When the Church takes up someone’s cause for sainthood, one of the things they look for is heroic virtue. Drawing from Pope Benedict XIV and St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Encyclopedia defines “heroic virtue” as
“…a habit of good conduct that has become a second nature, a new motive power stronger than all corresponding inborn inclinations, capable of rendering easy a series of acts each of which, for the ordinary man, would be beset with very great, if not insurmountable, difficulties. Such a degree of virtue belongs only to souls already purified from all attachment to things worldly, and solidly anchored in the love of God.”
I think that Christians are often in situations that call for heroic virtue. Periods of religious persecution, in the past and today, are obvious examples of heroic actions, but I think there are many more “mundane” examples. There’s the heroism of the woman being open to life in the face of postpartum depression and other health issues. The heroism of the alcoholic striving to get sober. The heroism of the gay man converting to Catholicism and a life of abstinence. The heroism of the chronically ill who are simply functioning with kindness and patience. While these situations are commonplace they are still scenarios where heroic virtue may be demanded.
The Church’s teaching on grace and human weakness is absolutely essential to the discussion of demanding heroism from Christians, let alone non-believers or recent converts. The Catechism says this about the Jesus’ command to love as God loves:
“…’You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’; ‘Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful’; ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.’ It is impossible to keep the Lord’s commandment by imitating the divine model from outside; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make ‘ours’ the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (CCC 2842).
In other words, the Holy Spirit transforms our mind and will into the divine mind and will, and only to the extent they have been transformed are we able to follow the commandments, are we capable of heroic virtue. A process of transformation is exactly how Pope Francis talks about grace in Gaudete et Exsultate:
“Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once….Unless we can acknowledge our concrete and limited situation, we will not be able to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words” (GE 50).
Our capacity to follow the moral law is a process that happens within time, thus there are periods where we know the good and desire the good, but are too weak to act on the good. As Where Peter Is contributor Brian Killian wrote, loving as we ought, keeping the commandments are like a “final cause.” “It is not forever out of reach but neither is it yet in reach – it is that which is becoming reachable by God’s grace.”
The Lord said to Saint Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Our weakness is an opportunity for God to reveal his power. The circumstances of one’s life can limit one’s freedom to follow the moral law even if they know the moral law, especially in situations that demand heroic virtue. The pope says that it’s our conscience that can tell us when we are too weak to follow the moral law and what concrete actions God is calling us to in our circumstances. From Amoris Laetitia:
“Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (AL 303).
I get the sense from many Catholic preachers and pastors that they don’t understand human weakness. Their rhetoric gives the impression that God demands heroism from someone as soon as the Gospel is presented to them, laying on them the full burden of the moral law. This is how the pope describes Pelagianism. Again, from Gaudete et Exsultate:
“Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, ‘ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style’. When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything’, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace” (GE 49).
Reflecting on all of these teachings, I would say that heroic virtue isn’t our burden to carry as much as it’s God’s burden. What I mean is, God desires and invites us to be perfect as he is perfect, to theosis. However, we do not have the strength of will to act heroically without grace. It’s not that God acts for us, rather, we can’t act until he first acts on us.
The denial of human weakness warps our idea of God. If weakness isn’t acknowledged then “God’s grace is sufficient” is code for “just try harder.” And saying “just try harder” to the person who is weak could very well crush their spirit. It presents God as someone who demands the impossible. “As Saint Augustine taught, God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot” (GE 49). So in those moments when heroism is demanded in the face of weakness, we are simply called to do what we are able, even if it’s not the objective ideal, and also pray fervently to the Lord for the grace to reach, in His time, that ideal.