Issue: What are the cardinal virtues? What is the role of the cardinal virtues in the Christian life?
Response: Virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good (Catechism, no. 1803). There are two types of virtues: theological and human (or moral) virtues. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity relate directly to God, are given to us at Baptism, and allow us to live a life of supernatural grace as children of God (cf. Catechism, nos. 1812-13).
The immediate object of the human virtues is not God, but human activities that lead us to God. They are generally acquired by human effort but are assisted and reach their perfection by grace. These virtues help us to lead a morally good life with joy and relative ease (cf. Catechism, no. 1804).
Four of the human or moral virtues are known as cardinal virtues. â€œCardinalâ€ comes from the Latin word cardo, which means â€œhinge.â€ The cardinal virtues, then, are considered the â€œhinge virtuesâ€ and are the basis for all the other human virtues. They are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
Sacred Scripture frequently attests to the value of these virtues in living a godly life, although sometimes under other names. For example, Wisdom 8:7 provides:
And if any one loves righteousness, [wisdomâ€™s] labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control [i.e., temperance] and prudence, justice and courage [i.e., fortitude]; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these.
Discussion: The Catechism defines the cardinal virtues as â€œstable dispositions of the intellect and will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faithâ€ (no. 1834). They help us to make good moral choices and thus are an indispensable part of the Christian life.
The moral virtuesâ€”like all habitsâ€”are acquired and grow through education, deliberate acts, and perseverance in struggle (Catechism, no. 1839). They can be diminished or lost by the repetition of acts that are opposed to the virtue. These acts not only destroy the virtue but typically replace it with the opposite vice. Also, when we fail to practice a particular virtue, it will gradually weaken and die.
We need to recognize that because of original sin our human nature is wounded and prone to sin and vice. Our new life in Christ gives us the grace to persevere in virtuous living. As a result, we â€œshould always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evilâ€ (Catechism, no. 1811). We need to be humble enough to recognize our sinful tendencies and cultivate the corresponding virtue. In this way we build a character worthy of our calling.
As we grow in virtue, it becomes easier for us to recognize truth and choose the good, and thus we truly experience the freedom of the children of God (cf. Jn. 8:32; Gal. 5:1). When we choose evil we abuse our freedom and fall prey to the slavery of sin (cf. Catechism, no. 1733). St. Paul helps to put this in focus for us:
â€œ[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these thingsâ€ (Phil. 4:8).
Prudence is the cardinal virtue that â€œdisposes the practical reason to discern, in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving itâ€ (Catechism, no. 1835). Prudence enables us to choose good means to a good end. It guides our practical decision making in individual, concrete circumstances and provides for effective execution once a decision is reached. With the help of prudence, we learn from our experiences and correctly apply moral principles to real-life situations (Catechism, no. 1806).
The three stages of prudence acting properly are deliberation, judgment, and decision. Note that hesitation is appropriate when it comes to deliberation: One can and should consider all the facts and moral principles that bear on the situation and be open to human and divine counsel. However, a considered decision should be performed swiftly. For example, if a person in authority asks us to do something that may be inappropriate, we should consider whether it would be prudent to obey. However, as soon as we discern that such a request constitutes a legitimate exercise of authority, our decision to obey should be promptly acted upon.
Errors in judgment can creep in through defects of prudence or through â€œfalse prudence.â€ Defects include thoughtlessness, rashness, negligence, indecisiveness, and inconstancy in execution. False prudence takes two forms. One is the giving in to the â€œprudence of the flesh,â€ thus making decisions based solely on serving the goods of the body, which St. Paul criticizes as being displeasing to God and leading to death (cf. Rom. 8:6-8). The other form is what St. Thomas calls astutia, which is often translated as â€œcunningâ€ or â€œcraftiness.â€ Astutia is concerned more with â€œtacticsâ€ than living in the light. True prudence isnâ€™t only concerned with a good end, but also good means to that end. Conversely, astutia is the insidious temperament of the intriguer who will use any means to obtain the good.
Prudence is often called the first of the cardinal virtues. As the â€œcharioteer of the virtues,â€ it guides the other virtues and guides the judgment of conscience (Catechism, no. 1806). Indeed, there is no way we can have a well-formed conscience without the virtue of prudence (cf. Catechism, nos. 1780, 1788).
In the Book of Tobit, we are advised:
â€œSeek advice from every wise man, and do not despise any useful counsel. Bless the Lord God on every occasion; ask him that your ways may be made straight and that all your paths and plans may prosperâ€ (Tob. 4:18-19).
This passage encourages us to learn and take counsel from others in true humility and docility. It also encourages us to seek the Lordâ€™s assistance. Through the gift of counsel, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (cf. Is. 11:1-3), prudence is purified and directed toward our ultimate good, God Himself.
â€œJustice consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their dueâ€ (Catechism, no. 1836). Justice in relation to God is called the virtue of religion. Justice toward our neighbor disposes us to respect the rights of others and to foster harmony in human relationships rooted in the truth (cf. Catechism, no. 1807).
The â€œdebtâ€ of justice we owe to others is called a duty. Before there can be a duty, however, the other person must have a corresponding right. I donâ€™t have a duty to pay a $10 debt unless my creditor has a right to receive it. Rights can arise in a variety of social, economic or political contexts. However, there are some fundamental rights that pre-exist human laws or business transactions. These are rights given to us by God that we have by virtue of our being created in His image and likeness. These include the right to life, the right to religious liberty, and the right to earn an honest living. When individuals or governments fail to recognize these rights, they act contrary to the truth of creation, and they act unjustly.
Psalm 112 calls the just man a â€œlight in darkness.â€ Conversely, when we succumb to injustice, and call â€œevil good and good evilâ€ (Is. 5:20), we are â€œalready on the path to the most alarming corruption and the darkest moral blindnessâ€ (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, no. 25).
Justice is distinct from charity, but they are not opposed to each other. We can and must be both just and charitable in our dealing with others. The distinction may be summed up as follows: Charity is based on the union that exists with oneâ€™s neighbor. Thatâ€™s why the most intimate human relationshipâ€”marriageâ€”is presented in Scripture as the two becoming one (cf. Mt. 19:6), and Our Lord commands us to love others as ourself (cf. Lk. 10:27). Justice, however, recognizes that we maintain our individuality despite our communion. Justice demands a distinction of parties, otherwise a debt cannot be owed to the other.
There are three basic forms of justice (cf. Catechism, no. 2411). Commutative justice is the justice that individuals owe each other. Distributive justice describes the relation of the whole to its parts. Specifically, it describes the duty the government owes its citizensâ€”including the protection of their fundamental rights. Legal justice describes the relation of the citizens to the state. For example, this includes that obligation to â€œrender Caesar what is Caesarâ€™sâ€ (Mk. 12:17), such as the payment of taxes.
Also included under justice is the Churchâ€™s social teaching, which often comes under the general heading of â€œsocial justice.â€ The social doctrine of the Church has seen remarkable development over the past century beginning with the encyclical Rerum Novarum authored by Pope Leo XIII, followed by the landmark Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), and up to the three social encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. This body of teaching provides principles about social and economic matters that involve the promotion of fundamental human rights and the common good (see generally Catechism, nos. 2419 et seq.).
Fortitude is the cardinal virtue that ensures a steadiness of the will in the pursuit of the good notwithstanding any difficulties (cf. Catechism, no. 1808). This virtue allows us to maintain our balance in the face of danger. On the one extreme, we need to avoid cowardice, which involves giving in to the passion of fear. On the other, we must avoid rashness or recklessness, which involves imprudently subjecting ourselves to temptation or some physical danger.
The virtue of fortitude has two parts: to attack and to endure. Of the two, fortitude most fully shows itself in patient enduranceâ€”where there is no reasonable hope of conquering the evil that is threatening us. One who is not patient cannot possibly be brave. However, patience is much more than merely passive submission to danger and suffering. Rather, it is a strong quality of the soul that allows us to cling steadfastly to the good and refuse to yield to fear or pain.
Ultimately, the virtue of fortitude enables us to conquer even the fear of death, and thus face trials and persecutions willingly and every joyfully (cf. Catechism, no. 1808). For the Christian, the supreme act of fortitude is martyrdom:
Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude (Catechism, no. 2473).
In Revelation 12:10-11, those who have conquered the powers of evil are those for whom â€œlove for life did not deter them from death.â€
Yet this willingness to â€œfall in battleâ€ must be understood properly. Fortitude is not authentic unless it is grounded in prudence and justice. It is completely foreign to a reckless or â€œdaredevilâ€ approach to danger. The truly virtuous man does not suffer injury or martyrdom for its own sake, but as a means of preserving or acquiring a greater good. The Gospel summarizes this paradox: â€œHe who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal lifeâ€ (Jn. 12:25).
The Catechism defines temperance as â€œthe moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the willâ€™s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorableâ€ (no. 1809). Temperance helps us â€œto live sober, upright, and godly lives in this worldâ€ (Tit. 2:12).
While fortitude is self-possession in a sea of danger, temperance is self-possession during a storm of passion. Too often, temperance is equated with a puritanical approach to creation and legitimate human pleasures. Thus, itâ€™s limited to simply avoiding excessive pleasure. In reality, temperance is a positive ordering of our bodily appetites for our own good and the good of society. Temperance allows us to be fully ourselves and not slaves to food, alcohol, sex, gambling, comfort, success, or other pleasures which may result from excessive indulgence in them (cf. Catechism, no. 2290). This inner ordering of the bodily appetites produces what St. Thomas calls a â€œserenity of the spirit,â€ but requires vigilance, discipline, and grace because of our fallen human nature (q. 141, art. 2).
The surest way to walk a straight line in the snow is to keep our eyes focused on our destination. We may be tempted to look at our feet and simply put one in front of the other, but eventually weâ€™ll drift off (if we donâ€™t first walk into a tree!). This points to the importance of humility, which helps us to see ourselves as we truly are: creatures who are at once sinful and redeemed. More fundamentally, humility orients us toward God, who is both our origin and our goal. This virtue is no less than temperance as it relates to our quest for excellence, which for the Christian is to â€œattain to . . . the stature of the fullness of Christâ€ (Eph. 4:13).
The Family of Moral Virtues
All the moral virtues are in some way related to one of the cardinal virtues. Here are some examples
Prudenceâ€”making good decisions
Â· Good counsel profits from the advice of others when confronted with difficult decisions.
Â· Common sense is the ability to judge things according to the ordinary rules of conduct.
Â· Good judgment involves attentiveness to the mind of the lawmaker.
Â· Innocence helps us to see the truth clearly (cf. 2 Cor. 11:3).
Â· Docility is the ability to be taught.
Justiceâ€”giving others their due
Â· Religion is the worship we owe to God.
Â· Piety is the duty that we owe to our parents (and by extension to clergy, our spiritual fathers, and to our family) and to our country, or â€œfatherland.â€
Â· Observance refers to the respect owed to those persons distinguished by their office or some dignity.
Â· Obedience is the duty owed to those in authority.
Â· Truthfulness ensures that our communications reflect objective reality.
Â· Gratitude is the duty owed to one who has conferred benefits on us.
Â· Zeal involves eagerly leading others to the good or protecting them from evil.
Â· Restitution is the making of reparation for harm done to others.
Fortitudeâ€”constancy in the pursuit of the good
Â· Magnanimity literally means â€œgreat souled,â€ and inclines us to heroic acts of virtue.
Â· Magnificence leads us to do great things at great expense.
Â· Patience enables us to remain at peace despite trials and opposition.
Â· Perseverance helps us to pursue a good cause to the end, and reaches its perfection in the distinctly Christian virtue of martyrdom.
Temperanceâ€”moderation in all things
Â· Clemency remits or lessens the punishment due to a guilty person.
Â· Meekness is self-possession in the face of adversity, and thus is even able to restrain justified anger.
Â· Modesty allows us to be self-assured without being self-absorbed or calling undue attention to ourselves. It involves moderation in our dress, language, and behavior.
Â· Abstinence is moderation in the consumption of food for our spiritual welfare.
Â· Sobriety is the regulation of our consumption of foodâ€”and especially alcohol and medicinesâ€”according to the dictates of reason.
Â· Diligence regulates our desire for ease and comfort.
Â· Chastity controls our desire for sexual pleasure in conformity with reason and the teachings of Christ (cf. Catechism, nos. 2337 et seq.).