Zeal is the virtue that breeds the greatest amount of distrust. There are chiefly two reasons for this. One is historical, the other contemporary. We look with dark suspicion upon those Christians of yore whose zeal was unaccompanied by moderation, prudence, or even common sense. The zeal of some of the Crusaders springs to mind. So overzealous were so many Christians and non-Christians in the past that the words zealot and zealotry came to denote vice. A “zealot” is taken to be a fanatic. “Zealotry” is fanaticism put into action.
Today, perhaps to give ourselves a wide margin of safety so that we do not lapse into zealotry and become zealots, we tend to avoid zeal altogether. Unfortunately, the absence of a virtue creates a moral vacuum that is quickly filled by a vice. In this instance, the vice that rushes in is sloth. This commonly misunderstood vice is really the indisposition or reluctance to have any interest in spiritual realities.
These two reasons for explaining our distrust of zeal may very well be conjoined. We overreact to our fear of being as zealous as zealots of the past and, as a consequence, provide room in our souls for sloth. As we become seduced by sloth, we become even more suspicious of zeal.
An instructive embodiment of sloth is the popular TV character that Jerry Seinfeld played in his popular sitcom. Compared with the sheer zaniness of the characters who surround him, Jerry seems quite normal. But this is because our own vice, sloth, is difficult to recognize by a mass audience that is infected with the same disease and has come to accept it as normal. The Jerry character is non-religious, has no room for prayer in his life, dislikes opera, museums, reading, babies, everyone outside his small coterie of three friends, and fears commitment to any member of the opposite sex to the point of moral paralysis. His indisposition or reluctance to pursue any spiritual pleasures makes him a nearly ideal incarnation of the vice of sloth. The program’s real joke is on the mass audience that cannot recognize its own sloth in the character it heartily accepts.
Heart for Truth
Nonetheless, zeal is a genuine virtue. “Zeal,” as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, “arises from the intensity of love.” He cites for his authority both the Old and New Testaments: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts” (1 Kings 19:10); “Zeal for thy house will consume me” (Jn. 2:17). In another text, Aquinas speaks of zeal that centers around virtuous goods as being praiseworthy, citing St. Paul, who exhorted the Corinthians to zealously desire the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:1).
Aquinas himself well exemplifies the virtue of zeal. The Angelic Doctor, as we know, produced in his brief life span of 49 years a stupendous amount of writing. His prodigious literary output is all the more remarkable given the fact that he spent a great deal of time praying, teaching, and traveling. We could not begin to understand how he could be as prolific as he was without taking into consideration his zeal for truth.
Zeal for the truth is not a common virtue in our time. We tend to be tepid about the truth and enthusiastic about putting people down who dare show the slightest interest in the truth. We think of university teaching as interpreting “research” and analyzing “studies.” For Aquinas, however, his role as a teacher was animated by his zeal for truth and his zeal for imparting truth on the hearts of his students.
At one time, a young novice submitted to Aquinas no less than 36 questions. The questions were poorly formulated and the neophyte had the audacity to request answers within four days. Aquinas could legitimately have excused himself, given more important matters that occupied his time. Yet he not only supplied the answers, but also reformulated the questions more precisely. In addition, he completed his assignment within the requested deadline.
No doubt the zeal that animated Aquinas affected many of his readers. There is an erroneous legend that Martin Luther burned a copy of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica along with the papal bull in the marketplace at Wittenberg. The truth of the matter, as Josef Pieper explains in The Silence of Saint Thomas, makes a far more telling point. Although Luther intended to burn a copy of the Summa, he could not locate one since he could not find anyone who was willing to part with his copy.
Zeal begets zeal. We should not be fearful of the virtue of zeal. It springs from love and does not exclude moderation. It fires our passion to a flame and enables us to be more effective, productive, and alive.
This article is borrowed from https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/zeal.html.
Donald DeMarco. “Zeal.” Lay Witness (July/August 2002).
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo Ontario. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.