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The Cardinal Virtues — Fortitude

October 13, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


It was with clever astuteness that Jesus responded to the Pharisees when they tried to devise a trap for Him by asking: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt. 22:17). After examining a Roman coin and inquiring whose likeness and inscription was imprinted on it, His ingenious answer was: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).
“By this simple reply,” asserts Fr. Gabriel of Mary Magdalen, OCD, “Jesus gave us clearly and precisely a description of the virtue of justice” (Divine Intimacy [DInt], p. 830). As has been demonstrated over the past two weeks, “justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae [STh] II-II, Q. 58, art. 1), whether it be God, our neighbor, or societal groups.
“To God, we give the worship which is due Him as our Creator, Lord, and Father: adoration, honor, glory, gratitude, faithful observance of His laws, and humble, devout service. To our neighbor, we owe respect for his rights, taking into account our various obligations toward him,” continues Fr. Gabriel.
“As the observance of justice is a fount of peace and joy for our own conscience, so it also brings peace and joy to our family, to our community, to each person with whom we come in contact in our daily life, and to society in general” (DInt, pp. 830, 831).
We also saw last week that several other moral virtues are connected to justice, first and foremost the virtue of religion. In fact, St. Thomas devotes over forty questions in his Summa to virtues that share the character of justice (e.g., filial piety, patriotism, obedience, etc.) and the vices that oppose each either by excess or deficiency.
Interesting to note is that the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue) are designated by St. Thomas to be precepts of justice (see STh II-II, Q. 122). The first three Commandments deal with our activities toward God (i.e., virtue of religion), the fourth regulates our attitude and conduct toward our parents (i.e., virtue of filial piety), and the remaining six belong to justice simply and direct our duty toward all mankind (cf. Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, A Tour of the Summa, p. 264).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) now treats the third cardinal virtue, fortitude, which it defines as “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good” (CCC, n. 1808).
The word fortitude, which is derived from the Latin fortitudo (“bravery” or “strength”), can be understood in two principal senses. “The first sense signifies in general a certain firmness of spirit and vigor of character,” states Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP.
“In the second sense it designates a special supernatural virtue, infused with sanctifying grace to strengthen the irascible appetite and the will so that they will not abandon the pursuit of the arduous or difficult good, even when faced with grave danger to bodily health and life” (Spiritual Theology [SpT], pp. 306-307).
Before proceeding it would be helpful to review briefly man’s appetites or passions, for just as prudence corresponds primarily to the intellect and justice to the will, fortitude corresponds to the irascible appetite, and, as we will see later, temperance to the concupiscible appetite. How do the appetites differ?
For an answer, we look to St. Thomas who insists that man has need of two sensitive appetitive powers:
“One through which the soul is simply inclined to seek what is suitable, according to the senses, and to fly from what is hurtful, and this is called the concupiscible; and another, whereby an animal resists attacks that hinder what is suitable, and inflict harm, and this is called the irascible….The irascible is, as it were, the champion and defender of the concupiscible” (STh I, Q. 81, art. 2).
The concupiscible and irascible appetites, which man has in common with irrational animals, belong to the lower, sensitive level of the soul. Created in the image and likeness of God with an intellect and free will, man, unlike animals, has the capacity to bring these appetites under the control of reason. As St. Thomas affirms, we need virtues in the sensitive appetites precisely because they can be educated and are open to the persuasion of reason:
“The virtue which is in the irascible [i.e., fortitude] and concupiscible [i.e., temperance] powers, is nothing else but a certain habitual conformity of these powers to reason” (STh I-II, Q. 56, art. 4).
Returning our focus solely to fortitude, it is the cardinal virtue that “strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life,” says the Catechism. “[It] enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions [and] disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause” (CCC, n. 1808).
To better illustrate the function of fortitude in the Christian life, let us consider the closely associated virtue of magnanimity (“greatness of soul”) and vices that oppose it. It is a virtue, says Fr. Aumann, that “presupposes a noble and lofty soul” (SpT, p. 308).
Magnanimity is a virtue that is related to fortitude whereby one is determined to aim at great things, to strive for excellence in the highest things. It especially aims at true excellence in the moral virtues in addition to wisdom and those intellectual virtues ordered to wisdom. It is closely related to seeking the common good of society — a magnanimous person is one who is generous in doing great things so as to build up the common good. On the natural level, we think of people like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who aimed at true excellence in philosophy.
In our society, which places such emphasis on practical concerns, true magnanimity is often overlooked. Rather than seeking excellence in what is truly highest, advancement in economic affairs and prosperity takes precedence over seeking moral virtue.
The difference between natural and supernatural magnanimity relates to the end, and a very important distinction is immediately evident. On the natural level, not everyone is equally gifted or has the intellectual ability to aim for excellence in philosophy or metaphysics. To exemplify this point in the temporal sphere, very few have the natural gifts to aim for an Olympic gold medal. So it is easy to see that it is very difficult for a less gifted person to be magnanimous on the natural level.
However, on the supernatural level, everyone is called to be magnanimous — the excellent end sought is sanctity — the means, God’s grace, is available to all. One should think immediately of the universal call to holiness, so expressly emphasized in the teachings of Vatican Council II (see Lumen Gentium, nn. 39-42). The truly magnanimous soul in the supernatural realm is the one whose goal is heroic sanctity — we can look to the saints as examples.
St. Ignatius of Loyola emphasizes the virtue of magnanimity in the beginning of the second week of his Spiritual Exercises in the meditation on the temporal king who is going out to conquer the world from the infidel and endeavors to recruit magnanimous soldiers who aim for great things so as to accomplish that goal. He contrasts this to Christ the King, who is out to conquer the Devil and sin, and seeks souls to enlist in His service.
The magnanimous soul is the one who will give of himself totally in imitation of Christ, holding nothing back even to the point of martyrdom. Renunciation of the things of the world so as to embrace the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience in the consecrated religious life would be an excellent example of magnanimity.

Recognition And Vainglory

The vice opposed to magnanimity by defect is pusillanimity and is, sad to say, a great problem in our secularist society of today. It consists in not striving for excellence or for the best things, the highest things, out of fear or unwillingness to expend the effort required — it is a lack of spiritual generosity. A pusillanimous person fails to strive for great ideals and is content in mediocrity or lukewarmness.
To gauge the seriousness of this defect, one is reminded of what is said in the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).
The parable of the talents shows the seriousness of not putting forth one’s best out of fear — our Lord counted the servant who buried his talent (i.e., natural gifts) in the ground as worthless and had him cast into the outer darkness, where men weep and gnash their teeth (see Matt. 25:14-30).
On the supernatural level, to not strive for sanctity would be the sin of pusillanimity. Societal symptoms of this vice are such things as a decline in patriotism, a decline in religious vocations, and relativism and religious indifferentism.
On the other hand, the vices opposed to magnanimity by excess are presumption, ambition, and vainglory. Presumption is aiming at that which is beyond one’s capacity. On the supernatural level, it would be to think that sanctity is attainable through human power alone, without God’s grace (e.g., the heresy of Pelagianism).
In effect, it is presuming that one can attain a supernatural end by natural means. Ambition and vainglory are to seek excellence for the wrong reasons — for the sake of pride rather than the common good. Ambition is a disordered desire for recognition and vainglory for human glory.

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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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