The Virtue of Fortitude and Lawmaking
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
June 2009

In previous columns we looked at the virtues of prudence and justice. The third cardinal virtue is fortitude. According to the Catechism: “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.”

When we think of fortitude, we may recall the lives of Thomas More or John the Baptist, saints who faced imprisonment and death rather than give in to their fears or comfort. Fortitude, however, is not just for those facing dire consequences. To appreciate the need for fortitude in our lives and particularly the making of public policy it helps to look at fortitude’s “components” and related virtues.

First, prudence and right reason must guide fortitude. Second, fortitude is not really a virtue if is not directed to an ultimate good. Third, it requires patience, which is ultimately rooted in hope. Fourth, we must endure the hardships that may come. Lastly, we must persevere until the end.

Reflecting on these principles, it becomes apparent why the virtue of fortitude is important in the making of public policy, whether it be for public officials or Catholic citizens. Politics, not self-interest or partisan power, must be the aim of politics. Perseverance for narrow interests is ultimately in vain and not consistent with the virute of fortitude.

Similarly, struggling for the sake of ideology is misguided, which is why hope is important. Political ideologies tend to believe in the creation of a utopia or perfect world. Christians, however, accept that human efforts will never create the perfect world here on earth. At the same, we must always work for justice. We work for justice through the political system because we are Christians, not because we believe that our work will create a perfect kingdom or that we will ever see the fruits of our efforts while on earth. Living with this seeming paradox requires the virtue of fortitude grounded in hope and reason.

Fortitude provides those involved in public policy with the ability to withstand criticism, the loss of allies, ridicule, and political retribution for doing what is right. Sometimes this criticism comes from those who desire the same goals, as too often happens within the pro-life movement.

Doing good requires perseverance in the face of the slow pace of change. Here also, the experience of the pro-life cause is instructive. Thirty-five years of legalized abortion is thirty-five years too long. (For that matter, one day is too long.) It can cause some to throw away prudence and temperance, leading to rash actions. For others, it can cause despair and capitulation to the status quo. Fortitude prepares us for the long road down the right path.

I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating. Slavery was not abolished until 94 years after the founding of our nation. It took another 94 years before civil rights for African-Americans were secured by the civil rights acts. It took 144 years for women to get the right to vote and that was 72 years after the first major push for the right occurred at the Seneca Falls Convention. It took 42 years for blacks to see the end of apartheid in South Africa. The people of the Soviet Union were denied freedom for 74 years. It took over 100 years for Catholics to regain civil rights in England. Native Americans did not gain citizenship until 1924. The struggle for independence in India took 90 years.

Thirty-five years is too long, but it is not reason to give up hope or abandon the virtues of prudence and fortitude.