When I was studying for certification in Catholic health care ethics, I attended a conference that addressed the issue of selling human organs. The ethicist explained that one of the reasons to object to this practice is that it removes an opportunity for virtue. He further asserted that even an atheist could accept this argument. Now there are many reasons to reject the concept of selling human organs. It exploits the poor and vulnerable. It demeans the human person by reducing the body to a collection of commodities. And I certainly agree that selling body parts does rob one of the opportunity to practice the virtue of generosity. However, I am not convinced that virtue in and of itself is universally seen as a desirable attribute. I listen to many pragmatists that argue results are what matter. If the supply of organs for transplant increases, why should we worry if the reason for the increase is the enhancement of wealth for the donor?
Fr. Araujo at Mirror of Justice offers an eloquent discussion of virtue and its role in citizenship.
So what is it that is so important about the virtuous citizen? He or she treasures the freedom about which the President spoke, but this person also recognizes that the rights and claims that attend this freedom must surely be accompanied by a healthy understanding of responsibilities and obligations to all others who have the right to make and perfect the same claims.
The virtuous citizen, I suggest, would be cognizant of this. The virtuous citizen would know that what has made the rule of law established by the “alliance of shared values” so admired in many places throughout the world is the recognition of what is authentically just—to each person his or her due, and the further recollection of what is justice—right relationship between and among all members of the human family. The virtues of humility, prudence, courage, hope, fidelity, wisdom, and others make this recognition and recollection essential elements of human existence and the actions which ensue from this existence.
The President did speak of the importance of human dignity to the shared values and ideals. But this dignity must be founded not on what powerful and influential pressure groups say it is but rather on what right reason establishes it to be. Sometimes this conclusion is contrary to what the culture insists. Illustrations of this point are found in human history associated with these shared ideals. But, the examples of Thomas More and John Fisher quickly come to mind. As Jacques Maritain defined it in 1943, human dignity is that which is due the person simply because he or she is human. With this point about dignity in evidence, the virtuous citizen would acknowledge that the core of the shared values of which the President spoke must necessarily incorporate the non-derogable right to life and continued existence by every member of the human family if human dignity is to have substantive meaning; moreover, these values must come to the aid and protection of the fundamental unit of every human society, viz. the nuclear family.
Without recognition of these points, the shared values of which the President frequently mentioned can be negatively influenced by human whim and caprice as I have already stated. The circumstance where these values are compromised by human fancy would be the very sort of thing of which Blessed John Paul II taught can make a democracy a thinly disguised totalitarianism. The President appeared to acknowledge something about the beliefs of the virtuous citizen when he said, “It has been the values that we must never waver in defending around the world – the idea that all beings are endowed by our Creator with certain rights that cannot be denied.” The virtuous citizen knows from where his or her being originated and that he or she is not the only one who was so created.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines human virtue:
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. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.
The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love. (CCC 1804)
Because they are habits, virtues must be practiced and strengthened by repeated use. They are difficult because of our fallen human nature. However, with God's grace, they are attainable.
It is not easy for man, wounded by sin, to maintain moral balance. Christ's gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues. Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evil.(CCC 1811)
Perhaps today it would be good to reflect on the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Perhaps I will also think about patience. It is far more important to say my walk through life was a virtuous journey than to say it was a materially successful venture. And truthfully, no matter how hard I try, I will never be able to guarantee a glitch-free day. So a little patience needs to be packed in my purse right next to my organizer.