Gilded Cowardice: The Chief Vice of Our Time
Based on my experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and now as a law student, I have an observation about our cultural sickness, a sickness I believe is connected to one principal malady: a severe lack of moral courage. I am convinced that this dearth of courage, especially amongst my peers, is why the moral rot that envelops us all is as bad as it looks and feels.
I begin with an age-old adage: We are what we repeatedly do. Thus, the man who prays daily becomes a prayerful man, and the woman who regularly and consistently puts others before herself for love of them and of Christ is slowly but surely transformed into “the last of all and the servant of all”—and so becomes greatest in the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mk. 9:33-35).
Things we repeatedly do are habits. Habits are “dispositions of the soul.” Courage, rightly understood, is a habit; in other words, one does not, by sheer force of will in a single moment “become courageous.” The soldier who risks his life to help a wounded fellow soldier caught in the teeth of enemy gunfire can and does do that because, as a civilian, he stood up for what was right when the costs to him were comparatively miniscule.
Aquinas teaches that the sum total of our habits constitutes our “second nature,” or our habitual existence—who we are across time.
Thus, the man who has made a habit of acting courageously in matters small, who has disposed himself to be courageous in ordinary situations, can rightly be called a “man of courage,” even if he never actually rushes into a burning building to save an infant or gives his life in exchange for another, as did St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Saint of Auschwitz. That’s because he can be courageous in those situations if need be.
Christ concurs, telling us, in the context of the parable of the servants and talents, that “to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matt. 25:29). He who has the courage to stand up to those who bully a friend-less peer will be given yet more courage—by God’s grace and because of his own repeated acts of courage—up to and including the courage to spend his life for the Faith (see CCC 1608).
But he who shirks the duty to be courageous in defense of the poor, the weak, and the truth will find himself becoming more and more cowardly. For courage, like the other cardinal virtues, is akin to a muscle; unless we use it, we lose it.
Too many people nowadays are not exercising courage, and it shows. Many say they are simply opting to emphasize a different virtue, namely, prudence—“the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (CCC 1806).
Which is all well and good, but the Catechism also warns that prudence is “not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation.”
My peers too often rationalize avoiding difficult situations in the name of prudence, and it needs to stop. If we do not stand up for what we believe here at Notre Dame, what makes us think that we will be able to do it upon graduation?
The pressures do not lessen when we get our diploma; they intensify. There are far more incentives, particularly of the financial variety, to go with the flow when we are alumni than when we walk the idyllic grounds of Our Lady’s University.
Some will insist that they are simply “keeping a low profile” until they attain a position of influence and prestige, and then, when they are powerful, they will be a champion of their and like-minded others’ values and beliefs.
But this is nonsense. Recall what was said about courage at the outset: It’s a habit; therefore, one must, throughout the whole of one’s life, repeatedly act courageously in order to really be courageous.
The person who spends his whole life maneuvering a gauntlet of systems hostile to his convictions by keeping quiet is a person who will be incapable of acting any differently once he is at the top of whatever pecking order he has been climbing. He can’t do otherwise; he has habituated himself to be a person who prioritizes his own advancement over and against acting courageously. And besides, there is always a little bit more prestige or money he can earn. Will a lifelong social climber suddenly find within himself the courage to stop climbing and take a stand?
To ask is to answer.
If you do not speak up, nobody else will; if you do not defend your beliefs, they will be destroyed by those who hate them. We overestimate the harm that would befall us if we were to stand upright in the face of disagreement. As someone who does it regularly, I can say that with confidence. A misplaced, shadowy fear of cripplingly horrible outcomes keeps us on the sidelines, to the detriment of our own flourishing and the common good.
But it’s a mirage, one that shatters upon contact with a person willing to speak the truth boldly, plainly, and in charity—a person willing to back up their talk with action.
It has already been done once, and with His help, we can participate in the work. The Lord tells us we have nothing to fear—“In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn. 16:33).
We would do well to listen to Him.
Deion A. Kathawa