What is virtue?

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VIRTUES trampling vices from Strasbourg Cathedral.

The 4th-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa described the aim of the virtuous life as "to become like God." That may sound intimidating as a life goal, but it's certainly moving in the best possible direction. Virtue comes from the Latin word for "force" and you can think of it as the driving force of good behavior. The more we exercise a particular virtue, the more habit-forming it becomes. Because the same is true of vice, choosing to create easy habits of virtue is a better match for the Christian life.

The church speaks of four cardinal ("hinge") virtues upon which a moral lifestyle depends. These are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence is the pilot virtue: It guides you in discerning what the right course of action is. It relies on habits of prayer, reflection, and spiritual counsel. Justice is pro-active in seeing that relationships between individuals, or between society and individuals, are correctly enacted. Justice is especially concerned with the common good—that what emerges from a course of action brings about the best for all concerned.

Fortitude is the strength that enables you to persevere in right actions despite opposition, suffering, and temptation. Temperance is the virtue Saint Paul often calls self-control or modesty. It is the mastery of the self that releases you from slavery to the senses or passions so that you can choose your way with the freedom of the children of God.

Along with the cardinal virtues, the church has identified three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. Saint Paul defines them as the three things that last when the whole world passes away. As the term theological suggests, these three pertain to God because they begin with divine instigation, are motivated by the Spirit, and seek God as their ultimate end. Faith means trusting in God with every life decision—not simply believing doctrinal statements about God. Hope enables you to look beyond your present circumstances, no matter how troubling or limiting, into future "Kingdom" realities confidently. Love, the "greatest" virtue according to Paul, is also the one that binds the rest together. The best definition for the practice of love remains Paul's wonderful passage in 1 Corinthians: "Love is patient, love is kind."

Wisdom 8:7; Romans 5:1-2; 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, 13; Colossians 3:15; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 10:23

The virtues in the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Good Life: Where Morality & Spirituality Converge by Father Richard Gula, S.S. (Paulist Press)
Everyday Virtues
by John W. Crossin (Paulist Press)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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