The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that religion could and should be reduced to ethics. For Kant and the Enlightenment philosophers, the value of religion was limited to the virtues it instilled.
In this article, the third article in a series on sin and virtue, I will discuss what the Catholic Church has classified as theological and cardinal virtues. Previously, I had endeavored to examine the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Heavenly Virtues.
I will begin by distinguishing between theological and cardinal virtues and provide some background information before discussing each of the virtues.
An Aristotelian definition of virtue would be that virtue is a state of character that enables one to act appropriately in accordance with reason. Such a definition is certainly applicable to a secular understanding of virtue and is even valuable in understanding what Catholicism calls the cardinal virtues (see below). However, the Catholic tradition has also identified three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity.
They are called theological because they are not natural to human nature. On the contrary, these three virtues are infused into the soul by God. Faith, hope and charity are virtues which enable human beings to participate in the divine life.
Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and in all that he has said and revealed to us. The faith also extends to the Catholic Church that God founded. By faith, “man freely commits himself entirely to God”. For this reason, the believer seeks to know and do the will of God. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1814).
Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life as our happiness. Hope means placing our trust in the promises of Christ and relying not on our own strength but on the grace that the Holy Spirit gives. “The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior that we may be justified by his grace and become heirs in the hope of eternal life.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1818).
The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness that God has placed in the heart of man. Hope inspires the activities of men and purifies them to order them to the Kingdom of Heaven while acting as a brake on discouragement. Hope sustains us in times of difficulty and abandonment by opening the heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Carried and inspired by hope, we are preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that comes from charity.
Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all for himself and our neighbor as ourselves. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1823).
Charity is the cornerstone of the new covenant. Indeed, Jesus suggests that charity is a divine imperative: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, you too must love one another. (John 13:34).
By loving his own to the end, Jesus manifests the love of the Father that he receives. We must imitate the love of Jesus that we have received. This is why Jesus says: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; remain in my love. (John 15:9).
Where the theological virtues are of supernatural origin in that they are infused into the soul by grace, the cardinal virtues are human virtues acquired by education and habituation. Word cardinal comes from the Latin word card, meaning “that on which other things depend”. In other words, the cardinal virtues are the foundation of the moral life. They are prudence, justice, courage and temperance.
Caution is that virtue by which we discern the right action in a given situation. To avoid an impulsive decision, a prudent person will take the time to consider all possible options and their outcomes. Additionally, prudence dictates that we pray for guidance while seeking guidance from others.
In a sense, caution helps guard against our fallen nature that causes us to act inappropriately or recklessly. As Catholics, we recognize our damaged nature and therefore rely on the Church and the Scriptures to help us in our actions. This will help us train our conscience according to God’s will, allowing our careful discernment to become more reliable.
Justice is the virtue of giving to God and to one’s neighbor what is rightfully theirs. One renders justice to God by ordering his life correctly and by worshiping God correctly.
Being fair to our neighbors means recognizing that everyone is created in the image of God. By its very nature, practicing the virtue of justice means treating everyone with dignity and respect. Such treatment does not, of course, negate the need for society to appropriately punish evil.
Justice is therefore a moral virtue which consists in the constant and firm will to give what is due to God and to neighbour. Justice towards God is called religion. Justice towards men disposes to respect the rights of each and to establish a harmony in human relations which promotes equity between people and the common good. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1807).
Courage is the virtue by which we remain faithful to our Catholic faith. Certainly, being a Catholic (or a person of faith, in general) is increasingly difficult in an increasingly secular world.
Strength involves both the courage to live one’s faith and the resilience to suffer for one’s beliefs. As in all virtues, we are strengthened in strength by participating in the sacramental life – especially in the regular reception of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. The sacraments are God’s way of giving us his grace, and it is grace that makes virtue possible.
Temperance. For Aristotle, temperance was the middle ground between two extremes. For example, courage was the right balance between cowardice and recklessness.
Temperance, therefore, is that virtue by which we find balance in our appetites and passions and practice moderation in our use of created goods and our conduct with people. The practice of temperance allows us to avoid abusing things or even others to satisfy our selfish desires, which are not of God. Instead, it helps us put others before ourselves.
Moreover, temperance requires self-control of the will in order to subordinate our lowest instincts to the rational soul. Likewise, temperance also asks us to take care of our physical and spiritual well-being.
For the Catholic, virtue is that set of traits, whether infused into the soul by God or learned and developed, which help to conform one’s life to the will of God. As such, virtue acts in direct opposition to sin, which are actions that violate God’s law.
In this series of articles, I have sought to explain the Seven Deadly Sins (supposedly because they endanger the soul with death) and the Heavenly Virtues that seek to contradict the Deadly Sins. I also examined the three theological virtues (divinely infused virtues) and the four cardinal virtues which are the foundation of the moral life.