By Nick Jones, Rhode Island University
One of the most important things I’ve learned so far in school for teaching is the need for students to build what is known as disciplinary literacy. This refers to methods of making meaning and of comprehension proper to particular disciplines. Students need to be taught how to think as scientists or as historians, for example. A crucial part of this is vocabulary. The same word can have different meanings from one class to the next; consider a solution in chemistry vs. algebra. This same principle is at work in the discipline of theology. When lay people have gaps in their catechesis, they often fail to grasp concepts instrumental to the discipline, and thus the spiritual life. I know that I’ve often found myself there. In an effort to assuage this effect to at least some extent, let’s try to unpack the concept of virtue.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that, “A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good…” (CCC 1803) This quote is the inspiration for this article’s title. My 11th grade math teacher used to always say that practice makes permanent, not perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect, and so it is with imperfect practice. How many times do you find yourself effortlessly navigating a dark room in your house or flipping the wrong light switch for the 1 millionth time? Both of these occur because we have formed a habit of doing them correctly or incorrectly, many times over. They have become ingrained into our being such that we need to consciously choose them any other way. So it is with virtue and its sinful opposite, vice. We don’t acquire either one just by acting good or bad a few times, but rather by doing it again and again. Just like we weren’t all expert bike riders or even talkers when we first began, so too we are not experts when we begin towards a virtue. Remember that Our Lord’s call to be perfect is a call to strive for perfection that can only be achieved in Heaven.
The concept of “the good” will draw our focus next. We see the roots of this idea in the works of Aristotle. In his view, man could only achieve eudaimonia, true human flourishing, the actualization of his potential, by acting in accordance with virtue. Catholic scholars, aided by the Deposit of Faith, augmented this solid framework by recognizing the good as God. Thus, virtue orders us to more than just eudaimonia here on Earth, it also helps to attain perfection of our beings in Heaven. Two different types of virtues help us in this pursuit, in similar but unique ways.
The first type, the theological virtues, are so called because they enable us to participate in the divine life of the Blessed Trinity. That is to say, they order us towards God Himself. They are the bedrock of our spiritual lives. We need these virtues in order to reach Heaven. We know that no man can attain salvation by himself. Thus, it follows that these virtues must be a gift from God to us. Indeed, the theological virtues are also called infused virtues because God pours them into our souls at Baptism. Additionally, the only means by which these virtues are increased in us is by a free gift from God.
The three theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity. They are found listed immediately following Saint Paul’s ode to charity in his First Letter to the Corinthians. The venerable Baltimore Catechism (No. 122-124) provides a great, basic definition for each of them. There’s not enough room here to provide exhaustive definitions, and I’m not sure that would be possible even if space weren’t an issue. I would highly recommend further research into all of these as far your state in life permits. Faith “… is the virtue by which we firmly believe all the truths God has revealed, in the word of God revealing them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.” Hope “… is the virtue by which we firmly trust that God, who is all-powerful and faithful to His promises, will in His mercy give us eternal happiness and the means to obtain it.” Charity “…is the virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.”
The second set of virtues is the human virtues. Like the first set, they are a free gift from God, poured in at Baptism. However, these virtues can be increased within us by our own actions, in addition to being increased by God. These virtues are called “human” because they order us to God by enabling us to relate better to ourselves and one another. They help in large part to regulate our passions, which can be roughly considered as our instinctual urges along with our emotions.
Many different human virtues can be identified. The four most important are known as the cardinal virtues, because they help to direct the rest. These four are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence, traditionally called the “queen of the virtues,” can be thought of as our right reason being put into action (cf. Saint Thomas Aquinas), and enables us to discern the good in any given situation (cf. CCC 1806). Justice prompts us to give God and neighbor that which is their due (cf. CCC 1807). Fortitude ensures perseverance in the face of adversity. (cf. CCC 1808). Temperance moderates our attractions to pleasures and the use of created goods (cf. CCC 1809).
One last point is essential to establish a foundational understanding of virtue. Each virtue can be seen as the mean of two extremes, or vices. Both too much and too little of a given virtue can harm us. For example, hope enables us to desire and trust that we will receive the future good of Heaven. We sin against hope and fall into despair if we believe that we’ll never be able to get there. We likewise sin against it and fall into the sin of presumption if we think that we’ll get there effortlessly, or while persisting in mortal sin. When considering the objective mean towards which we need to strive, we must, as Aristotle says, consider the mean relative to us. While there are objective moral standards of behavior connected to each virtue, they bind us subjectively. Consider a scenario wherein an ordinary man is standing outside of a burning house. The virtuous, courageous, thing for him to do is to call the fire department and standby to tell them what he knows. He would be acting viciously if he were to be foolhardy, rushing in and endangering himself. It would also be vicious and cowardly for him to merely flee the scene without calling for help. Now consider the same scenario if the man were to be a trained, fully equipped firefighter. Obviously, for him to live out courage, he would need to rush in and save the person trapped inside the fire.
As I said above, there is so much more to be said about virtue than I’ve cobbled together here. I encourage you to find a good catechism and see what it has to say. Many great saints much smarter and holier than me have had a lot of important things to say about it. Of course, as I’ve also learned in school for teaching, experiential education is extremely important. The best way to learn about virtue is to pursue it indomitably day after day. Let’s all keep striving and then compare notes in Heaven.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs