Not without reason, religion – including Catholicism – is often seen as a set of rules and things that are forbidden to be done. While sin certainly plays an important role in Catholic thought, so does virtue.
Virtue can be defined as traits and behaviors that characterize a good person. In other words, virtue “is a habitual and firm disposition to do good. It allows the person not only to perform good deeds, but to give the best of themselves. The virtuous person tends towards the good with all his sensory and spiritual faculties; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1803).
In a previous article, I started a series on the seven deadly sins and the virtues that oppose sin. In this article, I will discuss the seven living virtues that oppose the deadly sins.
I will discuss the history of living virtues and how they came to be. I will then examine each of the virtues individually.
The history and development of the virtues
The concept of virtue and what it means to be a good person dates back to ancient Greece. The great philosophical tradition that includes Socrates, Plato and Aristotle has a lot to say about virtue.
For Socrates, all virtue goes back to the knowledge of eternal truth, what Catholicism calls natural law. It is by knowing God that one becomes virtuous.
It may be useful to distinguish here between virtue and ethics. Ethics is adherence to descriptive standards of behavior. One is considered ethical if one follows certain rules and actions that society has deemed appropriate. Virtue acts in a way that perfects its nature, and this requires the knowledge of God.
Like Aristotle, Aquinas believed that ethical understanding comes through virtue and that virtue is a skill that must be developed. Thomas Aquinas believed that we learn what is ethical through our reason, which we can use to discover the natural law of God imbued in creation. By thinking rationally about what is in accordance with nature and our natural inclinations, we can understand ethical virtues.
The seven heavenly (or holy) virtues that are the subject of this article appear to have been first developed by a Roman Christian poet named Prudence. In seeking to contrast and counter the seven deadly sins, Prudence articulated seven virtues. They are humility, chastity, temperance, generosity, diligence, patience and charity.
To these seven virtues I turn next.
The Seven Heavenly Virtues
- Humility. The virtue of humility is not meant to make us feel inferior. On the contrary, humility is the ordering of creatures (in this case, human beings) to their creator, God.
This virtue is the opposite of the sin of pride. Humility means acknowledging our shortcomings while remembering our need to rely on God.
- Chastity. Chastity implies the successful integration of sexuality in the person and therefore the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2337). As a virtue, chastity is opposed to the sin of lust. Where lust is a perversion of the natural and good desires that all humans have, chastity seeks to order those desires in the way God intended.
- Temperance. The virtue of temperance opposes the sin of gluttony by moderating the attraction of pleasures and ensuring a balance in the use of created goods. It ensures control of the will over the instincts and keeps the desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites towards what is good and maintains a healthy discretion. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1809).
- Generosity. “You received for free, give for free.” In a sense, generosity imitates God, who is generous in his creation. God, who gave his Son for our salvation, asks us to give to others as he gave to us. The virtue of generosity is opposed to the vice of greed.
- Diligence. The virtue of diligence seeks to counteract the sin of laziness by helping us cultivate and use the talents with which God has endowed us. However, this virtue is also intended to combat spiritual laziness. As Catholics, we must cooperate with God to achieve our sanctification. And cooperation requires the virtue of diligence.
- Patience. If the sin of anger (anger) is the intemperate and uncontrolled feeling of hatred and the desire for revenge, then the virtue of patience is the ability to bear hardship and evil with love. In this sense, patience is the virtue that moderates the passions and seeks to resolve conflicts and injustices peacefully. Patience also involves being merciful and forgiving those who wrong us.
- Charity. Charity, as used in a theological context, does not mean, or at least is not limited to voluntary giving. Instead, the virtue of charity is that by which we love God above all for himself and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1822). Because charity obliges us to love others unconditionally, it is virtue that is properly opposed to the sin of envy.
In this article, I have sought to explain the seven heavenly virtues that oppose the seven deadly sins.
If sin is an act of disobedience against God’s will as well as an activity contrary to human nature, then virtue is that set of traits that seeks to know and obey God’s will while perfecting his nature.
In the last article of this series, I will examine the three theological virtues and the four cardinal virtues.