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A Catholic Primer on “New Year Resolutions”
What Does Living a Virtuous Life Mean?
As the year 2022 begins there is little doubt that we will read about in the popular press, or perhaps even pronounce ourselves, attempts to enter into the new year by making any number of “New Year Resolutions” — pronouncements of intentions to improve one or several aspects of our daily lives. Given the popularity of this annual rite of resolution-pronouncements, it makes sense to ask what these new or refined “virtues” are in the first place that we are wish or resolve to instill within ourselves as we begin a new year? And relatedly in the sense of our Catholic faith, how do such virtues interface with human psychology and our daily intentions and interactions in our devotion to Christ?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.” This “habitual and firm disposition” in a Thomistic sense – meaning according to Saint Thomas Aquinas – is the fruit of the proper ordering of the powers of the soul. And this order moves to ultimate ends such that feeling, thinking, planning and acting in a morally efficacious way become ingrained into the human psychology in both making decisions and acting (or not acting) upon them.
The Church has articulated and defined, dogmatically in some cases, a number of virtues (e.g., theological, cardinal, capital virtues). While some virtues, such as the theological virtues of faith, hope and love or charity are infused by the Holy Spirit at baptism, and therefore unmerited; whether freely given by God (the three theological virtues) or merited by humans (the four human virtues), living virtuously is the end game that fuses Thomistic psychology and moral theology. The “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions” are for Aquinas the cognitive, emotive, and overt behavior patterns on earth that humans must strive for to seek the perfection of heaven. As such, the person comes to act in an habitual, virtuous manner and as such reaches “the ultimate end of our sanctification, which is eternal life.”
Aquinas was surely influenced by Hebraic history and culture, for example in Proverbs and other sacred Wisdom literature. He was also influenced by the first twelve hundred years of Church history, tradition and dogmatic theology as well as by ancient Greek philosophy, most notably found in the works of Aristotle; as well as Islamic philosophy found in Averroës (though not uncritically). After Aquinas later western philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke also applied natural law concepts to moral decision making and behavior, but apart from the Judeo-Christian context.
Much of the philosophical works of the “Enlightenment” so to speak became detached from their Catholic theological roots, and in the process the great influence of scholars and theologians such as Aquinas on human psychology, emotion, reason and morality went entirely missing from philosophy. As pointed out by David M. Gallagher, “to pursue philosophy within a tradition has, since the rise of the Enlightenment, been viewed with suspicion. Sapere aude!”
Table: The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and their Corresponding Three Infused and Four Human Virtues according to Saint Thomas Aquinas
The integration of Thomistic psychology with moral theology, from the ordering of the sense passions to the rational will, to final ends, that being the vision of God and eternal life, has internal consistency unlike any other theological system. Virtue as habitual behavior also corresponds to Aquinas with the Gifts of the Holy Spirt, which is analyzed in detail in Summa Theologiae II-II, and the correspondences summarized in the Table directly above this paragraph.
Aquinas’s moral psychology based upon natural law provides for a “fundamental maxim of morality,” a series of moral first precepts. Example of this include to “preserve, transmit but never directly attack human life; cultivate friendship, marriage, family and social life; seek, tell and live the truth; create and contemplate beauty; and so on.” Employing language that would form the centerpiece of later philosophical and theoretical movements within the field of psychology, Aquinas noted that virtuous behavior should be praised, and bad behavior should be blamed. No such consequences should flow regarding involuntary acts one way or the other. The consequences (positive or punitive) for engaging in human choice behavior would form the basis for what psychologists termed the Law of Effect some six hundred years later.
In order to be more specific in terms of each one of us committing ourselves to more virtuous decision-making in 2022 as Catholics, it does not so much concern us what the object is that is willed – what we “want.” Rather, for the will to move to the universal and ultimate end in God is the wheelhouse of the intellect, and as such the will is a rational appetite. Any detachment or “freedom” the will can be said to exhibit in opposition to the intellect is in actuality a manifestation of its not being ordered to ultimate ends, where virtues and replaced by vices, and God’s grace is not actualized in the powers of the soul. As Aquinas writes, “a man is unable to merit or acquire the divine grace by the movement of his free will, nevertheless he can hinder himself from receiving it.”
Pope Benedict XVI noted that “Saint Paul speaks of faith that works through love (cf. Gal 5:14). Paul knows that in the twofold love of God and neighbor the whole of the Law is present and carried out. Thus in communion with Christ, in a faith that creates charity, the entire Law is fulfilled.” So to make a commitment to one or more New Year Resolutions that also represent virtuous choices in the new year, the foundation rests on making and acting in virtuous ways; to love God and love your neighbor in real and practical ways.
Here is a practical example from my own life. The infused virtues have indeed strengthened my life as a disciple of Christ. For example, in preparing to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation not long ago I made confession that I have not always or even oftentimes acted in accordance with the words of Christ in Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” These acts are the very definition of infused/theological virtues in practice; and I continue to try to do better to evidence such behavior in my own daily life.
Through the Incarnation, Christ by His own example embodied all that a human could accomplish through the divine. The New Law of Grace is how we who follow, we who strive to live in the imitation of Christ, bear the very fruits of our faith. Through our faith in Christ, through our receiving God’s grace, and through our acting in and through charity the very purpose of the Incarnation itself becomes known time and again to the world. New Year Resolutions that place us in service to others and to delay our own immediate gratification for the long-term good are the resolutions that find direct foundation and expression in our Catholic faith.
So, here’s to 2022 and to making virtuous choices as the new year begins! This process commences with reflection, prayer, and concrete decision making concerning how to pursue the good and to commit ourselves to feeling, thinking, planning and acting in a morally efficacious manner as we move forward in the new year. The ability to make “resolutions” stick for the long-term is to ground them in the principles elucidated above, and summarized organizationally in the Table. Perhaps a good way to start with any “New Year Resolution” would be to focus on the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the infused and human virtues associated with them. These gifts of the Holy Spirit hold the key to being open to and making cognitive and behavioral changes that may go from being considered a “resolution” to a standard practice as a Christian in 2022 — and far beyond.
Benedict XVI, Pope. Saint Paul. Ignatius Press, 2009, p. 82.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1803.
Gallagher, David M. Thomas Aquinas and His Legacy. Washington, DC: The Catholic University Press, 1994, p. ix.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue, Third Edition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, p. 168.
Plaud, Joseph J., Eifert, Georg H., & Wolpe, Joseph. “The role of theory in behavior therapy: Conceptual and practical conclusions.” In J. J. Plaud & G. H. Eifert (Eds.), From behavior theory to behavior therapy (pp. 320-331). Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998.