THE MORAL VIRTUES
One should try to develop good habits. Developing good habits will help us do the right thing without thinking about it too hard. Good habits protect us by making good use of the human tendency to fall into consistent patterns of behavior. If you consciously develop a good habit, you are in effect training yourself to do the right thing.
The Church in her wisdom has long recognized the benefit of having good habits. A habit can be defined as: A custom or practice; an aptitude or inclination for some action, acquired by repetition. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (5th Edition) tells us that the word habit "implies a settled disposition or tendency due to repetition". The Church has used the single word "virtue" instead of "good habits" to describe these "dispositions" but the concept is exactly the same.
The Catechism divides the virtues into three basic categories. There are theological virtues, human virtues, and moral virtues. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, lead us to God. Since the theological virtues have a supernatural end they are impossible to attain without God's help. The human virtues on the other hand, are oriented toward natural ends. They can be achieved by natural means. Any pagan can achieve them. The Catechism defines the human virtues as "firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct" (CCC1804). It then indicates that "human virtues" is a larger general category which includes the smaller category of the moral virtues. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the moral virtues are those virtues which "perfect the appetitive faculties of the soul, namely, the will and the sensuous appetite".
Now that we know that the moral virtues are habits concerning our appetites and will, what are we to do about it? The Catechism gives us the answer. "The moral virtues are acquired by human effort..." (CCC1804). There you have it. We have to acquire moral virtues. Although God's grace is beneficial in all things, the moral virtues can be attained on our own.
What are these virtues which we need to work toward? The Catechism identifies four virtues as "pivotal". These are known as the cardinal virtues. They are identified below:
Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.
Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. (CCC1806-1809)
These cardinal virtues then, are moral virtues, they play a pivotal role, and are acquired by human effort. They are not like sanctifying grace that is infused at baptism. We have to work to get them, and work to keep them.
Unfortunately we do not seem to have a ready-mix, shake-and-bake formula for acquiring these virtues. The Catechism does give us some hints. It tells us that virtues "guide our conduct according to reason and faith." (CCC1804).Virtues therefore guide us according to reason. It is reason, the power of our intellect, that will tell us how to act. Since we must attain the moral ourselves, we must use our intellect to attain them. With the scriptures and Tradition as our guides we must actively use our minds to figure out how to acquire the virtues by our own effort.
The Catechism also tells us that the moral virtues "are the fruit and seed of morally good acts". (CCC1804) That is the other half of the equation. We must not only use our minds to acquire the moral virtues. Once we have determined a plan to help us acquire the moral virtues we actually have to put it into practice. As it says, they are the fruit and seed of acts.Some people like to say "In my day we had to make our own". When it comes to the moral virtues, we still have to make our own.
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Published by The Minnesota St. Thomas More Chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, March 2002.