Fear is a powerful thing.
But how can we praise the heroic without condemning those who in a moment of duress faltered or acted differently?
This question arose when I was considering the story of St Maria Goretti, the teenage girl who preferred death over giving into the sexual demands of her assailant. This story, and the story of many other Saints and heroes, gives us pause if we consider what this might imply for those who, in a situation of duress, gave into the demands of another. Does this imply that unless a woman prefers death to sexual violation that she is less than a hero? If a soldier retreats to fight another day is he less than the man who fights to the end?
Fear and duress has a powerful influence in our life. In certain situations it can be overwhelming, literally paralyzing; other times it can be superficial, something as meager as peer pressure. On the higher end of that spectrum fear can completely remove our guilt, our culpability; or, on the lower end of that spectrum, partially mitigate our guilt. For each person it is different, according to our strengths and the force of the duress. As always, personal guilt is something only God fully knows and no court can make a judgment concerning the individual’s culpability. Even the person responsible does not know the full breath of their culpability; and for the most part it is a mute issue anyways. Something has been done and it needs to be acknowledged or amended.
In light of the mitigating power of fear in terms of our personal responsibility, we can say that we cannot hold someone responsible for failing to do the heroic. Now, this is obviously on a sliding scale. Some individuals, because of their position and formation, like a police officer, have a greater imperative to lay down their life than a 12 year old child. We also have to factor in the degree of the duress applied. In any case, the individual who fails to act heroically is either partially or completely free of guilt.
In a sense the heroic action is supra moral, beyond personal guilt or innocence. It is in fact a calling, a vocation. It answers the question, “How will I lay down my life?” “How do I make of my life a gift?” “For what shall I die for?”
This is not to be understood as a statement of moral permissiveness. The objective moral standard remains the same. The guilt of a woman, who, under duress, obtains an abortion, is mitigated; but that does not make abortion permissible. The ideal, the standard, remains the same. In this situations there is a clear, objectively immoral course of action; a higher standard that should have been upheld. In our example we can say that abortion is not a morally permissible solution and that, while the woman may not have complete responsibility for the crime; there are others who have a greater share in the responsibility for the crime, including the doctors, the civil authorities, and even the greater community.
However, such as in the case of the Maria Goretti, the choice is sometimes between equal or similar goods. Both the gift of life and the gift of sexual purity are intrinsic goods. The case is not really one of sinning or not sinning but of choosing to celebrate one or the other. Often these are decisions of the moment, of instinct and formation. Maria Goretti chooses to stand for her sexual purity and in that sense becomes an extraordinary witness to its value.
This is a vocational call, the particular manner in which we choose to make ourselves a witness to values that give our lives purpose. It is a combination of an active awareness of the needs of the greater community and an understanding of our gifts and desires. It is an eager awareness of those opportunities to act in a generous manner, an active cultivation of virtue so that we can respond to those invitations when they come, and a discernment of which ones we should choose.
This means that, while our judgment of particular situations that asked of us a heroic response is limited, we can say that everyone is called to act in a generous and heroic manner. That only by making of ourselves a gift to another do we truly fulfill our Christian and human vocation. The person who repeatedly avoids the invitation to act generously is in danger of losing their soul, their purpose. Therefore, formation and education is not for the sake of obtaining security and prosperity but in cultivating virtue in order to hear and respond to the opportunities to lay down our lives.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. Robert Frost