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The Cardinal Virtues — Temperance

October 27, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


The cardinal virtue that has been our topic of consideration for the past two weeks, fortitude, assists us in regulating our fears.
“It assures stability and constancy in doing what is good even in the face of difficulties,” explains Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ. “The virtue of fortitude enables us to resist fear, even the fear of death, and to suffer everything in the defense of the practice of the faith” (The Faith, p. 162).
The verse from Sacred Scripture with which the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) concludes its paragraph on fortitude should engender in us great confidence: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33; as cited in CCC, n. 1808).
These words were spoken by our Lord immediately before accomplishing the most perfect act of fortitude in the annals of history: His Passion and death.
Fortitude does not make a person immune to fear. Rather, the passion of fear allows one to recognize legitimate dangers and then the virtue of fortitude enables the person to act with courage in accord with reason after assessing the situation.
It would be a vice by excess to risk one’s life arbitrarily or foolishly for an unjust cause just as it would be a vice by defect to abandon one’s faith out of cowardice. A person’s resolve to resist temptation, overcome personal weaknesses, and make sacrifices for the common good are buoyed by the virtue of fortitude.
Although few are called to make the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom, the person possessing fortitude is always prepared to do so. No faithful follower of Christ can escape the unbloody martyrdom (or “white martyrdom”) associated with courageously facing trials that can manifest themselves in countless ways (e.g., serene endurance of a long and painful illness when there is no hope of natural recovery, loss of one’s livelihood and submission to ridicule rather than compromising Christian principles, patient acceptance of daily irritations).
In volume 3 of Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn puts the importance of fortitude in perspective:
“We can lose everything: health, happiness, good name, property. To fear losing these things is human and right, yet this must not become a fear that decides everything. Only one thing is absolutely to be feared: that through our own fault we lose ourselves definitively, that we separate ourselves eternally from God, who is our life” (p. 39).
Our Lord could not have been clearer in saying: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
The Catechism now treats the last of the four cardinal virtues, temperance, which it defines as “the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable” (CCC, n. 1809).
As explained earlier when we spoke about man’s passions or appetites, temperance corresponds to the concupiscible appetite in contrast to fortitude which corresponds to the irascible appetite. The function of temperance is to moderate all the senses; but as we will see, it especially pertains to the pleasures of taste and touch.
Etymologically, the word “temperance” is derived from the Latin temperantia (“moderation, self-restraint”) which is translated from the Greek sophrosyne. St. Thomas Aquinas states that the virtue of temperance by “its very name implies moderation or temperateness, which reason causes” (Summa Theologiae [STh] II-II, Q. 141, art. 1).
The Angelic Doctor goes on to explain that temperance can be spoken of in a twofold manner. In a general sense, it is an element that is common to all virtuous acts, for “a certain temperateness or moderation…is common to every moral virtue” (STh II-II, Q. 141, art. 2).
For our purposes, however, temperance will be discussed in a more specific sense, namely, as it pertains to regulating or tempering — according to right reason — man’s desire for the powerful sensual appetites associated with preservation of the human individual and the human species: eating, drinking, and the sexual union of a man and woman (cf. STh II-II, Q. 141, art. 4).
In His loving Providence, our Creator has implanted within man the experience of pleasure when he performs the acts necessary for continuation of the human race. With regard to food and drink, special pleasure has been attached to the satisfaction of one’s hunger and thirst (as well as a certain discomfort when proper nourishment is lacking). If eating and drinking were disagreeable, one might not take on the nourishment necessary to maintain good health.
Much more intense is the pleasure associated with acts involved in human procreation. Given the many sacrifices required to provide for and raise a family, one could imagine that the human race would eventually die out if there were no pleasure associated with the sexual act.
If the passions of man were completely under the control of right reason, man would act in accordance with the noble designs of our Creator. However, “because of original sin, which we all inherit from Adam and Eve,” explains Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, “our passions are not under the complete control of our reason. We are afflicted with…concupiscence [which] means that our passions want to go their own way and resist the control of reason” (Doctrinal Sermons on the CCC, p. 141).
The disorder that has been brought to our passions is perhaps best summed up by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19). It is easy to transgress the limits of reason and enter areas of illicit and sinful behavior — and for precisely this reason the virtue of temperance is so important.
Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP, expertly encapsulates the essential purpose of temperance in the Christian life: “The instincts, the functions, and the pleasures involved in the preservation of the individual and the species are good in themselves and have a noble purpose. Consequently, it is not a question of annihilating or completely suppressing these instincts, but of regulating their use according to the rule of reason, the light of faith, and one’s particular vocation and circumstances in life. The infused virtue of temperance enables the individual to use these functions and enjoy their concomitant pleasures for an honest and supernatural end” (Spiritual Theology [SpT], p. 297-298).
In Understanding Your Ten Talents (UTT), Dr. Kevin Vost, Psy.D, pithily states: “Temperance seeks not to destroy pleasure, but to remove our desires from the pleasures that would destroy us” (p. 101).

Shame And Honor

Before continuing, it would be instructive to provide definitions for some key Thomistic conventions that have been used throughout our treatment of the four cardinal virtues. “Each of the cardinal virtues,” explains Fr. Jordan Aumann, “can be divided into integral parts, subjective parts, and potential parts” (SpT, p. 87).
The integral parts are those aspects that are necessary for the perfect exercise of the virtue. The subjective parts are various species of the principal virtue. Finally, the potential parts are annexed virtues that do not have the full force and power of the principal virtue but are in some way related (cf. SpT, pp. 87-88).
The exercise of temperance includes two integral parts: a sense of shame and a sense of honor. St. Thomas refers to them as “shamefacedness, whereby one recoils from the disgrace that is contrary to temperance, and honesty, whereby one loves the beauty of temperance” (STh II-II, Q. 143, art. 1). The first, a sense of shame, is a praiseworthy emotion that causes a person to fear the embarrassment associated with an action that is degrading and base. It is a sense of shamefulness regarding the sin itself and is a strong motivator for one to refrain from the act.
The Angelic Doctor writes that one is more likely to experience shame before those who are closest to him (e.g., relatives, friends, and close associates) than before strangers (cf. STh II-II, Q. 144, art. 3). However, as noted by Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, “a man may become so immersed in evil that he loses shame, and may even boast of doing what is shameful” (A Tour of the Summa, p. 275).
This propensity, unfortunately, has become commonplace in a culture where many live by the mantra “If it feels good, do it.” What is the solution? As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1984 apostolic exhortation, “The restoration of a proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, n. 18 § 11).
The second integral part of temperance, honesty (derived from the word for “honor”) is an appreciation for the spiritual beauty associated with temperate behavior. “As much as the temperate man abhors the disgraceful,” states Dr. Vost, “he is drawn to the truly beautiful, and one thing of great spiritual beauty is the virtue of honesty” (UTT, p. 102).
St. Thomas affirms that “spiritual beauty [of temperance] consists in a man’s conduct or actions being well-proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason” (STh II-II, Q. 145, art. 2).

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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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