades younger than themselves, order their wives to have abortions, expose unwanted female newborns to the elements so they would die, kill their own children for no reason and with impunity, divorce their wives and leave them destitute in the streets. And, certainly, these men would have scoffed at the idea of their needing to be chaste.
But with the coming of the Christ, ideas about moral excellence became elevated. This is because our Lord challenged His disciples to look not so much to our earthly fathers, but instead to our heavenly Father for inspiration. He told us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. This is not to say that our earthly fathers cannot be admirable. On the contrary, they should be, and we are commanded to honor our parents. But, as Catholics, we admire our fathers more when they reflect the morality given to us by Christ. We want our fathers to be holy men of God, chaste lovers of their spouses, men who dare not trespass on the sacred nature of holy matrimony, men who hold women in esteem as partners in society, wise fathers who convey a holy fear and piety to their children, men who give of themselves not only for their families, but also for the broader community, selfless men who have courage to stand up for the rights of the poor and the marginalized, and men who are fearless in their adherence to and their proclamation of the Truth. And these characteristics were perhaps best personified in the chivalry of a Catholic knight.
If we’re honest, no Christian achieves this perfection every day, but clearly a moral standard has been presented for our families and culture, and virtues were and are essential in striving for this moral excellence. In our own times, there has been something of a failure in men. Men seem to have slipped back into a nearly pre-Christian decadence. Today, they can too often be weak morally (and honestly, women are just as responsible, for they have not demanded nor expected their men to be virtuous!). But how long can such a society stand? Can a culture without virtue long endure? Doubtful.
If you want to grow in virtue, a great place to start is the confessional. If you don’t go there first, and often, you will make little progress in the life of virtue. After that, the next step would be to read through the sections of the Catechism regarding the virtues. The teaching therein is priceless, and you can read through these pages at your own pace. Certainly, reading the Bible is another great place to learn, anecdotally, about virtues. Some of the heroes in the Bible teach us about heroic virtue, and other characters in the Bible teach us through their character flaws, but with these shared stories, we can re-learn the traditions of our ancestors, and thus, be prepared to share our culture with our own sons and daughters.
While the internet can lead us to some very dark places, it also has some very good blogs written by Catholic men. These blogs help us to meet other men who are holding up the torch and showing the way as they walk the same path with us. They help us appreciate that a Catholic life well-lived can itself help us grow in virtue. Hunting, participating in sports, and volunteering at the Church where we can be around other Catholic men can help. Maybe it can mean joining a fraternal organization like the Knights of Columbus, so you can be around other men desiring to live a moral and Christian life.
Most of all, we need to be aware of the life of virtue to which we are called. This life isn’t easy. It takes strength. But in the end, when our children lay us to rest with our Catholic ancestors, will they have learned what they will need to know in order to preserve our society, or will we have left them with a bad example of a weak conscience and little more? Seems to me virtue is, in the end, one of the few things we can take with us when we go.