VIRTUE: Virtue As Competence, by Bernard Häring

A Celebration of Spiritual Maturity

Virtue As Competence Bernard Häring

From: The Virtues of an Authentic Life

Is virtue one of those humorless, haggard, toothless aspects of life that just have to be endured and reckoned with, whether we like it or not? Absolutely not. Virtue is, instead, a form of competence that enables us to grasp the melody of life as a whole and to arrive at that basic option for good that brings all of our thoughts, desires, and actions to maturity.

Almost everybody admits that competence in one’s profession is worth the effort it takes. And, competence in relationships is a general goal of many others as well. When competence in any sphere is lacking, when the struggle to get it is neglected, the price will be high. The frequent breakdown of marriage, with all its costly consequences, is one tragic example. Many people realize that, before the wedding, a couple has to become as competent as possible in preparation for this great adventure. The learning process only begins at marriage; the struggle for additional competence continues as spouses become parents and grow together through the other stages of marriage.

Virtue is a much more comprehensive and profound sort of competence than professional or relationship competence. In fact, it guarantees that our personal life, our life with others, and even our death, will be completely meaningful.

The issue at stake here is nothing less than moral competence. We are talking about the value and nobility of the human person as an individual and in his or her life and work together with others. Our goal is nothing less than true, inner freedom to achieve the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. In pursuing a life of virtue, we are seeking an impeccable quality of individual conscience, as well as a way for the individual conscience to work successfully with and for one another. We are trying to become a person in possession of a mature conscience and, even more, a person with a most inwardly dynamic and accurate conscience.

Without virtue, everything is hollow and dull. Indeed, without virtue, men and women are good for nothing and public dangers. The healthy veneration of ancestors in Africa is built around the common, grateful memory of the virtues of forbears, virtues that people keep telling and retelling, celebrating and recelebrating, in the rhythmic flow of the year. This veneration imparts a taste for virtue accumulated by and through the ancestors, whose virtues enrich and ennoble the life of the community.

The veneration of the saints serves the same lofty goal in Western culture, as do good biographies of holy and exemplary persons. Virtue is not just an abstraction. It lives and wants to be lived.

Virtue is always concerned with the whole, with the personality as a whole, and with the whole personality in the context of all of its healthy and healing human relationships.

We are likewise becoming more aware that wherever true virtue is at home we also have strong, healthy, happy relations with nature and with the whole of creation. What kind of “paragons of virtue” are those who plunder and poison our vulnerable planet with their brutal and ruthless exploitation? This brutality that requires a counter concern for the welfare of our Earth shows us that nowadays the word virtue implies a great many demands. At stake is nothing less than everything, not just virtue, but all virtues, that together sing the hymn of the redeemed – hymns that sustain and radiate peace, joy, freedom, and solidarity.

As you consider the following chapters, dear reader, be critical and test whether and to what extent this little effort speaks competently about the most important kind of human competence. You will also, of course, read self-critically. There will be stretches where you will enjoy yourself and say: Here I’m really on the way to complete competence. But if you read carefully, you will sometimes find yourself saying: Here I really have to – and I will – wake up and see how I can become more competent. As you read on, it will become perfectly clear to you that virtue amounts to the highest and most important competence in your life and in the lives of all those who are personally dear to you or entrusted to your care.

Perhaps, by the time you finish the book, you may feel in your heart a yearning to acquire the highest and most indispensable competence and to help others gain it. If so, then perhaps you will begin rereading, so as to get a complete and detailed picture of the highest human competence, of your competence, and to struggle to achieve it day after day. This effort will benefit your relations with God, your neighbor, your profession, as well as benefiting your private and social life.

It has to be said, though, as plainly as possible, that behind this effort to achieve competence through virtue lies a further goal – the change in paradigm from a one-sided ethic of obedience to a dedicated ethic of responsibility. This further approach declares war on conformism and on a lust for control of both people and things. Once we have unequivocally rejected any sort of ethic of blind obedience, we will see that obedience still counts as a noble virtue for the Christian adult. But it now takes on a new form: the form of listening to one another, listening as a community to God, and heeding the signs of the times.

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