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Virtue in the Catholic Moral Tradition

The answer is yes. Throughout salvation history this task has seemed elusive, and entirely too transcendent for the people of Israel, who while attempting to conform to Yahweh’s commands were largely subject to His perfection through their, and their first parent’s, sins, but through God’s gracious Incarnation and Paschal Mystery, Christ has revealed to us that this perfection is indeed the fulfillment of all our desires, and has made this way accessible to us by uniting humanity with His divine essence in His redeeming act. It is our choice then, our mission, and our joy, to conform ourselves to this eternal mold that possesses both human and divine elements, and to direct the whole of our efforts towards becoming one who perfectly loves. The Alpha and Omega of this endeavour is virtue, and it is our means and end in the moral life.

The beginning of this life is a school of discipline, that like the journey of Israel, focuses on both the positive and negative commandments of God in a moral code that is to be chosen, learned, and absorbed by us. “Discipline involves the communication of knowledge and the formation of the mind and will, within the context of a growing harmony between disciple and teacher according to the criterion of excellence.[1]” It is here that one learns that right action actually exists, directed by the decrees of God, and is compelled to leave the solely pleasurable desires of whim behind. Entering into exercises of seemingly coarse constraint, one is stripped of the indifferent freedom of will, that chooses blindly and without considering a good beyond that of this world. This purification by means of law, slowly dissolves these chains of liberal freedom, that are indeed chains which prevent one from progressing towards the Father, and His will that the student does not yet understand. This is largely a school of what not to do, and a struggle in doing so.  But throughout this course, when perceiving, then hearing, and finally complying to this task, a connection is established and covenantly sealed between God and man.

At this stage of development, perhaps not even a concept of virtue is yet held, and if so it is a distorted one that proposes an action to avoid punishment, either from one’s contemporaries or from God Himself. It is only towards the end of this stage that a question begins to arise. When one has stopped doing all that is opposed to the law, and done all that they are capable of to fulfill it, do they then begin to ask “What is one to do?” as so many did in the Gospels, and it is here that the stream of charity begins to spring forth in answer, that then needs to answer no more: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ’This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It is here that one can be said to enter the virtuous life, for with this kernel of love, an affection for the good begins to form within, and the intellectual thirst and ability to discern and accomplish it begins to increase.  Obedience is no longer the final cause at the end of the law, but it is the act itself and the joy derived from it is that is steadily pursued. Virtue is still at this stage what is to be done, in that through God’s grace one begins to attempt to act as God would act in different human dimensions (WWJD), but it is still an act that is assumed with a later goal of it being acquired within one’s self. It is unlike the previous call and response paradigm of the law, because virtue is performed here (in imperfect and inconsistent measures) with the actual mind of Christ, in that it is a participation with the nature God, where one begins to know the good, and will its existence cooperatively with Him. Although there are many virtues that have been considered throughout history ( “if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things[2]”) the Catholic tradition draws upon the four Cardinal virtues derived from antiquity as a comprehensive palette of the soul’s natural intellectual and moral mission towards the perfection of Christ.

With a soul that is aesthetically similar to God’s, where its essence and esse hinge on the act of thinking itself, man is a rational animal who through the power of virtue “achieves works bearing the stamp of his unique quality as a moral person.[3]”  Due to the nature of the soul, many have held prudence to be the pinnacle of all moral virtues, as one must first know the good to accomplish it successfully. So prudence (meaning foresight) entails the first stage of moral process that determines a course for the will to follow. St. Thomas divides this practical reasoning into four parts, or stages.[4] The first is to consider one’s means to an end, and what that end may be. The second is working through this end intellectually with the relevant principles and information provided. The third is an affirmation of the chosen course as good, and recursively the fourth stage imperatively fixes the target of this course for the will to execute. Colloquially, this can be simply stated as knowing what to do, and when to do it in any given situation.

Justice can then be said to be the next subsequent moral virtue, in that with the deliberation of prudence one is set to execute their love for others by ensuring that all are given their due. In the early disciplinary stages of the moral life, one disavows one’s self from the concept of retributive justice that is contrary to reason and the teaching of the Gospel. The formula for this mode of justice ultimately results in detracting from another which is contrary to love, as what one is due. Justice as virtue, and as virtue defined, is always an intrinsically good act or resolve that increases the good of the other, be it person or community at large. This mode is considered in at least three cooperative dimensions. One is a commutative justice that focuses on fair dealings while honoring the rights of individual persons or groups, usually manifest in contracts, exchanges, and labor. Another is a distributive justice that aims to tally the goods of the community, and ensure that these goods are equally distributed or shared with all, according to the needs and rights of each individual and their office. A third is legal justice, which  is a mediated affair that aims to ensure goods are communicated, transferred, or restored in accordance with the two aspects already mentioned. The aim of legislation is to promote, ensure, and cultivate virtue for all within the community. Seeing that virtue is the means and end to liberation, legal justice guarantees that all remain collectively free to to pursue it.

All three of these dimensions are contained in the general ethos of social justice, that is reliant on two inseparable principles of solidarity and subsidiarity for its existence. The first principle of solidarity reveals that all men are by their nature defined by their relationships to one another, as God Himself reveals within His own nature as a tri-personal being. A person does not exist without the intrinsic bonds relating each to another, and to neglect this relationship is to ignore this both human and divine reality. The second principle of subsidiarity considers the nature of social form, where the inter-subjective relationships of a community are nurtured coextensively with the objective vantages of governing entities of the larger polis. It is an order that does not reveal dominance, but again aims to mirror the perfect nature of the Trinity, consisting of an order without subordination.

I would like to pause for a moment to consider some problems surrounding the moral life, as they relate to these virtues and others, and discuss the distinction between the hellenistic and Christian virtues that we are describing in this work. Earlier I spoke of justice, and the many conceptions held throughout history. Some have proposed brute force, a fairness in retribution, or a utilitarian ethos as its perfection, and indeed today there are virtue ethics of sorts that can distort their real order and end. Specifically this can occur when one constructs a schema that is void of revealed law, void of God,  and considers the moral as the perfection of the faculty itself. For example, one can be shrewd in matters of robbery or murder, and prudently act to these malicious ends. Likewise, one can calculate the cost of the good detracted from themselves, and propose in error a contradicting ‘just evil’ to be sought as a moral course. This error is even found in Aristotle, the syncretic source of these moral virtues, where he posited the happiness obtained through the completion of these well executed acts as the final cause of the moral life. A pleasent goal that resonates with the human flourishing of the Catholic moral tradition, but short of the concept of Beatitude revealed in the Gospels, as a reception of something from beyond one’s self, where through and above the act itself one is blessed by God. With prudence and justice, and likewise for the rest of the moral virtues I will later detail,  the Christian distinction finds the good of the virtuous act beyond the ceiling of self, nature, reason, or form– and instead affirms their existence in Christ alone.

But even when holding this right understanding, there is also the truth of our fallen existence, that will distort the most virtuous act within the most virtuous community.  St. Thomas describes the effects of original sin as the darkening of intellects and disorder of wills within us all, and due to this fact, the perfect aim of prudence and absolute order of justice are unachievable for us here on earth. So while in theory the heathen errors, so does the Christian error naturally in execution, even after the virtuous habitus he assumes renders him competent to do otherwise. There is remedy for this, both in the waters of Baptism and in the theological virtues one acquires within, but explored on the natural level there is always a tear within and between men, that additional virtues are required to engage.

Courage is relevant for this dimension, as “ the emergency passion or emotion of the sensitive appetite directed toward a present evil, enabling one to stand firm in the face of danger or difficulty[5]”  Where justice fails, courage steps in to confront its negative, and provide a resolve within which the other virtues can flourish. Classically described as the willingness to die in battle, the Christian application of Fortitude understands the battle to be realized in the long  struggle against evil. It again uses but transcends this hellenistic concept of courage, that considers the threat of death as the catalyst for its inspiration. Instead, the Christian is inspired by God, and considers death an inconsequential hurdle in uniting with the good beyond it.

But even courage can be abused or confused if not properly yoked, and distorted by our passions to manifest a spectrum ranging from cowardice to enthusiasm. Passivism can cause one’s self or others unnecessary suffering, and likewise rashness can cancel one’s own efforts, however brave. Temperance is required to maintain this balance, and many others, in pursuit of holding the proper affections for what is good, as it cooperates with the other virtues in discerning honorable actions and how they are to be pursued. Temperance is also at play in governing pleasure, and ensuring that one’s desires do not become (overly) attached to the natural world, but are always rooted and reaching to God above it.

So is the aim of each moral virtue that man can accomplish to a degree by his own means. But it is clear that something more is required, if we truly hold recourse to perfection; something beyond the moral virtues, but contained within them; something that both begins the moral life, and also leads it above a ceiling where morals stall at their most realized and tandematic ends. There are virtues that are not found in our nature, even after these perfected powers are formed within it. Even when we become no longer humans that act virtuously, but virtuous beings ourselves, there is still more.

The gifted max reality of faith, hope, and love are exclusively rooted in the divine nature, that like even the crudest semblance of biological life (or soul) are beyond our ability to produce ourselves. These gifts are purely of God’s own self to us, which are are infused, or born within , and allow us to further climb towards our simple goal of becoming a being who loves, to become like God. The Hellenistic end of the cardinal virtues are transcended in the theological, although fueled by them from the beginning.

Where prudence is focused on practical reason, faith is the true perfection of reason that participates in  “the knowledge that God has of himself and of the world.[6]” Faith not only allows us to believe, and profess this belief, but to know and request of God what He is capable of in love. Faith can exist removed from (our) love, but is misconstrued towards something other than God’s true nature, and reaches a reduced understanding of God short of His  perfect virtue of charity He imbues. Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,[7]” and in this way works through Christ to transcend the practical means of moral virtue and to see infinitely beyond man’s reach, and beyond the fractured realities of sin here on earth. If love is acting as God does, faith is in a way  seeing and reasoning as He would as well. Faith can move mountains, because it knows God can move mountains, and when mountains need be moved, this will be done.

Hope is the object of all moral virtue, as we as co-efficient causes move through liminal states of perfection. Hope is trusting that God is who He is, as He works in us particularly, and throughout His Kingdom in Providence. It infuses our will to extend beyond even the faith that we are granted, to look for God’s promise over all future events. Hope is a “weapon that protects us in the struggle of salvation[8]”, and is yet another gracious cure for the reality of sin as it pertains to our own lives, and that of the community. It looks back and forward to Christ’s redeeming work, beyond death and all temporal existence, and longs for Beatitude for all.  But as unfathomable as both faith and hope are, they are still subservient, and pale in comparison to that perfection of charity, that we know as God.

Love is the cause of all existence, and the nature of God. Even the other two theological virtues rest in oblivion without love, for they both look to God Himself, where charity is His nature in full. When one loves, they are in God, and there is no need for hope or faith anymore. “Love alone is credible. It is all that can be believed, and all that should believed[9]“, in answer to the questions of  both the source and purpose for the world and our lives. The perfect impetus of love, does not destroy the pallet of moral and theological virtues below, but contains and completes them with  infinite force of multivalent dimension. The knowledge of God and His simple infinite will are united in the one who loves, and they themselves share in the creative power of God. They have been raised to a state of being, that only wills the existence of all they encounter, as they empty God’s essence through themselves in every moment that they reside in Him. There is no law in love, because there is nothing greater to construct it, and nothing stronger to constrain it.  It is the true and only freedom of which St. Augustine can say, “Love and do what thou wilt.”— a redundant phrase that means, God’s will be done.


[1] Pinckaers, Servais. The Sources of Christian Ethics. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995.

[2] Phil 4:8

[3] Pinckaers, Servais. The Sources of Christian Ethics. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995.

[4] GILBY, T. “Prudence.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 11. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 787-792. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

[5] HOLLENBACH, M. W. “Courage.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 315-316. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 8 Nov. 2014.

[6] BENEDICT XVI. PASTORAL VISIT TO VITERBO AND BAGNOREGIO.Piazza Sant’Agostino – Bagnoregio. Sunday, 6 September 2009. Address

[7] Hebrews 11:1

[8] Catholic Church. “Life in Christ”. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice.Vaticana, 2000. Print.

[9] Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Love Alone Is Credible. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004.

Photo Credit: { pranav }

Robert is a graduate of Indiana University’s School of Communication and Culture, and of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, where he received a Masters of Arts in Theology, with a concentration in the Catholic philosophical tradition.
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