Virtue: Aristotle vs. Catholic Church

Ellis Bittner Period 5 Honorbound

The relationship between church and state is one that has, for a majority of history, been heavily debated. Some believe that the church and government should not be separated, and believe that religious values equally serve as judicial principles. Others, however, do not think the church has any place in the government and therefore do not think any religious principles deserve governmental backing. In relation to the churches involvement in the government and vice versa, one must consider the  requirements a government has for its laws. While religious and non religious citizens may have different ideas for the ideal behavior of a society, a majority can agree on certain virtues desired for all people. Stemming from this understanding the conversation opens to the role laws have in molding virtuous citizens, and therefore the responsibility a government has to help create a virtuous society. Aristotle believed that a government has the responsibility of using its laws to create a more virtuous society while the Catholic Church teaches that a government is only responsible for ensuring a safe environment for individuals to work on gaining virtue. By comparing these two ideas and considering the current laws of the United States one can see which ideas are represented in the countries laws and therefore which opinion the modern society agrees with. The purpose of this research is to consider the question: Is it the governments job to train its society to be virtuous or not?

In order to properly answer this question one must first decide what a virtue is and then discern where the responsibility for implementing it in a society lays. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that, “Virtue…is a habit or trained faculty of choice, the characteristic of which lies in moderation or observance of the mean relatively to the persons concerned, as determined by reason… the prudent man would determine.”1 Here he shares that virtue is something only gained by action, not innate or achieved through thoughts. It is only in doing that one gains virtue, and since a government is responsible for restricting and or requiring certain actions of its citizens, aiding in its citizens journey towards virtue is something they are capable of. Aristotle communicated this idea later, stating “the legislators make their citizens good by training”2. It is obvious, then, that Aristotle believes that the government shoulders the responsibility of implementing laws that require certain actions of citizens, actions which become habits and therefore become virtues. Aristotle believes that laws should not only protect citizens rights but must also aim to create a more virtuous and good society. Additionally, Aristotle includes in his definition of virtue that the good actions which form virtue are to be discerned by a prudent man, one with the knowledge necessary to make intelligent and good decisions with the end goal in mind. While there is no society in which all members make prudent decisions or are even educated enough to do so, a government is typically composed of well educated members of any given society who are capable of prudent decisions. This further imposes the responsibility a government has in aiding in the virtue of its citizen.

In comparison of Aristotle’s view of virtue, the Catholic Church agrees with his definition but has a slightly different idea on the governments responsibility of creating laws in relationship with virtue. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church it is written that “Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith… The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good. The moral virtues are acquired by human effort.”3 It is once again confirmed that virtue is only the result of good acts which become habits, however the churches idea of where these actions stem from differs from Aristotle’s. The church believes that “Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good.”4 The responsibly here falls on each individual, who must educate themselves and with Gods help continue to seek out what good actions are and do them until they gain that virtue. In the eyes of the church gaining virtue is a more independent task, one that cannot be acquired without isolated efforts and thought of ones own actions. While the catholic Church states that “it is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society”5 it does not say that the virtue of a society is something the government has control over. Later common good is defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily”6 revealing that the church believes the government has the responsibility of ensuring that citizens live in an environment in which it is possible to practice good actions and gain virtue, but the government does not have a direct hand in creating laws which will directly aid in the virtue of its citizens.

Comparing these two similar but different views of the responsibility governments have for a virtuous society, one must then look at current laws. In this case the laws of the United States will be considered in order to determine which laws promote the advancement of virtue and which laws serve to create an environment in which one can become for virtuous. In regards to Aristotle’s ideas the conversation first opens to what laws serve to “train” United States citizens in order to make them more virtuous. In regards to actions there several limitations that prevent people from developing their vices rather than virtues. Making things like theft, crime,and murder illegal conditions a society to not promote evil acts and accordingly to promote the good. Additionally government implemented benefits of charitable acts, such as tax breaks for some donations, promotes a charitable and therefore more virtuous society. On the other hand one must now consider laws that create an environment that allows personal virtue advancement, which tends to agree with the Catholic Church’s idea of the responsibility of the government. Laws such as freedom of religion creates a safe environment in which people can exercise whatever actions they choose, within reason, and are therefore able to develop their virtue on an individual basis. 

In closing one must readdress the originally posed question: is it the governments job to train its society to be virtuous or not? By considering both Aristotle’s ideas as well as the Catholic Church’s teachings it is possible to understand what some require of their government. Both parties agree that a virtue can only be gained through repetitive action and therefore the government should at least ensure that these actions are allowed. They different, however, in that Aristotle believes a government is further responsible for instantiating behavior requirements for its citizens in order to promote a virtuous society. The answer to this question, then, lays in the beliefs and religious orientation of the person considering the answer. This said it is clear that the government does have an important role in the  virtue of its society.

  1. Aristotle. “Book II.” In The Nicomachean Ethics, Section 6.

     2. Aristotle. “Book II.” In The Nicomachean Ethics, Section 1.

     3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed.,1804

    4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed.,1810

    5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed.,1910

    6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed.,1906

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