What Is Virtue?

By Stacy Mitch 

Stacy Mitch is the author of the highly popular Courageous Women Bible study series.

Photo Credit: Tom Wheatley

What is virtue? Go ahead and try to come up with a definition—and don’t cheat by looking at the rest of this article!  

I am willing to bet this was a difficult task for most—I can’t remember the last time I heard a meaningful definition of a virtue given in everyday circumstances. Most of us mistakenly think that the virtues are academic categories reserved for philosophers and theologians. However, the virtues are the basic stuff of the Christian moral life. The Catechism has defined virtue as “habitual and firm disposition to do good” (1833).  

The virtues help us habitually do what is good. They are the building blocks for Christian moral living. Accordingly, the Church has developed a theology of the virtues, building on what the ancients discovered through natural law and what God revealed through divine inspiration.  

Catholic tradition recognizes four cardinal virtues that are also known as human, natural, or moral virtues. They are prudence (wisdom), justice, fortitude (courage), and temperance (self-control). The moral virtues are gained through human efforts, and the natural purpose of the practice of these virtues is a good life. However, as Christians, the goal that we are striving for is not merely a good life here on earth, but rather eternal life in heaven. Therefore, God in His goodness has elevated the natural virtues by His grace (CCC 1810). The natural virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) practiced in the power of God’s grace help us meet not only our natural good but our supernatural end—eternal bliss in heaven with God. As Pope Pius XI explains:  

[T]he supernatural order . . . not only does not in the least destroy the natural order, to which pertain the other rights mentioned, but elevates the natural and perfects it, each affording mutual aid to the other, and completing it in a manner proportioned to its respective nature and dignity. The reason is because both come from God, who cannot contradict Himself.

In addition to the four cardinal virtues, there are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love (charity). These virtues are “theological” because they are gifts that are given to us by God at Baptism, and their purpose is to lead us back to God. God is the beginning, end, and motivation of these virtues. Our understanding and practice of them depend upon God’s grace. Because these virtues exist in us solely through the goodness of God’s grace, the only way for them to increase is by grace. We cannot earn more faith, hope, or love by our good deeds. In order for us to acquire more faith, hope, or love, we must ask God for them in prayer and frequent the sacraments, which are instruments of His grace. Like grace itself, they are pure gifts from the Lord. The only goal of the theological virtues is our supernatural happiness. The virtues are not simply philosophical constructs, but rather the habits and dispositions that help us reach eternal union with God.  

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Courageous Virtue: A Bible Study on Moral Excellence for Women

Courageous Virtue: A Bible Study on Moral Excellence for Women explores how virtue can help women to draw closer to our Lord in everyday life. Author Stacy Mitch focuses on the cardinal virtues (fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence) and the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love).