By Fr. Bud Grant
A reader mentioned that my last article “left him hanging” with my conclusion that the greatest environmental crisis of our age is oil consumption. He wanted, not unreasonably, a solution.
Now the answer is simple: stop consuming oil, or at least reduce consumption while demanding alternatives. It is notable that Americans consume more energy in home air conditioning than is consumed by the entire continent of Africa. Surely — even in an Iowa summer — we could open windows?
But you are already thinking about the underlying problem: there had better be compelling arguments for us to impose on ourselves fairly serious inconveniences. We want to know how that would be valuable — by which we mean “useful.” We might save money on energy bills, but our standard of living would suffer. Is that worth it? This is the case for expediency. But I propose that we talk about virtues.
You might recall the four “cardinal” and three “supernatural” virtues. Justice, prudence, temperance and courage are identified by the ancient philosophers. Christianity’s three additional virtues differ in that faith, hope and love cannot be acquired by an act of the will, but are rather received as a gift of grace. We can want them, and can ask for them, but desire and petition do not guarantee reception.
These seven virtues are not hierarchically arranged (though Ambrose and Aquinas follow Paul in putting love — caritas — first). On the level of practice we bring one virtue to the forefront, it never operating without the others (courage without justice, Ambrose teaches, leads to villainy), but as the lead virtue for that situation (temperance when angered, say, or prudence when exuberant). All of them, always, are bent to the service of the greater good. Together this virtue cluster constitutes moral character, and this is the most authentic reason for a Christian to accept noticeable restrictions in our standard of living — to reduce our consumption of nonrenewable resources.
Reason identifies the common good and inculcates in us the virtues necessary to achieve it. Grace reveals the highest good and infuses us with the virtues necessary to accept it. Christians both know — through reason — and believe — through grace — that the few ought not to enjoy advantages at the expense of the many. In the case of environmental problems, we realize that those who pay the highest costs benefit the least. Africa suffers energy famine, America consumes more than our share; we today are devouring the resources needed by future generations to survive; our practices eat away at the habitat of God’s creatures. Our minds and our souls cry out to us to make changes to alleviate the suffering of others, which we are causing.
Virtue, Ambrose says, “has to do with moral dignity and integrity of life.” The expedient, the useful, has to do with “the conveniences of life, with wealth, resources, opportunities.” Thus, between what is useful and what is virtuous, Christians “state nothing to be useful but what will help us to the blessings of eternal life; certainly not that which will help us enjoy merely the present time. Nor do we recognize any advantages in opportunities and in the wealth of earthly goods, but consider them as disadvantages if not to be put aside, then to be looked on as a burden when we have them, rather than as a loss when expended” (de Officiis I.IX 27-29).
In the final analysis, and you might have seen this coming, there can be no real difference between the expedient and the virtuous. The comforts we derive from consumption of resources only seem useful, but they cannot be if they deprive others of necessities and thus us of eternal life.
Shall we open the windows?
For the record: the author lives with open windows, a few flies, a lot of gravel dust, and the occasional sneaky mosquito. It isn’t bad at all, but then I live in the country, not in a crowded city tenement complex.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)