As we continue our Lenten journey, focusing on our personal growth in virtue, we should seek to understand what virtue is and how we can practically apply it in our lives to replace sin. There are countless virtues, as any act that allows you to turn away from sin, while turning toward the love of God and the love of your neighbor, is a virtuous act. Virtues like patience, chastity, humility, and gentleness may come to mind and they would all be correct. However, every virtue you can imagine is rooted in seven virtues, called the four Human or Cardinal Virtues and the three Theological Virtues. This week, we will reflect on the four Human/Cardinal Virtues.
The Human Virtues are called such because they are achieved through our own human will and effort and because they order our relationship to our neighbor in love. They are called Cardinal Virtues because they are fundamental and the foundation on which all other virtues stand. When we practice these four virtues, we engage our intellect, faith, and will to achieve control over our passions and increase our self-mastery. Doing so will help us to lead moral lives that allow us to lovingly exist in union with everyone around us, while giving honor to God’s will for our lives. These four virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] #1804-#1805)
As you read through these Cardinal Virtues, think about the multitude of smaller virtues – both in which you’re most strong and in which you need more work – and see if you can determine from which of the four they stem.
Prudence is the virtue by which we discern what would be the correct action in any given situation. In order to prevent an impulsive decision, a prudent person will take the time to consider all possible options and their outcomes. In addition, he or she will pray for guidance and seek counsel from others while carefully weighing the guidance. We must be careful because our fallen human nature makes us likely to justify our actions incorrectly, convincing ourselves that, even after very careful discernment, we are choosing what is right, when in fact, we are not. Jesus knew our human nature would make prudence difficult for us and, in His divine wisdom, left us the Church as our guide. For this reason, we must read and study Scripture in conjunction with the Magisterium, which is the teaching office of the Church. Doing so will help us to form our conscience according to God’s will, enabling our prudent discernment to become more reliable. (CCC #1806)
Justice is the virtue that is concerned with giving God and your fellow neighbor what is rightly their due. Giving God His proper due refers to praise, worship, and other things regarding religion. Giving our neighbor what is his due becomes a little trickier. Again, our fallen human nature can easily talk us into believing we know what justice really is in any given situation, particularly if we perceive we’ve been wronged. However, that’s not what this virtue is talking about. Here, justice is giving your neighbor what is rightly his due by elevating his dignity as it is intended by God. Every single person, whether you like them or not, is a son or daughter of God and made in His image and likeness. It is by the very nature of this fact alone, that practicing the virtue of justice means treating everyone with dignity and respect. This does not negate proper and appropriate social justice for crimes and whatnot, but it does put that type of justice within a Christian context. Also remembering that justice means giving God His due, practicing compassion and forgiveness toward others is often an appropriate response as it gives witness to our Christian faith and our trust in God who offers the ultimate justice in the end. (CCC #1807)
Fortitude is the virtue by which we remain steadfast in pursuing the Christian life. Practicing Christianity out in the world is difficult, especially today. We were never promised an easy road and it will most certainly include hardships and obstacles as we seek to always do what is right and good. Fortitude is the virtue by which you exhibit courage and, perhaps more importantly, how you endure your inevitable suffering. Fortitude exists in the physical, spiritual, and moral life and seeks to fortify and strengthen you in all areas. When the virtue of justice is not being carried out toward you according to your own dignity, fortitude will increase your ability to endure the injustice. It is important to note here, that partaking in the sacramental life – particularly in regular reception of the Eucharist and Reconciliation – will be what strengthens your fortitude. The sacraments are the means by which God delivers His grace to us. Through God giving you His divine grace to reside within you, you will have the strength and sustenance to endure more than you ever could on your own. (CCC #1808)
As both spiritual and corporeal beings, we humans exist in a created world. As such, creation is intended to be used and enjoyed by us. Temperance is the virtue by which we find balance in our appetites and passions and practice moderation in our use of created goods and our conduct with people. It keeps our desires honorable. Temperance very much involves a self-mastery of the will over the baser instincts of the body and the heart. In practicing temperance, we find a more balanced relationship with the world around us, as well as in our relationships with our neighbors. Practicing temperance enables us to avoid misusing created goods and other people to satisfy our own selfish desires which are not of God and instead, helps us to put others before ourselves. Likewise, temperance also calls for us to tend to our own physical and spiritual well-being as necessary for balance so that we can respond by giving of ourselves to creation and others appropriately. (CCC #1809)
The Catechism reminds us that we must continually educate and inform ourselves on the practice of the Human Virtues and what the Church teaches on them (CCC #1810). We also must continually practice a life in virtue. We will most certainly fail from time to time, but we must keep trying. Prayer and participation in the sacraments are key ingredients to growing in virtue (CCC #1811). They are the means by which God, through His grace, will help us to persevere in living out the holy, Christian life to which He calls us. These virtues are the opposite of the propensity to sin. During this season of Lent, as we reflect on our sin and how we want to rid ourselves of it, let us seek out and practice the opposing virtues to do so. Discern which Cardinal Virtue will assist you, pray for it, and decide with your will to practice it.
Next week, we’ll take a closer look at the three Theological Virtues.