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Virtue In General

September 8, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

“The aim of our charge,” proclaims St. Paul, “is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). But as we saw last week, even with a well-formed conscience, one must be vigilant to guard against making judgments in difficult or perplexing situations that depart from the natural law that is written upon our hearts or from God’s divine law.
Basic and sure norms that must be followed in every case are listed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC): Evil may never be done to produce a good result; follow the Golden Rule, “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Matt. 7:12); and charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience (cf. CCC, n. 1789).
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church concisely summarizes the Church’s teaching on the erroneous judgment of moral conscience, a topic that was considered in greater depth last week:
“A person must always obey the certain judgment of his own conscience, but he could make erroneous judgments for reasons that may not always exempt him from personal guilt. However, an evil act committed through involuntary ignorance is not imputable to the person, even though the act remains objectively evil. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience” (n. 376).
In other words, a person is obliged to follow his conscience in the absence of a prudent fear of being wrong. However, he is culpable for the evil he commits if this ignorance can be imputed to personal responsibility (cf. CCC, n. 1791).
On the other hand, a person may never act on a doubtful conscience. As expounded upon by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, “A doubtful conscience should be resolved by personal reflection, seeking wise counsel and, above all, asking for divine light in prayer. Christ tells us to seek for illumination in prayer: ‘Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you’ (Matt. 7:7)” (The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, n. 901).
Since beginning our treatment of the Christian moral life several weeks ago (starting with volume 150, n. 27; July 6, 2017), we have examined several fundamental building blocks: the innate dignity of the human person, man’s freedom, the anatomy of a moral act and the sources of morality, the right ordering of passions, and conscience and its formation.
Yet, as articulated by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in volume 3 of Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “We still do not have one essential building stone. What makes it possible for us to call good not only a particular deed but also the man himself? What constitutes the ‘good man’?” (p. 31).
With this in mind, we begin our consideration of virtue, a term defined by the Catechism as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC, n. 1803). The idea of virtue and living a virtuous life is captured beautifully by the Apostle to the Gentiles in his Letter to the Philippians:
“Whatever 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 things” (Phil. 4:8).
As the Catechism explains, virtue “allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions” (CCC, n. 1803).
Indeed, as expressed by fourth-century bishop and Doctor of the Church St. Gregory of Nyssa, “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (De beatitudinibus, 1).
In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas treats the virtues extensively, situating the topic within the genus of “habit.” He uses habit in a philosophical sense unlike general usage in our everyday language. Rather than linking “habit” to repetitive and customary exterior behaviors that can be modified with relative ease (e.g., when one regularly takes meals, goes for a walk, retires and rises, etc.), he follows Aristotle by using it to refer to a “quality of the soul that gives us a disposition to do certain types of acts” (Dr. Lawrence Feingold, STD, Course Notes for Fundamental Moral Theology [FMT], December 2009, p. 63).
Derived from the Latin habere (to have), the word habit, in a philosophical sense, “refers to the possession of a stable interior determination that disposes a person in a certain way, either well [virtue] or ill [vice]” (FMT, p. 65).
On account of human freedom, our spiritual faculties are open to good or evil: our will can make good or bad choices; our intellect is open to truth, error, or ignorance; and our passions are open to ordered or disordered movements. It is usually through the repetition of acts that our habits (good or bad, virtuous or vicious) are acquired. The forming of habits, in other words, “makes it possible for our human acts to gradually change our stable moral quality, disposing our faculties to perform similar acts to those we have done, and making it possible to perform ever more perfect (or imperfect) acts” (ibid.).
Having defined “virtue” in a general sense earlier, a word which is derived from the Latin virtus (power, strength, valor, manliness), the Catechism now defines human virtue as “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” (CCC, n. 1804).
However, the definition is not yet complete, for the abiding presence of virtue “not only gives us the ability to do right-ordered acts, but also gives us a certain promptness, facility, and joy in doing such acts” (FMT, p. 74). As expressed by the Catechism, “they make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life” (CCC, n. 1804).
As one grows in virtue, virtuous acts are repeated with ease and pleasure; they become, as it were, a kind of “second nature.”
Classical philosophers have singled out four preeminent virtues around which all the other virtues are grounded. The Old Testament Book of Wisdom provides a biblical basis for this ordering: “If any one loves righteousness, her [Wisdom’s] labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control [temperance] and prudence, justice, and courage [fortitude]” (Wisdom 8:7).
These virtues “play a pivotal role and accordingly are called ‘cardinal’” (CCC, n. 1805), a designation which is derived from the Latin cardo, which means “hinge.” They are considered, so to speak, the “hinge virtues” which can be demonstrated to be the basis for all other virtues.
Why can these four virtues be singled out among all the virtues? Man’s nature is such that he is open-ended, in a sense, and has rational faculties through which he moves and determines himself by forming habits — virtues (good habits) and vices (bad habits). Man’s rational faculties consist of the intellect, the will, and the sense appetites, of which there are two: the irascible appetite and the concupiscible appetite.
The first explanation, then, for singling out four cardinal virtues is that for each faculty, there corresponds a principal virtue: 1) prudence for the intellect; 2) justice for the will; 3) fortitude for the irascible appetite; and 4) temperance for the concupiscible appetite.
These four virtues are like “hinges” around which all the other natural virtues can be grouped. In other words, the four cardinal virtues are emblematic of the four faculties on the natural order — all the other natural virtues, in some way, can be tied to them.

Celestial Glory

A second explanation for singling out four cardinal virtues is that they exemplify the four functions of every virtuous act. In other words, an act must satisfy four hierarchically ordered conditions to be virtuous.
First, there is reason to order deliberation — this corresponds to the intellectual virtue of prudence which, in a sense, must lead all other virtues (on the natural level).
Second, the operations of an act must be ordered properly to what is due — this corresponds to the moral virtue of justice in the will.
Third, a firmness or resoluteness is required so as not to back away from arduous obstacles — this corresponds to the virtue of fortitude in the irascible appetite, and spurs man on in the face of excessive fear.
Finally, moderation is required so one does not proceed in a foolhardy manner as the result of vehement passions — this corresponds to the virtue of temperance in the concupiscible appetite, which curbs or brakes immoderate passions.
These explanations complement each other and each demonstrates the reasonableness for singling out four cardinal virtues.
It is also important to note that there is a radical difference between the natural or acquired moral virtues, which are good habits engendered in us by means of the repetition of acts, and the supernatural or infused moral virtues, which, like the theological virtues, are directly infused by God into the soul (along with sanctifying grace at Baptism).
As the Angelic Doctor writes: “The acquired virtues . . . are ordered only to perfecting men in civil life, not as they are ordered to achieving celestial glory. . . . But the cardinal virtues, insofar as they are gratuitous and infused, . . . perfect man in the present life as ordered to celestial glory” (Disputed Questions on the Cardinal Virtues, art. 4).
In other words, there is a profound difference between natural prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance and the supernatural counterpart of each, a topic which will be developed further in future installments.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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