Political Implications of Religion as a Moral Virtue

A good deal of what the Catholic Church teaches about the state and her relationship to it belongs to the province of philosophy. It belongs to those truths of the faith that are naturally knowable and don’t require revelation. This distinction should be familiar. There are some truths that the Church teaches which we can’t know by unaided reason although they aren’t contrary to reason. Among these truths are that God is a Trinity of Persons and that the Son of God became man. There are other truths that the Church teaches which we can know by unaided reason, although it often requires a fair amount of effort to recognize them. Among these truths are that God exists and that the human soul is immortal. The Church proposes both sorts of truths for our belief.

To return to the Church-state question, recently I wrote an essay in which I argued for the continuing normativity of the Catholic confessional state. Christopher Tollefsen responded with a thoughtful critique and I have replied to him. In my reply I offered a list of truths relevant to the Church’s teaching in this area that are within philosophy’s reach. It wasn’t the place to expand on the items on the list, but here I would like to expand on one of them. I would like to argue that religion is more than just a virtue; it is a moral virtue. If this is so, then the state is obliged to promote it for the good of civic life and public wellbeing.

What are Virtues?
Most will know that virtues are good things and that we ought to have them, and most may also know that certain things are virtues—say, courage or generosity—but they may, nevertheless, be a bit fuzzy on the precise nature of virtue.

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Toward the end of Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates explains virtue, aretē, as that which helps something to perform its characteristic activity well. The word which I’m translating as “characteristic activity” is the Greek word ergon, which can also be rendered as “action,” “task,” or “function.” I think that “characteristic activity” is the best translation in the context since Socrates tells us that by ergon he means what some given thing alone can do or what it does best. Thus, for example, he says that cutting is the ergon of a knife. Naturally, sharpness is what helps a knife to cut well, so sharpness would be the knife’s “virtue.”

I think Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas more or less follow the Platonic notion of virtue, but there is more they would add to the story. Yes, a virtue is what helps us to perform our ergon well, but more than this we can say that a virtue is a habit. A habit is a settled disposition to act or live in a certain way. Consequently, a virtue would be a settled disposition to act or live well as human beings, that is, to do well what characterizes us as human beings.

What distinguishes us from other animals is our rationality, which is another name for our powers of intellect and will. Human virtue, then, would dispose us to use our intellect and will well.

Just as we would say that a sharp knife is a good knife or (if we’re feeling more philosophical) that sharpness “perfects” a knife, in view of the activity of cutting, we would say that people are good or perfected because they are virtuous, meaning that their intellects and wills are well-disposed.

For Aristotle and Thomas, living a life in accord with virtue is what human happiness or flourishing is.

Understanding what virtue is allows us to understand what vice is, too, because vice is the opposite of virtue. Vice is a disposition that leads us to perform our ergon badly. And doing that will mean a life of misery rather than happiness.

What Kinds of Virtues are There?
My intellect is the power by which I understand things and my will is the power by which I, under the guidance of my intellect, am moved to act. Given that intellect and will have different purposes, we should not be surprised that they have different virtues which, when pursued, help them to accomplish their objective.

The virtues of the intellect we call intellectual virtues and those of the will we call moral virtues. Of course, since the intellect guides the will, its virtues (and vices) indirectly impact the will and since developing any virtue at all requires a movement of the will toward achieving the good that is virtue, the virtues (and vices) of the will indirectly impact the intellect.

In Books 5 and 6 of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides an extensive catalogue of the intellectual and moral virtues and, in the secunda secundae of his Summa Theologiae, Thomas provides an even more extensive catalogue of them.

Religion as a Moral Virtue
Among the moral virtues, Thomas includes religion. If we don’t read carefully through Thomas’s treatment of religion, we may be puzzled by his claim that it’s a moral virtue. Does Thomas really think of the practice of Islam or Zoroastrianism as virtuous? He doesn’t. Thomas isn’t thinking of religion as just any given system of belief and practice centered on a purported divinity (or divinities). We could call this the sociological concept of religion. This can be a useful definition of religion in some contexts (and I’ll be using the term “religion” in this sense, too), but it’s not what Thomas has in mind when he tells us that religion is a virtue (although it’s not unrelated to this).

For Thomas, religion as a moral virtue is a species of justice. Justice is the most social of the moral virtues because it is the moral virtue by which we are well-disposed to give others what is their due, i.e., what we owe them. If I’ve borrowed your car, justice disposes me to return it when I’m done with it. If you’ve been generous to me, justice disposes me to express my gratitude to you. Without justice, our relationships with other people would sour pretty quickly, and, without justice, families and political communities would fall apart.

Religion, as you might have already surmised, deals with what we owe God. But what exactly is that? As creator, we owe God absolutely everything. We wouldn’t exist nor would any world exist at all without God’s creative activity. What we should offer God in return, says Thomas, is cultus, i.e., “worship,” which he treats as synonymous with religio. The principal act of worship or religion is devotio, i.e., “devotion.” Devotion here means subjecting ourselves entirely to God, or, in other words, giving ourselves back totally to God.

There are a number of things that evidently follow from devotion so understood. Particularly relevant for our discussion is what it implies about natural law. If I have subjected myself entirely to God, then I shall certainly observe whatever moral laws he has established since not doing so would be contrary to devotion. Natural law, as Thomas conceives of it, is the moral law that God has “written on our hearts.” Thus, religion as a moral virtue obliges us to adhere to natural law. If we understand religion as a moral virtue, then acting against the natural law could never be a true religious motivation nor could it ever be justified by invoking religion.

Before moving on I should also note the primacy of religion among the moral virtues. One reason for this primacy is that God is our highest good; only in him are our intellect and will completely fulfilled. As St. Augustine says: inquietum est cor nostrum donec quiescat in te—“our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Devotion thus returns as a means to achieve fulfillment, for devotion, Thomas explains, leads us to direct all our actions to God as our ultimate end.

Religion as a Moral Vice
We’re told that people do awful things in the name of religion. This is a favorite refrain of the New Atheists. But it’s also an old one. Consider these words of the Baron d’Holbach written toward the end of the eighteenth century in Le bon sens:

In what consists the much vaunted utility of a religion that nobody can understand, that unceasingly torments those feeble-minded enough to busy themselves with it, that is incapable of making men better, and that frequently makes them think it meritorious to be unjust and malicious? … Religion has never done anything but fill the mind of man with darkness and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interests.

I have already noted that the term “religion” has more than one sense. The “moral” case against religion can only succeed—if it can at all—if by “religion” we mean something other than the moral virtue that I’ve been talking about. As I have just argued, as a moral virtue, religion can’t dispose us to do anything contrary to natural law. In the final analysis, then, the alleged moral case against religion has no force, or at least it doesn’t against the Thomistic view of religion as a moral virtue, which is the definition of religion being used here. (For those who reject natural law ethics, a response would need to be offered in a separate essay.)

Obviously, we can and do make mistakes in the way we think about God. We can mistake a false god—a god of our own design, an idol—for the true God. In that event, religion becomes a vice rather than a virtue because our devotion is directed toward an idol rather than God. Indeed, we would have to say that our “religion” is a false religion or that it’s religion only in the sociological sense. We may still follow the natural law in some fashion but its connection to our “religion” will be accidental.

Discussing virtue in Book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that “there are many ways to get it wrong … but only one way to get it right” and he goes on to say that “this is why error is easy but correctness is difficult; it’s easy to miss the target but hard to hit it.” To put it another way: virtue is singular, vice is plural. If we relate this to religion as a moral virtue, it would seem that we would have to say that there can only be one true religion, not many. In the contemporary West, we are uncomfortable with this sort of view since we tend to assume that pluralism is always a good thing. Aristotle wouldn’t have agreed.

De Religione et Civitate
How should we see religion as a moral virtue figuring in the state?

To maintain their stability and to be places where human beings flourish, political communities depend on the virtue of their citizens. This is one of the lessons Socrates tries to teach Thrasymachus in the Republic. Political communities, then, have a natural interest in virtue and it would seem that they should do everything they reasonably can to encourage it and discourage vice.

Virtue is best learned in families, in friendships, in other smaller communities, and in the Church. The laws of a political community should be designed to support these efforts in the appropriate way but certainly not take their place.

If religion is a moral virtue and the most important of the moral virtues, then it would appear that states should concern themselves with promoting it as far as they practically can in their given cultural and historical contexts. However, this obligation would hold only with respect to the true religion and not with respect to whatever else claims to be a religion.

What I’m proposing plainly conflicts with political liberalism, as this doctrine calls for the state to be religiously neutral. But such neutrality just isn’t possible. One obvious reason why it’s not is that, in calling for the state’s religious neutrality, political liberalism must in principle reject integralist religions like Catholicism. Whether any liberal theorists or polities admit or recognize this opposition to integralist religions is irrelevant since what we’re talking about here is a logical entailment. This isn’t to say that Catholicism and liberalism are opposed on every point. To be sure, there are also points of agreement. But insofar as the Church teaches the Catholic confessional state as the ideal, Catholicism is unacceptable to liberalism. The converse is also true: on the relevant point liberalism is unacceptable to Catholicism.

In fact, if what I’ve said about religion as a moral virtue is right, and if religion so understood should relate to the state as I have suggested, then on the relevant point liberalism is also unacceptable philosophically.

Editor’s note: Pictured above “The Coronation of Charles VII of France (1429),” depicted in Jeanne d’Arc (1886–1890) by Jules Eugène Lenepveu.


  • Joseph G. Trabbic

    Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and is the assistant editor of Thomistica.net, a website for the academic study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Trabbic earned his doctorate from Fordham University in 2008.

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