‘Niceness’ isn’t a virtue

Everything I need to know about the real world, I learned from Fr. Mastroeni.

It was the first day of my freshman year, and I had been condemned — er, assigned — to this diminutive Italian priest’s Catholic Doctrine course. Theology 101. Older students looked at my class schedule and turned a little green. “You have him for Theology?” And then they’d collect themselves and clear their throats and say, “Oh, well. You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.”

He had skin like leather and black hair, spidery black eyebrows, and spiky black hairs that jutted out of his nose and ears. During classes he slurped black coffee from a travel mug, and his cassock rustled as he paced back and forth, back and forth while he lectured. On the coldest winter days he’d order the students at the back of the room to open the windows.

“Get some air moving in here!” he’d yell, and then grin as we huddled into our coats and breathed on our frozen fingers so we could take notes.

He threw around platitudes like candy at a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.

“Throwing away your notes from class is like throwing away your heritage!”

“Living the spirit of poverty doesn’t mean buying lots of cheap stuff. It means making what you do buy count for a long time.” (He once lectured us for a good ten minutes on the art of buying the perfect pair of shoes.)

But perhaps his greatest lesson, repeated countless times over the course of that semester and the following, was this: “‘Niceness’ isn’t a virtue!” He would throw up his hands as he said it and stare at a spot on the ceiling while the words echoed around the basement classroom.

I was taken aback by this at first, but it sank in over time. In many ways, it’s still sinking in. Two weeks ago I hung up the phone at my desk and sat on my hands, which were shaking uncontrollably. I’d just received the angriest voicemail I’ve ever heard, from a man who does not know me and never will, calling me hateful and un-Christian because I had had the audacity to lay out the Christian opinion on the homosexual lifestyle in an op-ed. I thought, with a rueful laugh, “At least Fr. Mastroeni would be proud.”

There is no virtue in hiding behind “niceness” when you’re faced with the atrocity of sin. “Nice” wants everyone to get along, shuns confrontation, and looks the other way in the face of real ugliness. A prime example: abortion. A dear friend of mine spends her Saturday mornings outside a local abortion clinic, approaching women on their way into the facility and offering them literature and information on alternatives. Somehow she manages to do so with a smile, even when these same women respond with cruel words and ugly gestures. She is charitable and kind, but she is not nice. She  looks evil in the face and calls it what it is. That’s virtue.

Or consider the raging gay marriage debate that will be picking up steam in the coming months. People tend to stand way back from this issue. Most of us know and love people who are gay. We recognize their struggles and, if we’re fair, we acknowledge that the way we Christians are asking them to live (celibate) goes beyond what most of us plan (or hope) to do in our lives. Even those of us who are single now can look forward to a happy, healthy marriage. What will that marriage offer? Stability, family, love, intimacy — those good, human things we’re all wired to yearn for. Most of us fear the possibility of ending up alone. Your heart should break for our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction and all that they may have to give up in order to live virtue.

But the reality remains that gay marriage goes against the natural law, and it goes against God’s law. Let’s put it in simple terms: God made man and woman, and he made sex between a man and a woman to bring about children. That’s what marriage is for. We can’t blink at that because we’re uncomfortable with it. Instead, we need to be more fervent than ever in loving our gay friends and family members, and we need to look as a culture at the ways in which we define love and intimacy. Does a life without marriage have to mean a life lived alone? Why do we allow it to be that way, if so? We have set up sex as an end to be achieved, a good in and of itself. That thinking is screwed up. Love can be expressed in multiple, beautiful ways that are not sexual. Just look at the two holiest, most loving people who ever lived: Jesus and his mother. They were both celibate.

Over the last two years, a constant theme of this blog has been community. How can we create structures of community for those who, as Jesus says in the gospel, are unable to marry? (See Matthew 19:12.) That should be our challenge and our work, not hiding from the issue because we don’t want to hurt feelings. Niceness in this case gets nothing done, and there are souls on the line.

In short, niceness weighs the pros and cons and determines that it’s more important to be comfortable (and well-liked) than it is to fight to save souls.

Niceness isn’t a virtue.

Sometimes life isn’t comfortable or safe. We’ve made a virtue out of safety, and we’ve forgotten that the Christian life is a battle. There is a daily battle being waged for every individual soul, and it’s our responsibility to pitch in. Eternal lives are on the line.

I’m writing this as the world’s most confirmed coward. I can barely confront my roommates about minor areas of housekeeping, and I live in utter terror of being disliked. I have never dreamed of battles or glory, my one experience firing a gun made my knees knock for about an hour afterwards, and the very idea of “resisting to the point of shedding [my] blood” makes my hair stand on end.

Regardless of what I like or what makes me comfortable, though, there remains the stark reality that niceness can’t ever be a virtue because life simply isn’t nice. Be kind. Be loving. But resist the urge to succumb to easy, comfortable niceness in living the Christian life.

And thank God for good friends who provide love and support when the battle gets rough, for loving families who train us in the way we should go, and for wise teachers who give us the lessons that prepare us to face the realities of an often harsh and supremely not-nice world.



5 thoughts on “‘Niceness’ isn’t a virtue

  1. As much as it pains me, and emasculates me, to admit it, I am also a coward in many of the same ways you describe, dear author. It is TOUGH to look rage, anger, and spite in the face and continue to be kind and loving. It is tough just to find the cajones to confont people with these emotions raging inside.
    Being nice is taking the easy road, and while sometimes that is acceptable, other times it is a minor sin to avoid doing the thing we should be doing. We need courage to change the things we can change, and wisdom to identify them (and their priority).

    • Humor and wit are key tools to both diffusing the stress and disarming your opponent, and getting them to loosen up to civil dialogue. I always think of how Greg Gutfeld is able to take apart liberal arguments methodically and speak conservatively to the core on serious hot button topics while simultaneously making his audience relax with constant laughter and smiles.

  2. I have to say this whole discussion left me a bit confused. At first I was like, haha, cool. Mastroeni, emphatic behavior, and a need to stand up and not shy away from the moral right. But then as I had deep thoughts on the subject during a morning shower–where one can do so much soul searching (this wasn’t nice of me to provide TMI but then again, niceness isn’t a virtue right?) I began to feel lost in semantics. I even began to question whether I even knew what “nice” meant.

    It seems to me this argument is a bit ambiguous and needs to be couched not just in definable Catholic moral directives for anchor and reference points, but in order to even be accurate. Surely you and the good father are right to remind us that niceness is not a virtue, but this seems to result in a two-fold problem: one is not giving what it means to be nice a fair shake, and the other is that is seems like this is an excuse to get riled up a bit.

    What seems applicable in these situations is making a distinction between anger/hatred & righteous indignation (such as what Our Lord exercised in driving the moneylenders from the Temple) and more importantly, our calling as Catholics, nay, as Christians, to practice the Works of Mercy, Corporal and Spiritual, and particularly in the important dilemmas you describe, those of Instructing the Ignorant, Counseling the Doubtful, and Admonishing the Sinner.

    Yet we are called to do all of the above while exercising that Cardinal Virtue: Charity. And while niceness may not be a virtue it is surely an accidental property of exercising Charity.

    Frankly, I think a more accurate label for the problem you describe is simply: Pacifism — avoiding conflict. And sometimes maybe it is driven by a desire to be liked or feel popular, but neither of those are the definition of niceness, so I don’t think we should throw being nice under the bus, with all this considered. Niceness means being tactful and pleasant–things that Charity calls us to be while yet being truthful and practicing the Works of Mercy.

    Ironically, a prime case in point was dropped in my lap just last night, as I tried to relax and go about my business after a tiring day at work.

    I sat at home at my desk in my pajamas getting ready to turn in early. As I read a little bit of news–which led me to close the web browser in disgust and for want of some mental rest–then switched to a light-hearted episode of comedy TV, I suddenly received an IM from an old friend with whom I frequently converse.

    This friend I have known for some years, and raised by liberals in liberal Portland, Oregon, they are basically liberal. Certainly socially so. At any rate, they are pro-choice. They personally have had three children and do not practice abortion, but believe there are tough situations and that a woman should get to choose. We rarely speak on this subject however, but on this evening when I meant to relax and go to bed early, this was suddenly about to change.

    And it was all because a Christian (possibly even Catholic) Facebook friend of theirs did not exercise Charity and its accident of niceness, while attempting to Instruct the Ignorant or Admonish the Sinner. They had linked a lifesitenews.com article on their Facebook page, which my friend shared with me. I perused, listened to her complaint, then pointed out calmly that she seemed to be reading something into it in order to be offended, and it was actually quite objective. My friend admitted this was probably the case, and that what gets them riled up is the way this information is presented by said Christian friend on Facebook who has “many” children–she in this particular incident was proclaiming all pro-choicers murderers.

    And this is surely beyond the pale of righteous indignation and where some tact and need for Charity chimed in–had she been kind and loving–nice–in her presentation, the Christian mother has a chance to open some minds and change some hearts by creating or encouraging dialogue on matters people generally don’t understand well–rather, in their passion, they threw all this out the window, essentially causing scandal by being a Christian professing Christian beliefs but behaving in an un-Christlike manner, thus throwing away opportunities for evangelization and alienating and entrenching the ignorant in their views, when they very much need our love and instruction.

    She should’ve been nice about sharing her instructive information, as was the writer of the article she shared.

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