The Church teaches that a virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself or herself in all circumstances. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all the sensory and spiritual powers available, pursuing the good and choosing it in concrete actions. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 7: 1803)
When Gregory of Nyssa reminded us “the goal of a virtuous life is to become like God,” he certainly didn’t imply that we become God or a “god” of some sort unto ourselves. The only thing we can hope for is to share in the life of God which is his grace. Who could possibly know what God is like? It is only through the free gift of his grace that we are able to practice our faith firmly believing in the Father through the Son in the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. Virtue essentially is the practice of faith; respecting what is true and honorable, what is pure and just, and lovingly and continuously praising God by acts on behalf of the known good within ourselves and among all others. The perversion of the good is sin, and since we could be considered a coincidence of opposites as human beings, we are dogged by propositions that the “world” unremittingly offers us. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” We have the words of Jesus to support our fondest hopes, confirming our attitude, stabilizing a disposition that governs our actions, orders our passions, and guides our conduct according to right-reason and faith. They make possible a personal ease, self-mastery, and the joy and peace of leading a morally good life.
For those who have been graced to love what is right, Wisdom has named the virtues. She teaches us prudence, temperance, justice and courage as those virtues which are pivotal to a happy life. Many see fit to reject Wisdom’s advice as being inconsistent with the “good-life” the world has to offer us.
Being prudent is assumed to be a bore. It’s the excitement of novelty and inconsistency, of daring and the tempting of fate that thrills many of us, especially the young. “Don’t think, just do it and see what happens.” Regret is believed to be irrelevant. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience and helps overcome doubts about achieving the good and avoiding what is obviously wrong. Who has not felt great relief at times by eluding certain moral mistakes with the use of more prudent action?
Pleasure is not a wrong by any means. It is only an excess of created things, an over indulgence in them that sets things askew. It is the virtue of temperance that ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. A temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion keeping within the limits of human dignity. The intrepid Greeks warned us long ago: “Everything in moderation.” Most of us, at one time or another, have given in to our base desires either inadvertently or purposely and have suffered the consequences. When the virtue of temperance becomes a habit, we can almost automatically live a life secure from the inordinate quest for “too much of a good thing” so the love of creation is uncorrupted as we share, with humility, the life of God. (CCC 1804-1805-1806 modified)
The virtue of justice can only be based on and rooted in truth— and Ultimate Truth is the Father, Son and Spirit; the inevitable, almighty God; the Trinity whom we lovingly adore and worship in faith. Justice, as a virtue which we can practice habitually, is not the easiest thing for the human mind to grasp. The everyday judgements we are apt to make may be based only on tenuous understandings of the facts and truths of the matters upon which we may judge. “Snap-judgements” tend to be based more on opinion than on the truth or the facts. Justice as a noun, on the other hand, is the universal quality of being fair (just) in the determination of human rights and the assignment of rewards and punishment usually administered by courts of law in free societies.
Even in secular parlance, human rights attributed to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable, i.e., meaning absolute. In truth then, Ultimate-Justice is ultimately the province of God in this context. Justice toward men disposes one to respect the truth and the rights of each other and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and above all to the common good. It is the second half of the greatest commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”A healthy respect for truth without exaggeration is our way of practicing the virtue of justice. It must be said that immigrating surreptitiously to another’s country for anything other than necessity, and taking advantage of a neighbors generosity could be construed as theft of services. Still, no one in honest need can be turned away even at considerable cost to an unwilling host.
(CCC 1807 modified)
The virtue of moral fortitude or courage ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause. “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (CCC 108, John 16: 33)
Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and facilitate the practice of the good. (CCC 1810)
There is no way we can set aside the practice of human virtue and expect to live productive and peaceful lives. Every mentally healthy, reasonable human being is aware of these human virtues. Those who have concluded there is no God at least ought to be confident that the good exists as opposed to evil, and that the intricate order displayed by nature leaves the question of God an open one. Those within whom God’s grace is present are brought more easily to a virtuous life by faith, hope and charity. These are the theological virtues which inform and give life to all the moral virtues.
Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and all that his Holy Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, proposes for our belief in his name, because he is Truth itself. By faith human beings can freely commit themselves to God. For this reason a believer seeks to know and do the will of God. The Father’s will is known through our Lord Jesus Christ who said: “Every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” To be a disciple of Christ one must not only keep the faith but live it and profess it, confidently bearing witness to it, and help to spread it: “All must be prepared to confess Christ before men and to follow him along the way of the Cross, amidst the persecutions which his Church never lacks.” Service of and witness to the faith are necessary to obtain the promises of Christ’s message, eternal life. (CCC 1814, 1815, 1816 modified)
Hope is the theological virtue tied to the human inclination of desiring what is good; of sincerely wanting to share in the life of God on earth as well as for eternity in the Kingdom of Heaven as promised by Jesus Christ our Savior. Pope Benedict XVI has told us in his letter Spe Salvi: “The Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative.” That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.” Hope responds to the aspirations of happiness which God has placed in the heart of every person; the hopes that inspire activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps humanity from discouragement; it sustains them during times of dispair; it opens up our hearts in expectation of a beatific future. Buoyed by hope, we are preserved from selfishness and led to a happiness that flows from charity. It is in hope that the Church prays for “all to be saved.” She longs to be united with Christ, her Bridegroom, in the glory of heaven. (CCC 1817-21 modified)
The theological virtue of charity is epitomized by our love for each other as being representative and co-equal to our love for God. Jesus makes charity a new commandment. By loving his own “to the end,” he manifests the Father’s love which he himself receives. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love,” and: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Who could hear these words and hate or hold resentment against another— without, at the same time being contemptuous towards God. “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” The Lord asks us to love as he loves, even our enemies whomever they may be. Obviously, we need not love the terrible things some do, but it must be kept in mind that we are all essentially children of God and will be held responsible for whatever we do while holding that singular privilege. The Apostle Paul has given an incomparable depiction of charity as love:
“Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
“If I have not charity,” says the Apostle, “I am nothing.” Whatever my privilege, service, or even virtue, “If I have not charity, I gain nothing.” Charity is superior to all the virtues. It is the first of the theological virtues: “So faith, hope, charity abide, these three. But the greatest of these is charity.” (CCC 1822-29 modified)