Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: To act with virtue, a person must be free

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ You don’t develop good habits in people by forcing them to do good things. Only frequent repetition of acts committed with free will develops virtue.

Is this a notion springing from dissident Catholic theory? Is it heresy or apostasy?

No, it’s the teaching of the venerable Thomas Aquinas.

According to Aquinas, you cannot force people to be virtuous. It doesn’t work, it has never worked. It cannot work. Maybe dogs and bears and lions and pigeons and even chimpanzees can be trained by one sort another of”operant conditioning.”But it doesn’t work with humans.

Some writers _ a small minority _ objected to my recent column on the proposal to revive meatless Fridays for Catholics. They argued the church needed more order and discipline and Friday abstinence would restore that order and discipline.

It is good, they said, that the bishops force Catholics to do something which will improve their character and willpower. That, in turn, would create a context in which parents would be able to force their children to be virtuous in a society in which virtue is no longer prized.

But, the disappearance of Friday abstinence from ordinary Catholic practice when it was no longer a rule”under pain of mortal sin”precisely demonstrates the inadequacy of the argument of the critics. Take away the threat of hellfire and people give up their enforced virtue. It was really no virtue at all, but only a form of operant conditioning.

For example, when I was a young priest, our pastor forced us to hear the confessions of all the grammar school children on the Thursday before First Friday _ whether the kids wanted to go to Confession or not. The nuns herded them over into the church and we processed a thousand children through the confessionals in two hours like they were computer punch cards.”They’ll develop good habits that way,”the priest would say happily when the charade was over.

He was wrong empirically and he was wrong theoretically. On the empirical front, when the kids went to high school they stopped going to confession every month. Theoretically, he was wrong because virtue results from the repetition of free actions, not the repetition of compelled actions.

More important, the priest was also wrong religiously.

The forced confessions did violence to the Sacrament. They were sacrilegious and I am now ashamed of myself that I did not refuse to be part of the sacrilege.

Parents can force their children to do many things. However, once parental authority is removed, young people will do what they want to do. As the adage has it, you can drag a horse to water, you cannot make him drink. So, too, you can force a kid to go to church, but you cannot make him pray.

Catholicism, like many other Christian denominations, practices operant conditioning. It tries to impose virtue on its members by every trick of the forced virtue trade. It does it, like all the other religions, for the good of its members. Of course.

However, unlike other denominations, when Catholics try to compel virtue they are violating their own theory. Virtue, our tradition has argued all along, cannot be forced.

Still we try. We surround the administration of the Sacraments with many extra-canonical rules which in effect deny the laity that to which they have the right, saying they must first prove themselves worthy. If they don’t, we have to force them to be worthy.

No, we don’t. More to the point, we should not. They may have to prove themselves worthy to God but not to us.

Virtue is created by teaching, by persuasion, and by example. Is that too hard? Maybe, but it’s the only technique which will be successful in the long run.