The Virtue of Temperance and Lawmaking
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
July/August 2009

The fourth cardinal virtue is temperance. Again, the Catechism is instructive:

Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion: "Do not follow your inclination and strength, walking according to the desires of your heart." Temperance is often praised in the Old Testament: "Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites." In the New Testament it is called "moderation" or "sobriety." We ought "to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world."

Most commentaries on temperance focus on distinctly physical pleasures such as food, sex, and luxuries. However, as the Catechism notes, temperance extends to moderating other pleasures as well.

From ancient kings to today’s lawmakers, the attraction of physical pleasures has distracted and even corrupted those charged with pursuing and preserving the common good. Politicians are dined by lobbyists, given special considerations for tickets to performances and sporting events, transported in luxury, and given choice hotel accommodations. These actions are not in themselves always bad. They can, however, have a corrupting influence. The scale is certainly tipped when a public official is motivated by a desire for more of these privileges rather than a desire to pursue the public good. Perhaps worse is when a person cannot distinguish between the two.

For many in public life, power itself corrupts more than the food, special attention, or wealth. The ability to get someone to do something that he or she would not otherwise do is a gift. Like any gift or skill, we must use it wisely. That is where the virtues of prudence and justice come into play. The exercise of power, however, has a residual effect on the person exercising it. The feeling of empowerment is like a drug and many cannot resist wanting more. Thus, even when power is used wisely, it can corrupt.
Temperance prevents a person from desiring political power for the sake of power or exercising power for the sake of exercising power. In other words, it can prevent the separation of power from its proper ends.

Lobbyists can also benefit from the virtue of temperance. For one thing, the lobbyist’s world is often similar to the politician’s, with its dining, outings, travel, and power. Similar to the problem of acquiring power solely for the sake of using it, lobbyists, political activists, and issue advocates can be driven by the desire to win so much that the reason for winning becomes lost. For those truly committed to serving Christ by pursuing the common good, this is how the devil can corrupt an otherwise good act. The lobbyist may accomplish the right thing - for example, defeating a bill to expand abortion - while jeopardizing his or her soul because he or she did it for the wrong reason.

Public policies themselves can fuel our own appetites, taking advantage of our human weaknesses. Economic systems can be structured to reward the pursuit of solely material wealth. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, touches upon this very problem. “Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty,” he writes.

Just as government has a role in developing economic systems that do not give undue emphasis on profit, it can foster and not hinder temperance in more specific tasks. For example, the encyclical also warns against tourism that “follows a consumerist and hedonistic pattern, as a form of escapism.” Since tourism is often closely connected to government policies, public policy has a role to play in ensuring that tourism fosters rather than hinders true human development.

An appeal to read Caritas in Veritate is a fitting way to end this series on the cardinal virtues and public policy. The Pope’s call to infuse all policies with love formed by truth requires the instillment of virtue and virtuous actions by people of good will. This relationship between love, truth and virtue is why the Catechism begins its discussion on virtue by quoting Saint Paul:

"Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Phil 4:8)