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The Different Kinds of Christian Virtue

One and the self-same virtue has reference to different objects and consequently receives different names.

Many virtues, such as liberality or prudence, are lauded by men of the world; others, such as meekness, humility, love of one’s enemies, are regarded by them with contempt. In some virtues the understanding is the chief factor, as in faith; in others, the will, as in temperance.

1. The virtues that unite our soul to God are the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, Charity.

These three virtues are symbolized by a flame; faith is signified by the light it emits, hope by its upward tendency, and charity by the heat it radiates. A tree is also an emblem of these virtues: faith is its root, hope its stem, charity its fruit. Faith lays the foundation of the temple of God, hope raises the walls, and charity crowns the structure. The cross is a symbol of faith, the anchor of hope, while charity is denoted by a burning heart. The greatest of these virtues is charity (1 Cor. xiii. 13). Without charity, faith and hope are valueless, for God only grants eternal felicity to those that love Him.

1. The three theological virtues are manifested in the following manner:

The effect produced by the virtue of Faith is to make us believe in the existence of God and in His divine perfections.

The effect of the virtue of Hope is to make us look for eternal salvation from God, as well as the means that are necessary for its attainment.

The virtue of Charity causes us to find satisfaction in God, and to seek to please Him by keeping His commandments.
2. These virtues are fitly termed theological, because God Himself is their object, their motive, and their Author.

God is the object of faith; that is to say, we believe what God has revealed, and all that has reference to God Himself, to His being, His attributes, His works and His will. God is the motive of faith, for we believe that which He has revealed because He is omniscient and the highest truth. God is the object of hope; for we hope for eternal happiness after death, to see God and enjoy Him forever. God is the motive of hope, for we hope for eternal felicity because He is almighty, most bountiful, and faithful to His promises. God is the object of charity, for all our love centres in Him. God is the motive of charity, since we love Him because He is supreme beauty and sovereign goodness. God is also the Author of the three theological virtues, as the following reasons demonstrate:

3. We receive the three theological virtues to render us capable of performing good works simultaneously with sanctifying grace.

When the Holy Spirit enters into the soul, He transforms the powers of the mind, so that it can rise to God with greater facility. When He comes and imparts to us sanctifying grace, a light shines in our heart that awakens faith and hope (2 Cor. iv. 6), and a fire is ignited, that kindles a flame of charity (Rom. v. 5). This action of the Holy Ghost within the soul is called the infusion of the three theological virtues. The three theological virtues are infused into the soul (Council of Trent, 6, ch. 7). The infusion of these virtues has a similar effect as have the rays of the sun in imparting light and warmth to the atmosphere. God does not force these virtues upon us; the freedom of the will is in no wise interfered with. The power of exercising the three theological virtues is imparted in Baptism, and if it be lost, it is given again in the Sacrament of Penance. As the seed lies dormant in the bosom of the earth, until, under the influence of sun and rain, it germinates and grows, so the three theological virtues at first lie dormant in the soul of the child until he attains the use of reason, and through the action of grace and religious instruction they are developed and come to sight (in works). The baptized child resembles one who is asleep, who possesses the power of sight, but sees nothing, until he awakens from sleep and makes use of that power. So the power to exercise faith, hope, and charity are latent in the soul of the child, until with the use of reason they are brought into play, and their existence is made apparent.

4. We ought to make acts of the three theological virtues frequently in the course of our life, especially before approaching the sacraments and at the hour of death.

The means of making acts of the three theological virtues is to place before the mind the object and the motive of these virtues. In doing so, it is well not to employ the usual formula, but to express one’s self in one’s own words. Every time we make the sign of the cross, utter a prayer, or do a good deed, we make implicitly at least, an act of one or more of these virtues.

2. Those virtues which have the effect of bringing our actions into conformity with the moral law, are called moral virtues. These we gain for ourselves by our own exertions and the assistance of divine grace, after we have received sanctifying grace.

These virtues are called moral virtues, because they order our actions in a manner pleasing to God. As the three theological virtues perfect our interior being, so the moral virtues perfect our exterior. The three theological virtues have immediate reference to God, the moral virtues bear in the first place upon our neighbor or upon ourselves. Liberality, for instance, has reference to our neighbor; temperance in eating and drinking to ourselves exclusively. The three theological virtues were infused into us with sanctifying grace, whereas we have to gain for ourselves the moral virtues at the cost of our own labor, and with the timely aid of divine grace. At Baptism, it is true, our will is disposed by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost to the practice of the moral virtues; yet the habit of their practice must be acquired by repeated good deeds, and the conquest of our evil proclivities. At Baptism the seed of moral virtue was implanted in the field of our heart; we must diligently cultivate that field if the seed is to bear fruit. At the same time we need the sun of God’s grace, the vivifying influence of the Holy Spirit, or our labor will be in vain.

3. The principal moral virtues are the seven capital virtues: Humility, obedience, meekness, liberality, temperance, chastity, diligence in what is good.

Humility concerns our honor, obedience our liberty, meekness and patience the attitude of the soul, liberality has reference to our property, temperance in eating and drinking and chastity to our bodies, diligence in what is good to our work. Among these virtues meekness and liberality ought pre-eminently to mark the Christian, and for this reason Christ speaks of His followers as sheep or lambs, because the sheep is the most patient and harmless of animals. The seven capital virtues are opposed to the seven capital or deadly sins.

4. All the moral virtues proceed from the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude (Wisd. viii. 7).

The four fundamental virtues are called cardinal virtues, from the word cardo, a hinge, because all our moral actions turn on them as a door turns upon its hinges. They are called fundamental virtues because the whole fabric of virtue rests upon them; they are the cornerstones of the edifice of Christian virtue. The four cardinal virtues are inseparable parts of each and every virtue; on them all the moral virtues rest, for instance moderation in eating and drink ing and meekness spring from temperance, diligence is what is good from fortitude, etc. These four virtues may be said to be the parents of every other virtue. Prudence is a virtue of the understanding, justice of the will. Temperance and fortitude support the will. Prudence fixes its gaze upon heaven; temperance seeks what is eternal and employs temporal things only as a means of attaining what it seeks; fortitude allows no obstacles to hinder it from attaining its goal. The philosophers of antiquity recognized the value of temperance and fortitude; they asserted that to renounce and to endure was the compendium of all worldly wisdom, for they considered that the practice of these two virtues would preserve a man from sin and conduct him to supreme felicity.

1. Prudence is the capacity of the intellect to apprehend the good thing’s of eternity and the means of attaining to them.

That is the truest prudence which can best distinguish what is divine from what is human. The prudent man always looks to his final end. Like a wise merchant who thinks continually of what profit he can make, the Christian’s thoughts are fixed upon gaining riches for eternity. The serpent looks out afar, and exposes its body if only it can shield its head; so the Christian keeps the end of life always in view, and scorns earthly things in order to preserve its true treasure. Our Lord bids us “Be wise as serpents” (Matt. x. 16). How cleverly the saints contrived to carry out their undertakings and obtain the end they desired! St. Paul displayed this prudence when he made use of the superscription he saw at Athens: “To the unknown God,” to afford him an opportunity of preaching the Gospel (Acts xvii.). Prudence is a most important virtue, for the will is guided by the reason. If the understanding is not capable of judging between good and evil, the will deviates from the right way and transgresses the commandments. Prudence is said to be the eye of the soul (St. Thomas Aquinas). Without the light of the eye we cannot find our way, nor without prudence can we discern the path to heaven. Without the eye we cannot make full use of our limbs, nor without prudence can we practice virtue aright. Prudence is the rudder that directs the course of the vessel; without it we shall make shipwreck of virtue. The contrary of prudence is worldly wisdom (Luke xvi. 8), or the wisdom of the flesh. The wisdom of this world consists in discerning what will bring a man temporal advantage or sensual enjoyment; this wisdom is foolishness with God (1 Cor. iii. 19).

2. Justice is the steadfast inclination of the will towards that which is just.

Justice makes us willing to walk in the narrow path of the commandments; the just man dreads the slightest deviation from it. The foster-father of Christ was termed a just man. (The word just is often used to signify that one is in a state of grace, but in this sense it is not employed here.) The just man is upright, he gives to every one his due; to God he gives worship, to the authorities obedience; to his subordinates he metes out rewards and punishments; to his equals he shows fraternal charity. But as both from within and without he encounters opposition and obstacles, he needs temperance and fortitude to sustain him and regulate his actions.

3. Through temperance man only makes use of temporal good things, in so far as is necessary for the attainment of those which are eternal.

For instance, a man does not eat or drink more than he needs to support life and preserve health and fulfil his duties. He does not strive with excessive eagerness after honors, pleasures, or other sensual enjoyments. He is like the eagle, that has its eyrie on the heights, and only descends to the valley in search of food. We should use this world as if we used it not (1 Cor. vii. 31). Would that every one could say with St. Francis of Sales: “I desire very little, and that little I desire but little.” Temperance does not, how ever, consist in refusing one’s self what is necessary, and thus un fitting one’s self for good works; such temperance lacks prudence.

4. Fortitude enables a man to make sacrifices willingly for the sake of attaining eternal riches.

He who possesses the virtue of fortitude does not allow himself to be intimidated by ridicule, threats, or persecution. He is ready even, if need be, to suffer death. On the other hand he endures patiently all the afflictions that come upon him. In this he resembles the diamond that no stone can break. Fortitude is more strikingly displayed in bearing great suffering than in undertaking great achievements, for suffering is more difficult than doing. An example of heroic fortitude is given us by the mother of the Machabees with her seven children, who “esteemed torments as nothing” (2 Mach. vii. 12); by Abraham, who was ready to offer up his son Isaac; by Pope Leo the Great, who fearlessly went to meet Attila, the King of the Huns. No saint was ever a coward. The holy martyrs showed fortitude in its highest degree. There is the spurious fortitude of the reprobate; when a man cannot be made to desist from the love of transitory things by the chastisements of the Creator and pursues them at the cost of his life.

5. All perfect virtues spring from the love of God and are in separably united together by that same love (1 Cor, xiii.).

As all the different branches of a tree grow from the same root, so the various virtues spring from the love of God. All virtue is rooted and grounded in charity (Eph. iii. 17). Charity may be called the queen of virtues, because it incites the will to the performance of good deeds; as flowers of various hues are bound together to form a wreath, so the different virtues form a harmonious whole; only they cannot be severed one from the other, and the bond that unites them so closely is charity.

Therefore he who is devoid of charity towards God does not possess a single perfect virtue; while he who has charity possesses them all, if not all in the same degree.

The love of God may fitly be compared to the sunshine. When in winter the sun withdraws its rays, the face of nature loses its beauty; so in the absence of charity, virtue loses its supernatural beauty. But it is quite possible to possess imperfect, natural virtue without the love of God. For every man has by nature a certain inherent knowledge of what is good, and a desire for what is good, by reason of which he can perform many a good action and by habit acquire ease in the performance of it. One may also possess imperfect moral virtues without the love of God; this was the case with the pagans of antiquity, and now we often meet with people who are naturally gentle, abstemious, liberal, etc. Moreover, one may even possess imperfect theological virtues without the love of God. For faith can exist without hope, and both faith and hope without charity (Council of Trent, 6, 7, 23). For faith and hope can only be lost by falling into the sins opposed to them; faith is lost through unbelief, hope by despair. But he who possesses the love of God possesses all and every virtue, if not all in an equal degree. As soon as the sun shines upon the earth, the flowers, the meadows, all things are once more decked in their former beauty; so when charity fills the soul, it will be adorned with all virtues; supernatural divine virtues, worthy of an eternal recompense. All the saints possessed every single perfect virtue that there is, but they excelled in one more than in the others. Job possessed patience in a high degree, David the virtue of forgiveness, Abraham obedience, St. Aloysius was remarkable for purity, St. Francis of Sales for meekness, St. Ignatius for zeal.

He who is lacking in one single perfect virtue is devoid also of all the others, for he has not the love of God. And he who possesses but one single perfect virtue, possesses all.

One virtue alone is either no virtue at all, or an imperfect one. For instance, a man who is given to anger possesses neither the virtue of meekness, nor of liberality, nor of humility, nor any other. It is only natural virtues that are alone. For instance one may meet with an avaricious man who is gentle and meek.

6. The greatest and noblest of all the virtues is charity.
Because it alone unites man to God, it alone gives value to the other virtues, and it alone will last beyond the grave.

The three theological virtues hold the highest place among the virtues because they have direct relation to God. Charity is the greatest of them, as St. Paul declares (1 Cor. xiii. 13). It takes precedence of all the rest, as fire does of the other elements, as gold of the other metals, as the seraphim do of the other angelic choirs charity unites man to God. Our Lord says: “He that loveth Me shall be loved of My Father, and I will love him; we will come to him and will make our abode with him” (John xiv. 21, 23). Again, St. John says: “He that abideth in charity, abideth in God and God in him” (1 John iv. 16). Charity alone gives value to the other virtues. St. Paul declares that to speak with tongues, to possess all knowledge, to have the gift of prophecy and of miracles, to perform almsdeeds and austerities, profits nothing, for all these are worth less unless inspired by charity (1 Cor. xiii. 1-3). Charity lasts beyond the grave; St. Paul tells us: “Charity never falleth away” (v. 8). Faith on the other hand passes into the vision of God; hope into the enjoyment of God. The moral virtues do indeed remain in the life to come, but in another and more excellent manner, for eternal blessedness does not destroy the perfection human nature has attained.

7. The virtues can always be increased.

Virtue resembles an estate, situated on the highest point of a mountain. He who is ascending this mountain is sometimes nearer, sometimes farther from the summit, and there are many travellers before and many behind him. For we do not always possess the same degree of virtue, neither do all men possess it in an equal measure. If any one has attained so high a degree of virtue that his state approximates to that of the blessed in heaven nay more, if to a certain extent he becomes like unto God, that virtue is termed heroic. Heroes, among the ancients, were men who had achieved more than ordinary mortals could accomplish. For the beatification or canonization of any individual it is necessary to prove that he practiced the three theological and the four cardinal virtues in the fulfilment of the duties of his calling in an heroic degree. Heroic virtue is neither understood nor appreciated, but rather contemned by those who do not live a godly life.

The three theological virtues are increased through the in crease of sanctifying grace.

That the increase of the three theological virtues is possible, we learn from the collect of the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in which the Church prays: “Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us an increase of faith, hope, and charity.” If the atmosphere receives more light and heat from the sun, we see more clearly and experience more warmth. In like manner when grace is augmented in the soul, the power of belief becomes stronger and we are stimulated to the exercise of charity. We also find that frequent acts of the three theological virtues serve to increase them; or if they do not immediately produce this effect, they dispose the soul to growth in virtue.

The moral virtues are increased by frequently performing good actions, and also by the increase of sanctifying grace.

Frequent acts will increase the facility in the practice of good, while the increase of grace will render the will more disposed towards what is good. The more proficiency we attain and the greater the measure of sanctifying grace we receive, the greater will be our moral virtues. We should endeavor to increase at least in one virtue, for the increase of one will be accompanied by the increase of all the rest. We can and ought to cultivate more especially that virtue for the exercise of which our circumstances afford most opportunity, or for which we have a particular admiration. The more we advance in our favorite virtue, the greater progress we make in every other virtue.

8. All perfect virtue is lost immediately upon falling into mortal sin, for thereby the love of God is lost, without which there can be no perfect virtue.

He who suffers shipwreck (1 Tim. i. 19), loses all that he has; and so the man who falls into mortal sin loses all the perfection in virtue and all the merits he has acquired. However great the proficiency attained in the practice of virtue, the freedom of the will is not impaired; man is always liable to sin. “He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. x. 12). Remember how David sinned, and St. Peter fell. Virtue is far more easily lost than won. How swiftly a stone rolls down hill, and yet how slowly it is rolled up! One single mortal sin suffices to obliterate virtue, just as one string out of tune in an instrument spoils the melody. Yet suffering is not of itself calculated to destroy virtue. Virtue is like a precious pearl, which if it falls into the mud retains its pristine beauty unmarred. In fact virtue stands out in stronger relief in the season of affliction; just as the stars shine at night and are not seen by day, or spices give out their aroma most freely when they are crushed. The outward semblance of virtue often remains when one has committed a grievous sin, but it then resembles a corpse, for the soul, the life, has departed from it. One may, therefore, be extremely pious, and yet corrupt at heart.

The perfect virtues will be diminished if one desists from the practice of good.

He who makes a parade of his virtues is in danger of losing them. The man who carries his treasures openly on the highway is sure to be robbed of them. As the display of gold or costly apparel invites the thief, so the display of virtue attracts the devil, who seeks to take it from us. Moreover, sweet-scented things lose their perfume if they are exposed to the air. Consequently, if we cannot avoid doing good in the sight of man, let our only desire be to please God. Unless we are constant and persevering, we shall gradually fall off in virtue. Trees that are continually transplanted cannot grow properly, much less bear fruit; on the contrary, they are likely to wither and die. So Continual change of place, of position, of office, is highly prejudicial to progress in virtue.


This article, The Different Kinds of Christian Virtue is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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