Virtue, like common sense, is a quality we all think we possess in abundance. But what exactly is virtue?
For Aristotle, virtue was the habit of both knowing what is good and acting toward achieving that good. Interestingly, Aristotle thought that virtue involved the action between two extremes. For example, courage is virtuous in that it is the median between cowardice and rashness. (See Aristotle. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. University of Chicago Press, 2012).
The Catholic Church enumerates seven virtues; four cardinal virtues and three theological virtues. The four cardinal virtues are justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude.
The three theological virtues are so-called because they are infused into the soul by Divine Grace. These three virtues are faith, hope, and charity (love). The theological virtues provide the basis or foundation of Catholic moral teaching. These three virtues are intended to perfect human nature and, in so doing, allow one to partake in the Divine nature. (See Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica and 2 Peter 1:4).
In this work, I will endeavor to explain each of the theological virtues as well as the three faculties of the soul. The three faculties are the intellect, the memory, and the will. I will suggest that these faculties correspond to the three theological virtues.
Faith and the Intellect
We begin with the supposition that faith is having a good reason to accept something as true. In that case, faith as a theological virtue is having good reasons to believe in the existence of God and what God has revealed to us. Since the Catholic Church is the mystical body of Christ, this faith also extends to what the Catholic Church proposes for our belief because God is truth itself. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1814).
Still, theological faith is not natural. There are two fundamental reasons why this is so. First, the theological virtues are infused into the soul by God. Second, the object of one’s faith (God) is not natural, but supernatural. Therefore, one can only come to faith as a result of accepting God’s Grace.
Now the intellect is that power of the soul that allows one to engage in reasoning and synthesizing thought. At the level of abstract reasoning, one is able to understand the nature of the object one is considering. The capacity for reason allows one to comprehend a situation and then determine what the good and appropriate response should be given the circumstances.
It is true that faith, as it is used in a religious sense, is suprarational. The human intellect, left unilluminated by the light of Divine Grace, is not capable of understanding the great mystery of God. Yet, faith does not abdicate reason but, in a sense, fulfills it. This is so because faith, as a product of Grace, illuminates the mind, allowing one to understand supernatural truths that would otherwise be beyond the intellect’s capacity.
As was said above, the intellect is the capacity to comprehend or understand the nature of things. Now it is impossible to have faith in someone or something that one does not at least partially understand or what one knows is false. Faith lies in the intellect for two reasons. First, one must have reasons for believing in the existence of God. Second, one must come to possess some understanding of God. This understanding will, of course, be limited. The finite human being cannot come to a complete comprehension of an infinite God. Nevertheless, one must possess the capacity to have some understanding of God in order to have faith in Him. And understanding is a power of the intellect; therefore, faith must be an act of the intellect.
Hope and the Memory
Hope is the virtue by which we desire and seek our good and happiness. For Catholics, hope is the theological virtue by which we desire our ultimate good, the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.
One does not hope for that which one already possesses. Therefore, when we speak of hope in a theological sense, it is to indicate a desire for eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. Hope entails placing our happiness and our trust in Christ’s promises.
The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration for happiness that God has placed in human beings – hope is infused into the soul by God. As the object of our hope is not a thing in nature, but God, so hope too is a theological virtue.
Memory may be defined as the faculty by which the mind stores and recalls information. When we speak of the theological virtue of hope, we are aspiring for union with God. Yet one cannot aspire for something one has no knowledge of. Therefore, hope is desiring something that we have knowledge of, and knowledge resides in the memory. It follows then that hope resides in the memory.
Love and the Will
The final theological virtue is charity. Charity is that virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. Because the object of charity is God, it is considered the highest form of love.
Since the love of God is the foundation of the Catholic life, charity is the ground or the efficient cause of all the virtues. By loving God and our neighbors, we properly order the other virtues. A consideration of love makes it evident that its source is theological. As John the evangelist writes, “We love because he [God] first loved us.” (See 1 John 4:19).
Within a theological context, love is not an emotion. Rather, love means to seek the good of another person, even independently of one’s own interests. To seek the good requires intentionality, and intentionality is a product of the will. Therefore, love as a theological virtue resides in the will.
In this work, I have sought to explain what the Catholic Church calls the three theological virtues; faith, hope, and charity.
Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that He has said and revealed to us and in the Church that Jesus founded. Hope is that virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life with God. Moreover, hope places our trust in God alone. Finally, Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraphs 1814 – 1822).
I have suggested that these three virtues correspond to and are found in the soul’s three powers. Faith exists in and through the intellect, the memory as the place of hope, and charity as an act of the will.