On the Virtue Stubbornness

Our 2021 Saint Benedict Center Conference is now history. Thankfully, it is a pleasant history — so we are being told by many in attendance — and one that can be relived in part by listening to or viewing the eight presentations that were the core of the conference. (Catholic camaraderie, on the other hand, cannot be “canned”; it entails necessarily live experiences, and is a major part of our annual gathering.)

One theme that emerged from our talks was the utility of a certain virtuous “stubbornness” in the service of the Religion. Stubbornness is not listed among the virtues, but the stability and tenacity that we find in the virtues of fortitude, perseverance, and even faith (when it’s challenged) appears to the world as stubbornness or inflexibility. In fact, Saint Thomas tells us that as soon as any virtue becomes arduous and difficult in its practice, that virtue needs the aid of fortitude — both the virtue of that name and the gift of the Holy Ghost. There were many “stubborn” virgins who died for their chastity: e.g., Saint Agatha in ancient times and Saint Maria Goretti in modern times.

This theme of virtuous stubbornness was very much present, for instance, in Joe Doyle’s presentation, “Religious Revival Despite Political Repression: Catholicism in Counter-Reformation Ireland.” In contrasting the state of affairs in pre-Reformation Ireland with the contemporary situation in England, Joe identified some causes for the fidelity of Ireland and the perfidy of Albion in her defection from the Church.

Shortly after the talk I caught Joe and asked, “So in summary, you are saying that we all have to be a bunch of stubborn Irishmen?” To which he responded, without dropping a beat, “Exactly!”

What was it that contrasted the faithful Irish from their proportionately less faithful English brethren? For one thing, the Irish Church was poor, whereas the English Church was comparatively wealthy. The Irish Church was also very bureaucratically “light,” whereas the English Church was bloated with a thick bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is, in a sense, a necessary evil. Offices and office-holders are necessary to handle the managerial tasks, record-keeping, budgeting, etc., that any institution must do in order to attend to its business. The danger is that what ought to serve the larger mission of the entity can take a life of its own and become a parasite on that entity. In our own national life, the bloodsucking federal juggernaut ensconced in Washington, D.C., rife with filth and corruption as it is, serves in its enormity as a festering and particularly criminal example of bureaucracy run amok.

But we also see this sad reality in the Church, where we too often encounter a certain type of person who flourishes in the atmosphere of ecclesiastical bureaucracy. He is an ambitious curialist who is at once a courtier, a clericalist (even if he doesn’t much believe in the priesthood), and a careerist. Needless to say, such men are frequently materialistic in their outlook, and they enjoy the same kind of political games played by their secular counterparts.

“Nothing under the sun is new,” quoth the prophet (Eccles. 1:10). Are we naive enough to think that corrupt secular and ecclesiastical politics is a new thing?

Knowing that such a beast as the one described above tends to flourish in a bloated ecclesial bureaucracy, it does not surprise me that the English Church, on the eve of her mass defection, was overly bureaucratized. By contrast, what made the Irish Church’s organizational structure comparatively “light,” as I have called it, was this: Compared to England, there were proportionally many more bishops in Ireland, meaning that each bishop was responsible for a smaller number of the faithful. Along with this, though, the official diocesan structure of each bishopric was also much smaller. This made each diocesan bishop closer to his people. The smaller scale of the diocesan structures, along with the general material poverty of the Irish Church, meant that there was not much to attract the bureaucratic beasts described above. But a fat bureaucracy, more money, more power to leverage, and less direct access to the bishop on the part of the faithful meant that the English Church had plenty of opportunities for such creatures to flourish.

Interesting dynamic.

Joe Doyle showcased virtuous Irish “stubbornness” in a multitude of ways. One lesson I think particularly timely is this: When they had been politically disenfranchised in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Irish patriots all but gave up on politics and focused on their Faith (from which came the so-called “Devotional Revolution,” which seems to have been rewarded or at least crowned by the apparition of Our Lady at Knock) and their traditional culture by working, among other things, to revive Irish Gaelic. The idea is that, when political solutions are out of reach (which they were: consult Joe’s talk for details), the objectively higher venues of religion and culture become more obvious as battlegrounds on which to carry out the struggle. We can benefit from this lesson immensely now that we are (for all practical purposes) politically disenfranchised.

Sadly, what Ireland gained in this struggle has been largely lost in more recent times, owing in large measure to the the prosperity and consequent materialism of the “Celtic Tiger” and the anti-Christian effect of certain detestable international corporate vultures, like Google. Naturally, the bottom virtually dropping out of the Church in the aftermath Vatican II did not help — not at all.

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For his part, Charles Coulombe gave us a picture of stubborn resistance in the person of King Arthur. At first, I was perplexed that the learned Coulombe would choose that subject for a conference with the theme (too long, I admit), “Resisting the Revolutionary Reset: Virtues, Skills, and Catholic Good Sense for Flourishing amid the Madness.” But when Charles told us what he had to say, his topical selection made sense. After a sort of CliffsNotes summary of the major legends surrounding the mythical Arthur, Charles spoke about the real man — or what can be teased out from the available evidence: the Celtic Briton dux bellorum, who fought off heathen invaders (including the yet pagan Irish, Angles, and Saxons) in an effort to preserve some vestige of Roman Christian social order after the Empire made that fateful decision to remove troops from his homeland. In a post-Roman Britain darkened by the clouds of heathen invaders, Arthur was one who tenaciously held aloft the light of Christian truth and Roman social order to preserve what was good amid a flood of evil. Wielding this, he brandished a nobler blade than even the legendary Excalibur.

The society Arthur defended eventually fell, but, curiously, with the christening of Britain’s heathen invaders, Arthur the Celtic Briton rose as it were from the ashes as, among other things, a quintessentially English hero — something he was most certainly not in real life, for he fought the pagan Angles. But that historical incongruity only goes to show that what Arthur fought for won after all.

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Commander John Sharpe’s talk — “‘I’ll Still Take My Stand’: The Case for Ideological Intransigence as the Response to the Moral Death of Modern Society” — was through and through a very eloquent case for being stubborn. “Ideological intransigence” is, after all, a more graceful and erudite way of saying “stubbornness” in the sense we are giving it here.

The curious reader is once more encouraged to listen to or view all eight presentations.

In closing, I will take a few lines from the finale of my own talk, where I touched a little on the theme considered here. I present them as a series of bulleted points that constituted my parting words of advice:

  • God’s rights are antecedent to Caesar’s, and Caesar has long gotten used to taking what is not justly his. For instance, we have a sacred obligation to adore, thank, make reparation to, and petition the Blessed Trinity. The highest act that Our Lord gave us in which to do this is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Those who forbade us during “lock-downs” to fulfill that obligation in justice committed a very grave injustice and had no authority to do so. I speak here of governors and mayors as well as bishops. It is just to disregard such unjust and therefore unlawful commands. God’s rights come first, and neither Caesar nor some Judas priest has the authority to contravene God’s rights.
  • We also have to remember that our freedoms to assemble, to worship, to evangelize, to make our own medical decisions, etc., do not depend upon a piece of paper, no matter how venerable it has become with age. We have these freedoms from God, whether or not the State is willing to accept our exercise of them.
  • We have a moral obligation and therefore a right to resist all unjust and unlawful commands that impede our corporeal or spiritual well-being, or the well-being of our families. This includes unnecessary and immoral medical interventions, lock-downs, or limits on our travel.
  • Recall this as a matter of prudence, and justice: Most politicians are useless — and this goes for most so-called “conservatives.” Political parties do not have the answer. 9-11 gave us the Patriot Act, a massive invasion of privacy and usurpation of rights. It was signed into law by the Republican President, George W. Bush, whose administration was part of the old-fashioned military industrial complex with its anti-terrorist security state. Currently, the organized hype and frenzy surrounding COVID has brought about the biomedical security state, which I don’t see too many “conservative” politicos lining up to stop. Even if there are a few good ones out there, don’t rely on them.
  • Next piece of advice: BE ANGRY. Did you know that’s in the Bible? We sing it every Sunday at Vespers: “Irascimini et nolite peccare”: “Be angry, and sin not” (Ps. 4:5; Saint Paul quotes it directly in Eph. 4:26). Saint Thomas cites Saint Gregory the Great saying something else amazing on anger: “Reason opposes evil the more effectively when anger ministers at her side.” Saint Thomas uses this to show that the virtue of fortitude is assisted by anger. As long as we temper our anger by the virtue of meekness and avoid what is reckless and destructive, the passion of anger, far from blinding us, can actually assist our reason in doing the good. So, be angry — but sin not.
  • Be patient. Patience is part of fortitude, and it is the ability to suffer well. While we should be patient, we should not be anxious. We should also take things day by day. As Dr. Pieper writes, “The human self, which grows toward perfection by accomplishing the good, is a ‘work’ that surpasses all preconceived blueprints based upon man’s own calculations. Ethical growth takes place in the course of our replies, appropriate to each given case, to the reality outside us which is not made by ourselves” (The Four Cardinal Virtues, p. 30). While our enemies in Church and State may think that what they are doing to us will achieve their evil purposes, we should see their actions, which are permitted by God, as means to the end of our own perfection. This is why the martyrs sometimes thanked their executioners.
  • Persevere! “He that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved” (Matt. 10:22). Never give up in the pursuit of the good. Ever. This will make you appear “stubborn as hell” to people. That’s OK. Show them charity as you practice that “ideological intransigence” that Commander Sharpe recommends.
  • Love your enemies supernaturally, but realize that they are enemies. This is right from the Gospel: “You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:43-45). If we get this right, we may actually receive those blessings we need in order to persevere through our trials and even convert our enemies.

Charity itself can be very stubborn. The Canticle of Canticles tells us:

Put me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thy arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy as hard as hell, the lamps thereof are fire and flames. Many waters cannot quench charity, neither can the floods drown it: if a man should give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing. (Cant. 8:6-7)

Catholic commentators interpret this passage as speaking of the strength, zeal, endurance, and burning love that the martyrs and other saints have for Jesus Christ, who is emblazoned on their hearts, who lives in them, and whose unquenchable love will remain with them through trials, torments, and death.

Our Lord Himself first trod that path and showed the saints how to be “stubborn” in achieving the greatest of all goods. Let us follow Him.

Église Notre-Dame, Saint-Lô, Manche, Normandie, France: Detail from the lower left panel of the stained glass window of the 17th bay, depicting the judgement of St. Agatha. The window was created in 1515 with restorations in the 19th century and c. 1960 by the studio of Max Ingrand (died 1969). (See pp. 155, 157 in Martine Callias Bey and Véronique David: Les vitraux de Basse-NormandieISBN 2-84706-240-8.) Photo by Andreas F. Borchert, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.