Homily no. 30 – ‘Virtue, Sin, and Social Justice’ (CCC 1803–1948)

Corpus Christi 2012

Corpus Christi 2012 (Photo credit: Phil Roussin Photography – PBR Photos)

This beautiful feast of Corpus Christi — the ‘Body of Christ’ — reminds us that the heart of our life as Catholics is the Holy Mass, where we gather to receive from Jesus the graces He won for us on the Cross and in the Resurrection, and which He gives to us in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.  The Body & Blood of the Lord is the living evidence of Christ’s vibrant love for Man, His Sacrifice and self-giving.  Quite apart from anything else, our feeding on the Eucharist helps us to grow in His likeness, helps us to live as He lived, a moral life of self-giving.

We began our reflections on the moral life — the 3rd of 4 great sections of the Catechism — 3 weeks ago.  It’s a question of our faith guiding us not only in what we believe about God, the universe and man, but also about how we are to behave in order to be good.  The moral life, as we all know very well, is a tussle between the virtues and the vices, between our good instincts and our base instincts, between the Holy Spirit’s inspiration for us to do the good, and the devil’s inclination to go against what is good.  There is always will be, sadly, that war within ourselves between virtue and vice.  St Paul speaks frankly of it, doesn’t he, in that passage where he says, “instead of doing the good things I want to do, I carry out the sinful things I do not want” (Rom 7:19).

When we speak of virtue, the good inclinations, we mean firstly the human moral virtues, usually listed as Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance: Prudence is to the virtue of mind to discern the good thing to do; Justice is the commitment to do that good, to God and to neighbour; Fortitude is the strength to carry out that good intention, overcoming obstacles; and Temperance moderates our desire for pleasure, restraining ourselves, keeping our appetites ‘in check.’  These virtues are acquired and strengthened by doing good.  The more we do good, the more exercised our virtue is, and the more we then desire to do good; we are fitter and more likely to do good.  To these human virtues are added the virtues that come from faith — specifically Christian virtues that give us even greater moral strength: these are Faith, Hope, and Charity (Love).  [Our first diocesan handout was on ‘What is Faith’?  and our latest diocesan handout was on the virtue of Charity, caritas … Take a look at them if you missed out.]   Faith is the virtue by which we believe in God, and give over our lives in trust to Him; Hope is the virtue by which we look for fulfilment in the coming Kingdom of God, knowing that God brings about all that is good, in His own time, and ultimately in eternity; and Love (Charity) is the crown of these virtues, for whilst Faith and Hope last only for this lifetime, and are no longer needed in heaven, yet Love lasts for ever: as St Paul says, “faith, hope and love … and the greatest of these is love.”  These virtues come from God, that’s why they’re called ‘theological virtues,’ and should be virtues cultivated by us as Christians.  They are gifts from God, but gifts we should desire, and strengthen, so as to grow closer and closer to the Lord as life goes on, and not drift away from Him.

Unfortunately, the virtues in us can often be compromised by our alliance with sin; our cultivation, instead, of vices; our reluctance to deal with sin and be strict about cutting it our of our life.  Sin is a huge problem, and a huge mystery too … the co-existence of evil in our world can compromise many an action; and yet a resistance to sin can also provide the opportunity for heroic virtue.  Mankind is prone to sin, now, sadly, by the committing of sin, disobedience against God, at the dawn of man’s history: the Fall, as we call it, was that moment when our first parents misused their free will to succumb to the Devil’s promptings to rebel against God.  This turning-away from the Creator by His creation was a dreadful moment is history, akin to a ‘nuclear explosion’ being let off in our moral history.  The repercussions have spread out like a tidal wave across the centuries: this ‘original sin’ leaves us all with a tendency to resist the good and give in to sin.  Sadly, just as exercise in the virtues leads to a growth in virtue, so instead a repeated habit of sin can lead us into a downward spiral of vice, in which lesser evils are the slippery slope to greater evils.  If we were each honest, I’m sure we know this trend.  Giving in to a little sin makes a bigger sin seem all the less horrific — and before we know it, we can be committing almost without a concern wrongs that we might never once have imagined doing.  The experience of St Paul again comes to mind when he nearly despairs of his sinful tendencies: “[I am] a prisoner of that law of sin which lives inside my body.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7: 23–25).  Fighting on our side (in fact, fighting within us as we are joined on to Him in Baptism) is our divine Saviour.  It remains hard to be good, and we must still be vigilant against sin and temptation, but with God on our side, who could be against us?  Our Lord Jesus overcame sin, temptation and the power of the devil when He conquered in His victory on the Cross.  In order to be virtuous; in order to overcome sin we need only to be close to Him, commit to Him, and take advantage of His grace.  Christ is our forgiveness when we have strayed, and our strength to resist the vile charm of evil.  We must arm and protect ourselves with the Lord’s grace.  After Baptism, this grace and protection are afforded most of all by Prayer, Confession and Communion — the Sacraments that are the mainstay of a holy Christian life.

Before we end for today, I want just to say a quick word about social justice: our commitment one to another.  Our struggle to do good and avoid evil is not a solitary one.  First, in the sense that we are there to support one another as the Church.  If one of us is weak or sinful, another is stronger and prayerful to pick us up and urge us back to Christ.  And second, in that as a race we have a universal commitment to goodness.  We are one race, descendants all of one set of human parents, a hundred thousand years ago or more … we are one brotherhood.  We are therefore duty bound to care for one another.  Cain, who jealously killed his brother Abel, at the dawn of time, famously said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The correct answer is: Yes, I am my brother and sister’s keeper; I owe it to God and the brotherhood of man to help each and every person to their fulfilment and to the highest good.  May God give us growth in virtue! — may He give us the grace and the commitment to struggle constantly to overcome our sins, vices and evil tendencies.  May we never give up on Him, or compromise with sin, or despair in life’s battle against the evil one.  And may the Lord make us examples of virtue, people who go out of their way to help others also to be good.  Jesus, meek and humble of heart, the pure and gracious One, make my heart like unto Thine. 

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About Fr Philip Miller

I'm the Catholic Parish Priest at St Augustine's, Hoddesdon, Herts, UK, in the diocese of Westminster. This cycle of homilies is one of my contributions to this parish's life in the 'Year of Faith' (Oct 2012 - Nov 2013) called for by Pope Benedict XVI to renew the Church's understanding of the faith.
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