I recently read a review of a book about Margaret Thatcher which argued that: “Thatcher . . . . wanted to restore the balance of virtues in Britain away from current sentimentalities such as compassion and toward the ‘vigorous virtues’ of courage and enterprise.” What struck me about the remark is that virtues can become their own enemies unless they are counterbalanced with other virtues. Thus if a society fosters only compassion at the expense of courage and enterprise, it risks becoming decadent and incapable of defending itself because it no longer fosters the virtue of courage.

What is called for is what I shall not hesitate to call the virtue of zeal. Indeed, in the Gospel, Jesus justifies his driving out the moneychangers from the temple precincts, by invoking the prophecy of Isaiah: “Zeal for my Father’s house consumes me.”

Now we live in a civilization that tends to look askance at zeal. One who shows zeal, after all, is known as a zealot , a word that has pejorative connotations, as does its cognate zealotry . These words conjure up an image of a fanatic, a beady-eyed maniac who, in Winston Churchill’s immortal words, “can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

Of course, it has been recognized since the days of Aristotle that virtues, when taken to extremes, lead to vices. Virtue for Aristotle is the mean between two vicious extremes. Courage, for example, is the midpoint between foolhardiness and cowardice. Similarly, the twin vices of enterprise would be cutthroat capitalism or laziness.

So let us admit: There is an extreme form of zeal that does lead to fanaticism. But there is also its opposite vice: lassitude , a devil-may-care attitude that refuses to get involved.

I have long thought that one reason the sex-abuse crisis became so extreme was the lack of zeal on the part of bishops, who put an alleged “compassion” for abusive priests over the obvious welfare of their flocks. Many abusers, after all, perpetrated their crimes because of some kind of perverse compulsion. But bishops were under no psychological compulsion to move abusive priests from parish to parish, from therapist to therapist. Yet they did; and I cannot help but think they did so because they colluded in a culture that values compassion over zeal. For true zeal would have led them to drive out such crimes from their dioceses. And this is the real danger for Christians today, a casual attitude toward our religion, a lassitude that lives out that famous line often attributed to Edmund Burke: For evil to thrive, all that is necessary is that good men do nothing.

The reason good Christians do nothing is because of this casual attitude toward sin . Zeal is really a function of one’s outrage at sin, just as anger is a natural reaction to injustice. Of course anger is also dangerous, since we are far more willing to be outraged at injustices to ourselves than to others. The same with zeal, which becomes fanaticism when we are more outraged at others’ sins than our own. But a refusal to acknowledge sin at all, in either ourselves or others, has led to the crisis the Church faces today. For without a sense of sin, we end up with the situation described so well by H. Richard Niebuhr as early as 1937: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Without zeal, Christianity becomes a hollow shell of itself.

One of Cardinal Newman’s sermons in his Parochial and Plain Sermons is called “Jewish Zeal, A Pattern to Christians.” After reviewing various episodes of Jewish courage in the Old Testament, from the battle-hardened Israelites to the denunciations of Jeremiah, Newman comes to this conclusion:

What the Old Testament especially teaches us is this: “ that zeal is as essentially a duty of all God’s rational creatures, as [are] prayer and praise, faith and submission; and, surely, if so, [then] especially of sinners whom He has redeemed: that zeal consists in a strict attention to His commands”a scrupulousness, vigilance, heartiness, and punctuality, which bears with no reasoning or questioning about them”an intense thirst for the advancement of His glory”a shrinking from the pollution of sin and sinners”an indignation, nay impatience, at witnessing His honor insulted”a quickness of feeling when His name is mentioned, and a jealousy how it is mentioned”a fullness of purpose, an heroic determination to yield Him service at whatever sacrifice of personal feeling”and an energetic resolve to push through all difficulties, were they as mountains, when His eye or hand but gives the sign”a carelessness of obloquy, or reproach, or persecution, a forgetfulness of friend and relative, nay, a hatred (so to say) of all that is naturally dear to us, when He says, “Follow me.”

If we truly mean what we pray every day, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” then we are bound to feel zeal. For zeal really is the sense of discrepancy between what God wills for the world and how the world actually behaves. If we sense that discrepancy, then we are bound to feel the zeal Jesus did: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and would it were already kindled!”

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake and is the author and he is the author, most recently, of Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology (Eerdmans).

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Articles by Edward T. Oakes

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