Quodlibet 32 – Theological and Cardinal Virtues

Quodlibet 32 – Theological and Cardinal Virtues

A Godzdogz reader asks about the connections between the theological and the cardinal virtues.

Before answering this question, it’s helpful to first think a little bit about the relationship between the virtues and the moral life. The traditional Catholic view sees the moral life as the quest for human happiness and the virtues are seen as the best way to attain this happiness. From a purely philosophical point of view, virtues can be understood to be good habits which enable a person to perform excellent actions. As children grow up into adults, they form various habits which enable them to behave in certain ways. For example, the ability to speak, the capacity to enjoy certain foods, or the tendency to be considerate to other people are all examples of habits which govern the way a person acts. For a child, the corresponding activities may be very difficult to perform to begin with, but with enough encouragement and support, these habits become like a second nature. Because of habits, the child grows up into an adult who is able to easily perform and find pleasure in many different sorts of activity.

The activities that stem from a person’s habits may be either good or bad – they may be activities that direct a person either towards or away from their fulfilment and happiness. This view of morality is not to be confused with utilitarianism which seeks pleasure and avoids pain. The virtuous life is centred on joy which is rooted in truth and is communicable to others, and although pleasure may go together with joy, it is also possible to be joyful whilst one undergoes great trials. The morally virtuous person will have acquired a variety of habits which enable them to habitually perform morally good acts, and the chief of these habits are the cardinal virtues: temperance, courage, justice, and prudence. For example, with enough effort, a person who lacks the virtue of courage may grow to be courageous and love acting courageously if they are rewarded for performing courageous acts and criticized for performing cowardly acts.

So where do the theological virtues fit in? Augustine’s solution to this question is to see the cardinal virtues as four forms of charity:

Temperance is love giving itself entirely to the beloved; courage is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the beloved; justice is love serving only the beloved and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing wisely between what hinders it and what helps it (from De moribus ecclesiae catholicae)

So the nature of the cardinal virtues will depend on who or what is most loved. Therefore, if the cardinal virtues are to help us attain perfect happiness, we need to know what we should love most of all. At this point, faith comes to the help of reason: we should love God with all our hearts. This love is taught and inspired by Christ and it is the principal Christian virtue. The theological virtues transform the classical understanding of virtue. They are a gift from God, and no amount of human effort can inspire the love that makes us friends with God.

From a purely natural point of view, Jesus´ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is impossible to follow. Naturally, people who mourn or who are persecuted are not happy. But Christ puts us in direct contact with God so that we are raised above our human nature and so are genuinely able to follow his teaching. With the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, we become capable of performing acts of temperance, courage, justice and prudence which are infused with a quality of holiness.

Robert Verrill OP

fr Robert Verrill  lives in the Dominican Priory in Cambridge, where he works at the University chaplaincy while completing a Doctorate at Baylor University, Texas.