Foundations of Faith|
Living virtuously is all a matter of balance
Temperance or moderation helps us live the good life
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
(Fifth in a series)
When I was a kid at the playground, I used to play with the teeter-totter in ways that would give child safety
people fits. One game involved standing on the middle of the teeter-totter, right over the fulcrum point and
shifting my weight from leg to leg to move the board up and down. Finally, I'd work at leveling the board.
Reaching perfect balance was a challenge -- especially with a poorly weighted board.
Balancing the teeter-totter is what the virtue of temperance is about.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that "temperance moderates that attraction of the pleasures of
the senses and provides balance in the use of created goods" (no. 1838).
We humans are creatures full of wants and desires, drives and needs -- for food, for drink, for pleasure, for
shelter, for love, for sex. These drives are neither good nor bad, but part of our very beings; they are part of
how God made us. How we live with these drives and desires is how we respond to God and to everything
else which God has created.
Fr. Richard McBrien says that virtues, rooted in grace, "enable us to establish and nurture healthy and life-giving relationships with God, the neighbor, the world, and the self."
Like me on that teeter-totter, temperance (sometimes called moderation) helps us learn to avoid extremes in
our lifes and relationships. If my teeter-totter tipped too far to the right or the left, I risked losing my
balance and falling off. It's the same with our desires and drives. If I'm hungry, there's nothing wrong with
getting something to eat. However, how much I eat and what I eat are both matters of temperance.
Temperance involves more than just the obvious uses and abuses: of food, drink or sex. It involves anything
that we can desire and or become strongly attached to: money, power, prestige, material goods.
Pope John Paul II, in The Splendor of Truth, says that we practice temperance "to moderate our attachment
to the goods of this world."
There's nothing wrong with enjoying the good things of this world -- after all God created the world to be
good (see Genesis 1). Enjoying the good things too much -- immoderately -- is the problem. We all want
"the good life," but we need to remember what the good life really is: "To live well is nothing more than to
love God with all one's heart, with all one's soul and with all one's efforts; from this it comes about that love
is kept whole and uncorrupted" (Catechism, no. 1809, quoting St. Augustine).
In practicing temperance, we practice the skill that tells us when "enough is enough." So eating and
drinking aren't wrong, but gluttony and drunkness are.
"There is nothing wrong with food, drink or sexual expressions," says Fr. McBrien. "On the contrary. But they can become crutches or escapes from one's human and Christian responsibilities. Thus, those who are excessively heavy do not simply have healthier appetites than others. Those who are frequently intoxicated ... are not simply people who like the taste of liquor. Those who move from one sexual liaison to another with commitment to none are not simply people with uncontainable, overflowing love."
Again, it's about keeping our love whole and uncorrupted, as St. Augustine said.
Most of us, when we hear the word "temperance," think of temperance leagues working to ban the sale of
alcohol. While practicing temperance does cover the use of alcohol, it also covers some things that might
not as readily come to mind.
"The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or
medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkeness of a love of speed, endanger their own and other's
safety on the road, at sea, or in the air" (Catechism, no. 2290).
Like all the cardinal virtues, temperance is something we have to work at developing. The Catechism says
"the moral virtues grow through education, deliberate acts, and perserverance in struggle. Divine grace
purifies and elevates them" (no. 1839).
So, just as I had to practice balancing that teeter-totter before I could manage it with any sort of skill and
reliability, so we all have to practice finding just the right balance between what we desire and what God
desires for us. When we find that right balance, we'll find that we want just what God wants.
As St. Augustine said, "Our hearts shall wander restless until they rest in you." God is the point of perfect
balance. Until we learn to find that balance point, we'll teeter and totter all over the place.
(Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; Catholicism; Veritatis Splendor; The Catholic Encyclopedia;
and Summa Theologica.)