Understanding the Virtue of Temperance with Dr. Matthew Levering

Posted on July 29, 2020

Dr. Matthew Levering, a professor at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary and the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology, was awarded the first place prize from the Catholic Press Association in its category of “theology (morality, ethics, Christology, Mariology, redemption)” for his new book Aquinas’ Eschatological Ethics and the Virtue of Temperance (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019). While Dr. Levering’s intended audience is academic and the book is meant “to teach the teachers,” the virtue of temperance is valuable for broader discussion and is key to our human flourishing both now and forever.

Below is a Q&A with Dr. Levering about his new book.

What is temperance and how does your book approach it?

Thomas Aquinas defines temperance as the virtue tasked with “withholding the appetite from those things which are most seductive to man” or withdrawing “man from things which seduce the appetite from obeying reason.”

In Aquinas’s theology, indebted to Aristotle on this matter, each of the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and courage) has three kinds of associated virtues, classified as integral parts, subjective parts, and potential parts of temperance.  The integral parts are shame and “honestas” or moral beauty.  The subjective parts have to do with food and sex, and include the virtues of abstinence, sobriety, and chastity (to which Aquinas adds fasting and virginity).  The potential parts are related virtues that likewise rely upon moderation: clemency, meekness, humility, and studiousness.

These virtues are part of human flourishing, but not just any human flourishing. It is flourishing toward our goal of dwelling with God. This means that Christian temperance is a virtue of graced human nature. To live out Christian temperance, we rely upon the grace of the Holy Spirit.  The requirements of chastity or humility may seem daunting, but the Holy Spirit makes these virtues truly possible.

Because Christian temperance relies not solely upon our natural powers but also upon grace, Christian temperance has its source in Jesus Christ’s inauguration of the kingdom of God.  The Church is not the consummated kingdom of God, obviously; but, as Vatican II teaches, the Church is the kingdom of God in seed or the kingdom as inaugurated.  The “kingdom of God” is not a mere earthly kingdom, but rather is the fulfillment of God’s plan for creation.  It is therefore called an “eschatological” kingdom.

The biblical scholar N. T. Wright has pointed out that the people of Israel were expecting the Messiah to inaugurate the kingdom, and Jesus speaks frequently about his mission of kingdom inauguration.  As Wright explains, the people of Israel anticipated (on the basis of the prophets) that the kingdom would include such elements as the renewal of the Temple, the restoration of the people of God and their reigning in the world, and the eschatological forgiveness of sins and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Using this framework, my book suggests that we can understand Christian temperance according to Aquinas by viewing it through a biblical lens.  The “integral parts” of temperance are best understood through reference to the renewal of the Temple as depicted in Scripture.  The “subjective parts” of temperance are best understood through what Scripture says about the restoration of the people of God and their reigning in the world.  Lastly, the “potential parts” of temperance can be illuminated by what Scripture teaches about the Messiah’s forgiveness of sins and outpouring of the Spirit.

Some examples of vices against temperance may be helpful. The virtue of humility, of course, is opposed by the vice of pride.  Scripture has much to say against pride.  Pride is intemperate because it inflates the self into a divine entity rather than accepting the truth about our being, which is creaturely and dependent being.  Another virtue linked with temperance is called “studiousness.”  In Aquinas’s theology, this does not merely mean doing a lot of studying.  Rather, it is the attitude with which we approach reality.  Do we contemplate reality as something that can never belong to us but shines with God’s glory, or do we attempt to grasp reality for the purposes of power and lording it over other people?  Our attitude toward truth makes a significant difference in how we understand the world.  The vice that is opposed to the virtue of studiousness is called “curiositas.”  It means approaching reality with the goal of self-aggrandizement.

Dr. Matthew Levering, a professor at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary and the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology

How did you begin your journey in writing this book?

I began to write the book because I noticed there was a real difficulty among many Catholics in understanding why the Church would have these moral teachings. Some virtues that are central to both Scripture and St. Thomas Aquinas may seem outdated and so different from our culture. For example, when the word temperance is used, it can conjure cultural memories of the anti-alcohol Temperance Movement of the early twentieth century.  Sometimes, temperance may seem only to be about people having no fun. It can even seem to be merely a way for the Church to control behavior in accord with some outdated principles from the ancient world. Lastly, the virtues associated with temperance can sometimes be accepted as good in principle but impossible in practice. The basic point was that sometimes people don’t understand why the Church has these teachings on the moral life.

One thing that I wished to emphasize is that the cardinal virtue of temperance is related to many different elements. Of course, food and sex are part of it, as well as drink and alcohol. These are very important, as the “Me Too” movement and the recent revelations about College campus sexual abuse have shown.  When alcohol is abused, this can lead to physical abuse or (especially at College parties) sexual assault of various kinds.  Studies show that frequently, a major cause of divorce is adultery or pornography addiction.  Ecologically, too, the health of our planet depends in part upon our eating habits.  But temperance goes beyond such matters.  Especially important is the virtue of humility.  Both Scripture and Aquinas point out that humility can even be seen as the most important Christian virtue.  Humility can sometimes be conceived as self-denigration, as though Christians are supposed to go around thinking themselves to be worthless!  Such an attitude would be psychologically damaging.  The truth about humility is far more positive.  It involves recognizing oneself as a creature and one’s talents as divinely given gifts whose purpose is to enable us to serve others. Then you also have meekness and clemency, which are opposed to cruelty. Temperance itself is much richer than people imagine, spelling out a life in Christ.

I also wanted to make it clear that if we decide to get rid of the Church’s teachings on chastity or anything else related to temperance, then we would be making a decision as a Church to get rid of the Bible’s teachings. I make an argument, which I think is a strong argument, that the Biblical teachings on these matters are really the same as the Catholic Church’s and they can also be found in St. Thomas Aquinas because he classically represents them.

One of the problems that Catholics have with our moral teaching is that we don’t realize that we have been invited by Jesus Christ to a way of life that does not merely consist in going with the flow or obeying our deep-seated desires. He has inaugurated His Kingdom, and he has given us guideposts for living that challenge us and may even make us uncomfortable, but that enable us to build up families and communities that truly manifest charity especially to the weak and vulnerable.  A touchstone for a temperate society will be how it relates to children and the aged, since temperance is about moderating desires that can otherwise easily become self-centered and self-serving.

Can you say more about the Inaugurated Kingdom?

The inauguration of the Kingdom is what the Church really is. Sometimes we think of the Church merely as a human institution, ancient and creaking but still worthwhile.  In fact, the Church is the creation of Christ and the Holy Spirit.  The reality of the Church takes external shape, in local parishes, bishops, the pope, and so on. This external shape is sacramentally at the service of building up believers in Christ-like love. It is this communion in Christ’s love that is what we mean by the inaugurated kingdom. Christ-like love involves self-sacrificial acts; it means much more than just accepting each other. It is a challenging reality, made possible by the grace of the Holy Spirit transforming our hearts in what the apostle Paul calls “the obedience of faith.”

The Holy Spirit really has been poured out and Jesus Christ is present as the Messiah, the King. But “king” here doesn’t mean domination or power-hungry politics.  The task of a true King is to establish the people in justice through self-surrendering love. He is leading us toward our fulfillment. Ultimately, the consummated kingdom will be the new creation—eternal life—in which we will be friends of God, sharing in the life of the Trinity.  In the consummated kingdom, everything will be translucent to charity.  Thus, in the inaugurated kingdom we have some work to do!  Scripture, as mediated by Aquinas (as a representative of the Church’s moral tradition), instructs us about how to live in God’s light. Temperance is a key part of this way of life. The type of moral integration that is now possible is only possible through the grace of the Holy Spirit and then through the Sacraments.

To give another example, sometimes people look at Christian sexual teaching, and wonder whether it is even possible for human beings, let alone desirable. But actually, it is part of a life of grace and makes sense through the Holy Spirit. Sexuality has to do not merely with individuals, but with families and communities. We can’t take sex out of this broader context.

What do you most hope people take away from this book?

Temperance is our responsibility—as the Inaugurated Kingdom and as God’s renewed temple, since we are temples of the Holy Spirit. The path of Christ makes sense! To follow it is a blessing for ourselves, our families, and our communities.  Moreover, to follow temperance serves the everlasting purpose of configuring us to broader life of self-surrendering love, so that we are ready to live with God when we come to the end of our lives.  Indeed, we can begin to do so even now by the Spirit’s grace.

St. Thomas Aquinas stained glass window, Pope Saint John Paul II Chapel

Why use Thomas Aquinas as the primary theological perspective for looking at temperance?

For many years now, I have studied Thomas Aquinas.  He is able to help one understand what the Church teaches and why.  His moral theology is rooted deeply in his understanding of God, creation, and redemption.  Aquinas’s moral theology is presently at the cutting edge of virtue ethics. Since temperance is currently rather unpopular, what better way to understand temperance than to return to Scripture and Aquinas?  I should add, though, that my book also engages with many contemporary theologians and biblical scholars as well.

Another point that makes Aquinas so helpful for Christian ethics is that he combined the best philosophical wisdom about human nature and human flourishing, with an extraordinary mastery of the scriptural text.  In his Summa Theologiae, just in the second part which is on the moral life, Thomas Aquinas quotes from over half the chapters of the Old Testament! And of course he quotes expansively from the entire New Testament as well.  He is a perennial thinker for anyone who loves Jesus Christ and the divine revelation that God has given to his people.

Do you have particular scripture passages you would suggest others study in order to grow in the virtue of temperance? What is a good starting point?

I think 1 Corinthians is important. There Paul talks about the fact that in Christ, the body of each believer is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul is trying to encourage his formerly pagan flock to cease the widespread pagan practice (for men) of procuring prostitutes. Prostituted sex does not serve self-surrendering love; prostitution entails using another person for sexual services. Paul awakens Christians to their dignity. The key insight is that the Holy Spirit really does dwell in us, and we are intended to be transformed rather than simply following our bodily desires in any way that we wish. Temperance is about the way we engage with others—rather than with cruelty or anger that is disordered, and rather than with pride or the lust that seeks merely to use another person, we can learn truly how to manifest love for other people in ways that build up family and community in service to the weak and vulnerable among us.

If someone is interested in reading Thomas Aquinas, but may feel intimidated, where should they begin?

I would start with the Thomistic Institute, which is part of the Pontifical Faculty of the Dominican House of Studies. They have videos and a free course that you can sign up for on the Thomistic Institute website.

Also, on the issues that I am writing about in this book, the Catechism of the Catholic Church follows the same path as Aquinas. If people read the Catechism, that is a wonderful education in itself.

You can purchase Dr. Matthew Levering’s book here:

Notre Dame Press Association or Amazon