Not without reason, religion – including Catholicism – is often seen as a set of rules and things one is forbidden to do. While sin certainly plays a significant role in Catholic thought, so does virtue.
Virtue may be defined as traits and behaviors that characterize a good person. Put differently, virtue “is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1803).
In a preceding paper, I had begun a series on the seven deadly sins and the virtues that oppose sin. In this article, I will discuss the seven lively virtues that oppose the deadly sins.
I will discuss the history of the lively virtues and how they came to be. I will then examine each of the virtues individually.
The History And Development Of The Virtues
The concept of virtue and what it means to be a good person dates back to ancient Greece. The great philosophical tradition that includes Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle has had much to say on virtue.
For Socrates, all virtue traced back to the knowledge of eternal truth, what Catholicism calls natural law. It is in knowing God that one becomes virtuous.
It may be beneficial to here distinguish between virtue and ethics. Ethics is the adherence to descriptive norms of behavior. One is deemed ethical if one follows certain rules and actions that society has deemed appropriate. Virtue is acting in a manner that perfects one’s nature, and this requires knowledge of God.
Like Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas thought that ethical understanding comes through virtue and that virtue is a skill that must be developed. Aquinas believed that we learn what is ethical through our reason, which we can use to uncover God’s natural law imbued in creation. By rationally reflecting on what is in accord with nature and our natural inclinations, we can understand the ethical virtues.
The seven heavenly (or holy) virtues that are the subject of this paper appear to have first been developed by a Roman Christian poet named Prudentius. In seeking to contrast and counter the seven deadly sins, Prudentius articulated seven virtues. They are humility, chastity, temperance, generosity, diligence, patience, and charity.
To these seven virtues, I turn next.
The Seven Heavenly Virtues
- Humility. The virtue of humility is not intended to make one feel inferior. Rather, humility is the proper ordering of creatures (in this case, human beings) to their creator, God.
This virtue is the counter to the sin of pride. Humility means acknowledging our shortcomings while reminding us of our need to rely upon God.
- Chastity. Chastity involves the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2337). As a virtue, chastity opposes the sin of lust. Where lust is a perversion of the natural and good desires that all humans have, chastity seeks to order those desires in the way that God intended.
- Temperance. The virtue of temperance opposes the sin of gluttony by moderating the attraction of pleasures and by providing a balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1809).
- Generosity. “Freely ye have received, freely give.” In a sense, generosity imitates God, Who is generous in His creation. God, Who gave His Son for our salvation, asks us to give to others as He has given to us. The virtue of generosity acts in opposition to the vice of greed.
- Diligence. The virtue of diligence seeks to counter the sin of sloth by helping us to cultivate and utilize the talents that God has endowed us with. Yet, this virtue is also intended to combat spiritual laziness. As Catholics, we are to cooperate with God to bring about our sanctification. And cooperation requires the virtue of diligence.
- Patience. If the sin of wrath (anger) is the intemperate and uncontrolled feelings of hatred and the desire to avenge, then the virtue of patience is the capacity to bear difficulties and evil with love. In this sense, patience is the virtue that moderates passion and seeks to resolve conflicts and injustice peacefully. Patience also entails being merciful and forgiving those who wrong us.
- Charity. Charity, as it is used in a theological context, does not mean, or at least it is not restricted to benevolent giving. Instead, the virtue of charity is one by which we love God above all things for His own sake and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1822). Because charity requires us to love others without condition, it is the virtue that properly opposes the sin of envy.
In this article, I have sought to explain the seven heavenly virtues that stand in opposition to the seven deadly sins.
If sin is an act of disobedience against the will of God as well as an activity contrary to human nature, then virtue is that set of traits that seeks to know and abide by the will of God while at the same time perfecting one’s nature.
In the final article in this series, I will examine the three theological virtues and the four cardinal virtues.