(Part Three, Chapter One, Section One, Article Seven)
William C. Mattison III, The Catholic University of America
The article on “The Virtues” in Chapter One, Section One is one of the more exciting texts in the morality part (Part Three) of the Catechism. Virtue is a topic not given adequate attention in the moral manuals that served as the bedrock of moral theology between the Councils of Trent and Vatican II, and so its very appearance here is noteworthy. Furthermore, this article addresses several thorny issues at the forefront of moral theology today. The purpose of this post is first to give an overview of its claims, and then to address three successive challenging issues that are addressed in this article.
The opening paragraph of the article begins with the classic Philippians 4:8 passage that is commonly cited in Christian discussions of virtue since it the only place where the Greek word for virtue (arête) appears in the New testament. It then offers an outstanding definition of virtue (not directly from any prior source) indicating that a virtue is: a part of a person; stable; involving all the person’s morally relevant capacities; directing concrete actions; and, ordering the person and acts toward the good. Returning to an explicitly Christian understanding of virtue, the opening paragraph ends by claiming that “the goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” The reference to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on the beatitudes reminds us of the connection between virtue and happiness (i.e., beatitude), and that the virtuous life is indeed the way we become “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), as referenced in the Catechism article on happiness (§1721).
The article continues by providing superb synopses of first the “human virtues” (encapsulated by the “cardinal virtues”) and then the “theological virtues.” In every case the Catechism both defines the virtue at hand, and augments that definition with citations from Scripture and tradition. The numerous Scriptural references help rectify the misperception, prompted by the paucity of passages containing the exact term virtue or the group of four cardinal virtues, that virtue is an approach to the moral life that is foreign to Scripture. It is also noteworthy that there is far more in depth attention given to the three theological virtues, which are “the foundation of Christian moral activity” (§1813). The article concludes by examining the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, which continue to be neglected topics in Catholic moral theology even despite the resurgence in attention to virtue.
Three topics are examined in greater depth in the ensuing paragraphs. First, how do the virtues help us better understand the relationship between a person and his or her actions? Second, how and why are the virtues categorized as they are? Third, what does this article have to say about the difficult question of how to describe how the moral life is accessible to all people, and yet how it is transformed and completed by God’s grace in a life of discipleship?
Persons and Acts
What is the relationship between a person and his or her acts? Surely one particular act should almost never be taken as representative of a person’s character. Being short-tempered once does not make a person irascible, nor does being on time only once make a person punctual. Yet of course we want to affirm that “we are what we do,” and not sever the connection between who we are and our particular actions. How to describe that relationship? A long tradition in Western morality (and beyond) has employed the concept of virtue to serve this role. A virtue is a good habit, and a vice is a bad habit. A habit in this sense is not a mindless repetitive activity, but a stable disposition to do some sort of action (eating, making decisions, facing difficulties, e.g.) in a certain sort of way (bravely or cowardly, e.g.). Habits are dispositions (or character traits) that reside in us. More precisely, they are ways our natural human capacities are disposed to operate. Therefore they are part of who we are – not equivalent to actions, though of course they are commonly engendered by repeated action and incline us to more such actions. The habits (hopefully virtues!) we have are representative of who we are. They are crucial for morality since who we are is inextricably bound to what we do, even if it might not be equated to what we do on a particular occasion. As the very first paragraph of this article claims, the virtues allow “the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself” (§1803). The inclusion of extended discussion of virtue in the Catechism is an important development from the moral manuals tradition, where the emphasis on particular actions did not include adequate attention to persons.
Sorting Through the Myriad of Virtues
Since we persons have so many natural capacities, there are a multitude of virtues we can possess that enable us to act well with those capacities. We can be humble, patient, brave, generous, chaste, truthful, etc. The list is seemingly endless. How can we understand the virtuous life in a way that is more clear that a seemingly scattered collection of virtues? There are many attempts to “categorize” the virtues in the Christian tradition, and this article of the Catechism references three such ways: by “origin, motive, and object” (§1812).
By “origin” the Catechism refers to the source of virtue. How do we obtain them? Virtues may be either acquired “by education, deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts,” or infused, which means “purified and elevated by divine grace” (§1810). It should be noted that infused virtues, though they may be given in an instantaneous fashion without any effort on our part, more commonly entail God’s grace perfecting (“purifying and elevating”) our efforts.
By “motive” the Catechism means less a mental act preceding some action, and more the ultimate goal of the activity to which a virtue disposes us. Virtues are supernatural (or superhuman) if they “dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love” (§1804). Virtues are natural (or human) if they dispose us to activity that is in accord with the capacities of our (unaided by grace) natural powers.
Finally, by “object” the Catechism refers to the type of activity to which a virtue disposes us. The brief sample of virtues offered at the start of this section includes virtues that differ by object, or type of activity. There are obviously a myriad of different types of activity toward which different virtues can dispose us to act well. But they can all be divided into two groups: the theological virtues (faith, hope, & love) by which we “relate directly to God,” and the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, & temperance) which directly concern this-worldly activities (but which can be further related to God). The title of this section is actually “human virtue,” a topic addressed below, but the section is based on the four cardinal virtues since “all the others are grouped around them” (§1805).
Reminiscent of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, the Catechism offers a survey of the all virtues under these seven principle virtues, the three theological and four cardinal virtues. When the Catechism appeared some Catholic moral theologians expressed disappointment that the virtues were not used to organize the entire Part Three on morality. Instead, the ten commandments are used to structure Chapter Two on more specific issues. Far from a rejection of the importance of the ten commandments, which are essential rules guiding the practice of different virtues, this disappointment stemmed from two reasons. First is a perceived greater ability of the virtues to incorporate attention to both particular acts and the persons performing those acts. Second is the more comprehensive schema offered by these seven virtues, which “cover” all our actions directly related to God or to this worldly activities.
Christian and Non-Christian Virtue
One of the pressing questions facing moral theology is how to describe the moral life as both accessible to all persons, and yet shaped by our Christian faith. There seems to be a tension here. The more we say that people of any or no faith can act virtuously, the les it seem faith matters. The more we say that faith directly impacts what the virtuous life looks life, the more it seems it is accessible only to Christians. (It should be noted that the claim that people of any or no religious faith can live virtuously is not merely an affirmation of political correctness. Christians have a stake in affirming that not only Christians but anyone is capable of knowing it wrong to, say, abort a baby or target the innocent in warfare.) How can we “have our cake and eat it too” here? The schema offered by the Catechism offers the needed resources. The cardinal virtues are accessible to all persons since they concern “this-worldly” activities. People of any or no faith can be prudent, just, brave, and temperate. Yet the theological virtues are distinctive to the Christian life (whether that life is available to people who do not call themselves Christian is a thorny and complex matter beyond the scope of this post). So we can see both why Christianity matters (by it we have the theological virtues), and yet how the virtuous life is accessible to all.
One clarification is needed here, lest one think that the only difference Christianity makes is in the theological virtues, or correlatively that the way that Christian and non-Christians live the cardinal virtues is exactly the same. The Catechism rightly says that the cardinal virtues are “purified and elevated by divine grace” (§1810). To recall the three bases of categorization described above, the four cardinal virtues can be acquired by human effort alone and direct us to natural human flourishing. In the Catholic tradition these are called “human virtues,” a term the Catechism employs. Yet the cardinal virtues can also be infused by God’s grace and direct us toward supernatural happiness (“communion with divine love”, or “becoming like God”). In other words, even the cardinal virtues are lived differently by the Christian than the non-Christian. The Catechism recognizes this, but using the title “Human Virtues” to cover the section including the cardinal virtues can easily mislead since when the cardinal virtues are infused by God’s grace they not only secure human happiness but also point us toward supernatural happiness. Though the Catechism clearly claims that the cardinal virtues can be purified and elevated by God’s grace, the use of “human virtues” to title this section can be misleading.
Much more can be said about this rich article, and indeed this post will sadly continue the neglect of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit that marks nearly all of contemporary Catholic moral theology. But it is hoped post, with its overview of the article and brief foray into three key related issues, will help further illuminate this article and contribute to the greater use of virtue as a central concept for understanding and living Christian discipleship.