Simple Catholic Snapshots
- Virtues are new powers or capabilities that God graces our souls.
- Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude are the four Cardinal Virtues.
- The Intellect and Will of our souls are actually changed by the addition of virtues.
- Virtues lead to a change in mankind – a super elevation of nature towards the divine.
- Four brilliant women Saints of the 19th and 20th centuries are examples of God’s virtuous graces in action.
Simple Catholic Truth
For the past 9 weeks, I’ve been facilitating a presentation of Bishop Robert Barron’s acclaimed Catholicism series at St. Martin de Porres Church in Yorba Linda, CA. Participation in this class has been so spectacular (with 100-150 attending each week), that Bishop Barron gave us a shout out on his personal Facebook page. You can view that page, including the photos by clicking the link HERE.
We took a couple of weeks off for Holy Week and the week after Easter but next Wednesday we continue with Lesson #8: A Vast Communion of Witnesses – The Communion of Saints. In this lesson, Bishop Barron discusses four incredible Catholic women that were canonized Saints by the Catholic Church. He relates each of their lives to one of the cardinal virtues, namely Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude. As I prepared for this class, it seemed appropriate to post a quick refresher on what virtues are, what the cardinal virtues in particular are, and how these virtues play in our sharing in God’s divine nature and eventual salvation.
The concept of ‘virtue’ can be really puzzling. We often think of someone being virtuous as demonstrating a particularly high moral behavior. But virtues are not simply the observed behavior of mankind, i.e. what we do, rather, virtues are components of our very makeup, i.e. they define what we are. More precisely, they define what we can be – more on that later.
Philosophers and theologians have been defining and refining the definitions and meaning and utility of virtues for countless years and frankly it can get confusing when trying to make sense of it all. Everyone seems to have their own slightly different way of listing and categorizing virtues. What I’ll present here a good summary: perhaps not deserving of an ‘A’ in a graduate-level course in Theology, but sufficient for us common folk trying to understand and take a step closer to God.
To start, I think we should recall our nature as human beings. As sons and daughters of God, we were created in His image with a destiny of spending forever with our loving Father. As sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we lost our eternal inheritance and retain a tendency to sin against our Creator.
We must also remember that as part of our fallen nature, we are completely incapable (on our own) of achieving that eternal destiny for which we were created. If we are ever to spend eternity with our Father, then this too like creation in the first place, is a gift from God. We call these gifts ‘grace’ and in particular the grace that saves us is called sanctifying grace. But St. Peter tells us, our destiny includes, no mandates, a share in God’s divine nature (2 Pet 1:4) which means that we must change. Our basic nature must change and it is this sanctifying grace which facilitates the change in our nature. The nature of our physical bodies is fixed, but our souls must change.
And that brings us back to virtues. Theologians tell us that there are generally two types of virtues: theological and moral. The theological virtues of faith, hope and love are called as such because the object of these virtues is God (theos) Himself. These virtues ultimately allow us to believe in God, trust in God and love God. For now we will leave our discussion of the theological virtues and instead turn our attention to the moral virtues because it is these moral virtues that affect the change to our souls mentioned above. It is these moral virtues that Bishop Barron uses to help understand the lives and character of the Saints.
Furthermore, theologians also tell us that our souls are made up of an intellect and a free will. If our souls must change to achieve eternal life, then all virtues are the instruments that God uses to change our intellect and free will. Virtues are new powers, new capabilities, new potentials that God adds to our intellect and free will in order to elevate our souls towards the divine.
Remember that our fallen nature is impotent with respect to seeking God, but these new virtues give us the capability to begin the journey back to the Father. In a manner of speaking, fallen mankind is lost in transit.
The idea of a journey is very relevant to our discussion of virtues. Consider a compass rose used for navigation. The various directions are indicated by North (N), South (S), East (E), and West (W), with intermediate directions show as North-West (NW), South-East (SE), etc etc.
The primary directions of North, South, East and West on the compass are called the CARDINAL directions.
Despite the variations theologians have used in describing virtues, one thing they have in common is that four are considered the Cardinal Virtues. These virtues, namely Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude are the four primary virtues used to navigate our journey back to the Father.
The Saints are those people whose souls were particularly blessed with these cardinal virtues and whose transformation of their soul was evidenced by the character of their lives.
The Saints are identified by the Church for us and placed on a hill top much like a lighthouse. In our times of darkness, these Saints provide example and direction and guidance for our drifting lives.
The name Prudence is a Latin derivative that loosely means to see ahead. Prudence is the virtue by which the grace-filled intellect of our soul sees clearly the world as God sees the world. In other words, Prudence enables the intellect to see what is right and wrong.
The virtue of Prudence is often called the mother of virtues because it is from Prudence that all other virtues are enabled and directed. Without an intellect elevated by Prudence, the will has no firm ground on which to choose and initiate actions.
Receiving something one deserves is the basic understanding of Justice. But the virtue of Justice is not concerned with our own reward. Justice is the only Cardinal Virtue who’s object is other than self. Yes, it is true that this virtue affects our own free will but is through our elevated free will that we practice the proper (just) relationship with others.
A soul filled with the virtue of Justice possesses a great concern for the divine rights of others, complemented by the drive to do something about it. An intellect filled with Prudence knows what is right; a will filled with Justice chooses to act for the good of others.
The world is filled with dazzling distractions. The lights and motion, sounds and smells and feelings all aim to entice a course change in our journey. An enlightened intellect knows these sights and sounds are mere siren songs but even armed with knowledge of the dangers, we are still drawn to the rocky shores.
Temperance is the virtue by which our free will is elevated so as to stay the course. Temperance is a virtue directed to our inward being, allowing us to turn from those dazzlingly attractive things we know must be avoided.
Fortitude (or Courage) is another of the Cardinal Virtues that is directed towards elevation of self. Lets face it, as much as the world is filled with distractions, it is also filled with threats. Some are emotional, some physical, some dangerous to the point of harm or even death.
Facing these situations, we have two basic reactions – fight or flight. Our natural urge is to avoid conflict, to take the path of least resistance, and at times this flight may be a wisest decision. However, there are other situations when the imposed threat requires resistive action for the sake of goodness outside of ourselves. It is this point of decision by the will to take such action, that takes great fortitude.
We naturally see the good of ourselves first, and the greater good last and it takes great fortitude to act differently. Fortitude is the virtue that allows the will to resist the instinct to run and face the challenge of a greater good.
We’ve quickly reviewed the four Cardinal Virtues which God uses to elevate our souls towards His Divine nature. Bishop Barron points out four examples of Saintly women who’s lives were testaments to the power of God and His gifts of virtues. These women embraced the gifts and were changed. Their lives blossomed and bore the fruit of divine love on earth. Surrendering to God’s will and allowing His graces to fill us, to change us, is what being a saint really means.
We are all called to be saints. In one way or another we are all given the necessary initial virtues. Properly tended, they can eventually bear fruits of the Holy Spirit and with that we are finally elevated back into His image.
In addition to these graces of virtues, we’ve been given living lighthouses that show us the way.
We simply need to embrace the gifts, open our eyes, see the light and stay the course.