“Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life.” (CCC 1804)
At the college seminary, we spend a lot of time focusing on the cardinal virtues – justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. They are known as the cardinal virtues because other virtues and thus your character “hinge” on this essential human virtues. These are human virtues, as distinct from the theological virtues. Human virtues, like the training of a vine, can be trained. Without such training, however, the powers to which they refer do not become perfected.
The understanding of these “hinge” virtues predates the coming of Christ. Plato and Aristotle themselves indicated these four virtues are essential for a man who seeks self-mastery. These virtues are mentioned in the book of Wisdom; “And if any one loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice, and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these.” Later, Doctors of the Church such as Augustine and Aquinas also looked to these four virtues as the way for men to order their passions and perfect their practical reason.
Prudence is the proper development of our practical intellect so that we may discern and act. It is right reason about those things which are to be done. “It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.”
Temperance focuses on our physical self, helping us to overcome disordered passions or enjoy good passions in proper moderation. “It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable.”
Justice is the lateral virtue that recognizes how we are not alone, we are made to interact within society, and we are made by and for God. “Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.”
Finally, fortitude is the courage to live out a moral life, holding true to it even in the face of discomfort and persecution. It manifests itself primarily in perseverance during suffering.
These four virtues encompass all other human virtues because they are the four categories in which we have influence. Prudence perfects the mind, temperance perfects the body. Justice deals with those outside of our own self, and fortitude is the enacting of virtue over time.
Perfecting these virtues helps us to perfect what it means to be a person. We want our future priests to be disciplined in these four areas so that they will be better men, and thus better priests. But, these virtues are for every person, not just seminarians and priests! Each of us must work daily to build the habits that will make us a virtuous person.
Remember our analogy journeying through Lent as though we are hiking up a mountain? Prudence tells us to pack a light rain jacket to protect us from the elements. Temperance reminds us to eat only the appropriate portion each day so that we do not run out of food before the journey is over. Finally, fortitude keeps us moving forward, step by step towards our goal even if rough terrain or exhaustion get in our way. Of course, this analogy is an oversimplification of these virtues. But it is helpful to take them out of an educational understanding and bring them into elements of our daily life. What do these virtues mean for you on a practical level? Justice looks to those on the hike with us making sure that they receive their due.
At the college seminary, we choose a cardinal virtue to focus on each year. Every seminarian spends the entire year working to shape his character into a stable disposition toward the good. Our handbook states: “Human formation will concentrate on one virtue each month with the means of evaluating this virtue with their formation director. Virtue is not gained by mendacity. Each seminarian is responsible for witnessing to the truth about his life, however encouraging or disappointing that may be at any given point. Truth sets us free and allows us to build on solid foundations.”
Our study of the virtues should always lead to action and implementation in our own lives so that we can perfect our powers as human beings who strive to live a moral life.
Take Action this Week:
- Choose one of the cardinal virtues that can be better implemented in your own life. Focus on that virtue this week.
- Read about the Cardinal Virtues in the Catechism: CCC 1804 – 1811
- Re-examine your Lenten sacrifice. Which of the cardinal virtues is it helping you to strengthen? Can you apply the remaining virtues to it to grow in a new way through that sacrifice this week?