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What is a Virtue?

This word is thrown around much in Catholic circles but it rarely goes defined. If we don't even know what the target is -- how will we hit it?

It is now Septuagesima according to The Ordinariate calendar. We're in Pre-Lent -- a time to discern what virtues we lack, and how to do fitting penance to cultivate them.

An Icon of St. Sophia and her three "children:" Faith, Hope, and Love (Charity)

Virtue: Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good. (Catechism of the Catholic Church; 1804)​

You'll notice a virtue is NOT a passion, a feeling, an emotion, it is the habit of the will and intellect which order the passions. Virtue is to the chariot driver, as passions or emotions are to the horses.

Here are the Three Theological Virtues from The Catechism:

  • Faith: the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. (1814)

  • ​Faith is NOT a feeling or passion toward God, or belief in oneself or others. For we are not Truth. It is the intellect and will submitting in belief to God. "Trusting God" is a matter less of feeling and more of the will.

  • Hope: the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. (1817)

  • ​Hope is NOT confidence in oneself or one's friends, nor is it optimism, nor is it choosing happiness, nor is Hope a feeling of longing. Hope builds upon trusting God and is an intellectual appetite to know God coupled with a will that moves toward Him.

  • Charity: the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. (1822)

  • Charity is NOT a feeling or passion toward God, nor is it loving your neighbor for his own sake. It is the active, intelligent willing of God for His own sake and willing of the Good for your neighbor and yourself for God's sake. God is Love, but human love is not God.

Also from the Catechism, the Four Cardinal Virtues are:

  • Prudence: (aka Wisdom) the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it (CCC; 1806)

  • ​Prudence is NOT being clever or crafty to one's own goals or ends, but it is knowing how to achieve the objective goal - God - through good means in appropriate circumstances. Nor is it being book smart or capable of memorizing much, but about the practical application of universals to particular situations to obtain what is good.

  • Justice: (aka Righteousness) the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. (CCC; 1807)

  • ​Justice is NOT equality of outcomes, whereby everyone gets the same thing regardless of their circumstances (the secualr sense of "equity"), but it is about equity proper, whereby everyone gets what they ought.

  • Fortitude: (aka Courage) the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. (CCC; 1808)

  • Fortitude is NOT being rash and running into a situation where the odds are clearly way out of your favor, nor is it not being afraid of anything or anyone. Fortitude is the ability to act, even in the face of fear, danger, and obstacles to obtain what is good by good means.

  • Temperance: (aka Moderation) the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. (CCC; 1809)

  • ​Temperance is NOT abstaining from God's good creation as if it were evil, like saying 'no alcohol ever' or 'no meat ever,' nor is it using natural goods that are poisonous to humans under the auspices of it being natural. Nor is it fasting one day and being a glutton on a holy day. It is using the proper amount of good things for their objectively good purpose.

And since all virtues are "good," they are of one being. These participate in God who is Being, and thus to be virtuous is to be holy or god-like. Now, God is One. So, if you have even one virtue, you have them all. If you lack one, you lack them all. If one virtue is limited, they all are, if one is fully matured, they all are. In discernment we will perhaps be better at realizing which distinct virtue we miss, but when we cultivate it, the good news is all our virtue is cultivated. Since Charity is the "form of all virtues," to have it is the quickest and best way to obtain all other virtues.

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