Is courage a virtue, and what does it mean to be properly courageous? In Summa Theologiae St. Thomas Aquinas begins to answer these questions by distinguishing among three kinds of virtue. First are the intellectual virtues that enable us to reason rightly. Second is the virtue of justice, by which we set things right in human affairs. And third are the virtues of courage and temperance that enable us to work for justice by removing obstacles to it.
While temperance makes it possible for us to pursue justice without being lured by pleasures that would distract us from justice, courage is the virtue by which we overcome difficulties and dangers inherent in the pursuit of justice. Courage renders the will capable of justice.
But there is no courage without fear. Fear, for Aquinas, is the natural and healthy passion that we experience when we perceive the threat of separation from what we most deeply love: “All fear arises from love, since no one fears save what is contrary to something he loves”.(St. Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologiae). Healthy fear is important, indeed essential, for a rightly formed life. In fact, Aquinas argues that when people do not experience fear, either because of a lack of love for themselves or for others or due to reckless disregard of danger, they cannot be said to be courageous, even if they act in daring and audacious ways. Courage is not the absence of fear but the strength in our fear to confront obstacles to justice and then to endure the pain and hardship that this confrontation brings.
This last year has raised many fears in our society, some are beginning to wane as we get the pandemic under some form of control but I believe the Church will face an even tough test in the years to come. The church we know and love will change, is changing and has already changed and that change brings fear for so many people.
We know well what it means to be, as the hymn goes, “tossed about / with many a conflict, many a doubt; / fightings within, and fears without.” But there is wisdom and grace in the hymn’s next words: “O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” (Charlotte Elliott – ‘Just as I am, without one plea’ – Singing the Faith 556). Aquinas recognised that ordinary courage will always fail, simply because some obstacles—especially death— are so formidable. But in Jesus Christ, we bear witness to life beyond death and to justice beyond our present experience. In the triumph of this, we are granted courage that comes not from our own effort but from the work of the Holy Spirit in us. In Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we find strength to challenge, to persevere, and to be patient.
Abiding in Jesus in times of fear is neither a quick fix nor a way to avoid engaging pain and injustice. On the contrary, in the hope of Jesus we are able to address pain and injustice directly without being overcome by fear or despair. We say with Peter: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). And we hear him say to us, “Take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).
What does it mean to be courageous in our time? It means we take full account of our fears without denying them. It means we honestly examine not only our fears
but also the loves that give rise to our fears. It means we work to confront threats to justice and to rightly ordered loves, and we do so with patience and with hope. And it means, above all else, that we renounce any idolatrous presumption that the work is ours alone. We lean into Jesus, in whose life we participate and who alone makes faithful courage possible.
God bless and stay safe,