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The Virtues

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

This is our closing conference. I mean it when I say it pains me to have to leave. But, I promise from today on, first time I made this promise, I will remember the Handmaids of the Precious Blood by name every morning after rising and the last thing at night until the Lord calls me into eternity. I ask for your prayers.

Our present conference is on the virtues. This will be a long conference, and I will try to make it within the limits of the time which the machinery allows me. First by way of prelude: virtue in general is a firm and habitual disposition to do good. That should be memorized. Virtue in general is a firm and habitual disposition to do good; it allows a person not only to perform good actions but, to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends towards the good with all his bodily and spiritual powers. He pursues and chooses this good in the concrete, specific actions of daily life. That is a short introduction, now come the questions.

What is virtue? A more specific theological definition, human virtue to be distinguished from what may be called Godly virtues. Human virtue is moral virtue. What I am calling Godly virtue is theological virtue, and we will speak about both forms of virtue.

Human virtue arises from the attitudes, stable dispositions, and habitual inclinations of the intellect and will that regulate our actions, direct our passions and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. I will forbear repeating. Human virtues confer the facility, self-control, and joy that we need to lead a good moral life. What are the three basic blessings of a moral virtue? They are facility; ease. Once we got the virtue we can do what we are supposed to do easily. Self-control; our moral virtues control what we spend so much time on. Call it our passions, our inclinations, feelings, emotions, which we said, come at least sixty times, sixty times twenty-four hours every day. Every second some people, even several times in a second, have urges, impulses that keep rising. What do the moral or human virtues control? : These inclinations. And finally the moral virtues give us joy in doing what we are supposed to do. There is pleasure. I am happy, I’m happy to be courageous. I am happy to control my desire. I see a big pile of food and I am happy to take only one small portion, and I don’t keep looking at the platter. Gosh, what I’m missing!

Cardinal Virtues

Next question: What are the four cardinal virtues? Now we have another name. We called them human virtues; we called them moral virtues; and now we are calling them cardinal virtues. Same thing, except the cardinal virtues are the cardianars , the hinges around which all the other moral virtues revolve. They are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. All human virtues are expressions of these four. You name the virtue in the moral order, somewhere somehow you can classify it under these four categories. Thus, for the record chastity is one form of the virtue of temperance. Where temperance controls our desires and chastity controls a specific desire, namely for sexual pleasure.

Prudence.  Now we go down the four principle or cardinal virtues. What is prudence? Prudence disposes our practical reason to recognize our true good in every circumstance of life and to choose the correct means of achieving it. Prudence is called. ‘The queen or pilot’ of the other virtues because it guides these other virtues by directing them to choose the proper means to achieve a determined good end.

Prudence is a virtue of the mind. The other three cardinal virtues are in will. This one is in the mind. We need this virtue to practice all the others.

What does prudence do? It enlightens us in every circumstance of life to recognize first with our minds, so that we may choose first a correct end, a purpose, which is pleasing to God. And then what is just as important the right means to attain it.

I decided to stay in Jemez Springs as long as I could on Sunday, today. So coming here, I inquired and found out, I can leave by 4:30 this afternoon from Albuquerque. So I will reach Detroit Metro Airport at 12:05 A.M. Monday morning. I have to get there at least by Monday morning because I am scheduled to say the six-thirty morning masses at the University Parish Church on Monday. I better be there on Monday! I had to use my head otherwise known as the virtue of prudence. Why is prudence called the “queen” or as the catechism calls it “the pilot” of all the virtues? Because, we have to be prudent in practicing every other moral virtue.

Is poverty a moral virtue? Yes. Do I have to be prudent in the practice of poverty? Yes. For example, I want to be really poor; so I will skip my meals say for several days. Now skipping my morning breakfast is routine in my life, and I figured out that is prudent. I try not to eat before I say mass on any day. The latest so far was a seven p.m. mass. I thought it was prudent. Did I ever enjoy my meal at nine-thirty p.m. What a hardy breakfast I ate! Prudence therefore, must guide all the virtues.

Justice.  Next cardinal virtue: What is justice? Where prudence is in the mind, justice is in the will. What is justice? Justice is the virtue that guides the human will to give God and to others what is their due. Justice enables me to give God, and He always comes first, to give God and others what God and others have a right to. Justice is not charity. Justice is a strict obligation. Somebody does a piece of work for me, I agree to pay them a certain salary, in strict justice I owe that salary to that person. But, of course between the two forms of justice the most important is justice towards God. So our next question is; what is justice towards God?

Justice towards God is the virtue of religion. That is my friends is what religion means. Giving God what He has a right to. What does God have a right to? He has a right to be known and obeyed. In the first right, God has a right to be known. We have a duty to learn all we can about God. And I would say speaking to this audience, the primary duty of a religious devoted to the contemplative or even monastic life is to know God, and grow in the knowledge of God. God has the right to speak and be listened to. God has a right to deal with us, as He wants to. In all these cases our justice towards God implies our submission to God, submission to His laws and His providence in our lives. Our humble response to His divine rights as His creatures is simply the practice of religion. As over the years I have told religious, by now we have come to use religious as both a noun and adjective. So religious are people. The word religious therefore as a noun, but those people who are called religious as a noun there are some among human beings who are called to be religious as a noun and to be religious as an adjective. That is our primary duty as religious. And if we who have vowed ourselves to be religious, if we don’t give God what is His due, we are, in the deepest sense of the word, irreligious. We go on.

What is our justice towards others? Justice towards others recognizes people’s rights as human beings always in view of the common good. A just person considers the good of a community. And how this his own interest are to be subordinated to the welfare of others. That too is justice. Is not only respecting the right of others as individuals, but the rights of a community. That is why I try for example as a member of the Detroit University community to be of service. We have a hard time getting Jesuit priests to offer six-thirty Mass in the morning for a number of obvious reasons. So shortly after I came to the university they asked me if I would want to say the six-thirty morning Mass, and he gave me a little commentary. So I promised him if it is humanly possible I promise to be in Detroit two weeks of every month to offer the six-thirty morning Mass at the University Parish Church. And this month it already being January I apologized, “I can be in Detroit only one week.” And when Mother Teresa asked couldn’t I possibly come for one month to stay in India. I said, “Thanks mother, I have a prior commitment in Detroit”. Pardon the personal note. Do you know what I am saying? My first right is to my community and I apologize for not being there for two weeks. And as religious I believe we should all examine our consciences everyday and always say, “Orni Gorno” on how faithful have I been to recognizing, respecting and responding to the rights of my community everyday.

Fortitude.  Next question: What is fortitude? Fortitude is the virtue that regulates our fears. It ensures stability and constancy in doing what is good even in the face of difficulty. The virtue of fortitude enables us to resist fear, even the fear of death, and to suffer everything in the defense of our practice of the faith. We are sustained in our fortitude by the promise of our Lord, quote, “In the world you face persecution, but take courage I have overcome the world.” unquote. Thanks Lord! The world hates those who follow Christ.

Temperance.  What is temperance? Temperance moderates our desires. Note the word moderates. It does suppress them otherwise we would never do any good, but moderates them. It moderates the attraction of pleasure, bodily, emotional, and spiritual. In the words of St. Paul, “We are to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and Godly.” unquote Paul. Always, this control of our appetites is to be guided by reason but illumined by faith in which Christ is our model of temperance. We not only surrender pleasures that are sinful, but this is what we became religious for. We not only surrender pleasures that are sinful, but even legitimate pleasures out of love for God and in imitation of His Son, Jesus Christ.

To mention just four pleasures. Do we like to possess? DO WE LIKE TO POSSESS! So we surrender out of love for God the natural desire to possess, otherwise known as the vow of poverty. Do we have a natural desire for sexual pleasure? Do we ever! In men that pleasure is more physical, in women it is more emotional. I am not sure which is stronger. By a vow of consecrated chastity we surrender not only the sinful pleasures of sex, but even the legitimate pleasure in sacramental marriage. Do we naturally desire to do our own will? What a question! Who doesn’t! Watch a baby; watch two children each wanting the same rattle. So what do we do? We surrender our will, not only in giving up our will in things which would be sinful, but Oh dear Lord, give me the vocabulary to say the right thing, in the trifles, in the trivialities, in the nonentities of religious life. What difference in the objective Divine order does it make to get up? [What time do you people get up normally? Real loud! “Five thirty, father.”] There is no law on earth that requires human beings to rise at five thirty, yet we bind ourselves under the vow of obedience to get up at a certain time. Even bells, (oh no) and bells to remind us to do one thing and especially to leave something else. I like to quote St. Ignatius, “At the sound of the bell we should be ready to leave anything we are doing even leaving the letter we are writing, the letter of the alphabet. Not just the ‘I’ or cross the ‘t’. You have got the ‘t’ the bell rings. Put the pen down, you don’t cross the ‘t’.” We go on.

What is the relation of grace to the practice of human virtues? Grace is indispensable in how many ways? Four Ways. Grace elevates the human virtues from the natural to the supernatural plane. Grace forges the virtues and gives us a facility and ease in their practice. Grace enables us to persevere in the practice of our virtue, and finally grace prompts us to pray, receive the sacraments and respond to God’s call to an ever greater practice of these moral virtues, so much for the moral argument of virtues.

Theological Virtues

What are the theological virtues? The theological virtues refer directly to God (Theos), hence the name by enabling Christians to live in relation to the Holy Trinity. They are the virtues of faith, hope and charity. They have God as their origin, God as their motive and God as their destiny. They give the life, the Divine life, to our practice of the moral virtues.

Faith.  Next question. What is faith? Faith is the virtue by which we ascent with the intellect to everything which God has revealed, not because we understand, but because of the authority of God revealing, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. I think it is worth repeating. Faith is the virtue by which we ascent with the intellect to everything which God has revealed, not because we understand, but because of the authority of God revealing, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. For the first eleven years of my teaching theology I taught the theology of faith and my course was two semesters, a whole year. Three classes of an hour each a week, fifteen weeks each semester. We go on.

What is our duty toward the virtue of faith? As followers of Christ we have a series of responsibilities. We are to preserve our faith. We are to live our faith. We are to profess our faith. We are to courageously bear witness to our faith. We are to spread our faith. We are to be ready to confess Christ before others and follow Him along the way of the cross. We are to be ready to suffer persecution for the faith and what else? We are to be willing to die for the faith. We go on.

Hope.  What is the virtue of hope? Hope is the virtue by which we desire our happiness and the kingdom of heaven. It is the virtue by which we place our trust in Christ’s promise. It is the virtue, which enables us to rely not only on our own powers but on the grace of the Holy Spirit to remain faithful until death to Jesus Christ. How does our hope protect us? Our hope protects us from discouragement, sustains us in our abandonment by creatures and rejoices our heart in anticipation of the heavenly glory that awaits us. Hope preserves us from selfishness.

Charity.  Next question. What is charity? Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God alone above all things and everyone else out of love for God. What is Christ’s new commandment of charity? Christ told us, “As the Father has loved me so I have loved you. This is My commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” Notice Christ gave us a new commandment of charity. Indeed, in proper theological language we should not call the third theological virtue love. It should always be called charity. Why? Because charity is supernatural love twice over, it is supernatural because this love had to be revealed by God as a mystery. Charity is a mystery. You don’t fathom by your mind the meaning of charity. You believe in it. But secondly, love, when it becomes charity is supernatural both because it had to be revealed by God as a mystery. Never try to comprehend or understand your practice of charity. But secondly, unlike love, charity cannot be practiced without supernatural grace. In other words, charity is supernatural twice over, both on the level of knowledge and on level of volition. We would never know there was such a virtue as charity unless God became man to both practice and reveal it. And we could never practice charity by our own native powers of volition. We need, how we need, constant grace from God to enable our congenitally self-inverted will to go out to others, even to God. And that us why Christ’s commandment is charity. I have to say this because I am glancing at the English text of Cardinal Law, even as I am doing this from the French. And I said an aspiration for Cardinal Law, by the way he asked me to pray for him. I said I would when we met at the Eucharistic Congress in Seville this past June. Every time that the French uses correctly, charit¢e, kind of lost translation talks about love. Oh! Dear Eminence, please! Thank God for the Pope. Next question.

Is charity the norm for keeping the commandments of Christ? Yes. In His own words, now, because we do not have sadly in English a verb that goes along with charity, Christ tells us, and this is a good English translation, but has to be interpreted, “Abide in My love” which we know means abide in my charity. “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love (charity).” What are we being told? To keep the commandments of Christ we’ve got to practice that love which He elevated. That He called charity. Otherwise, we are not really loving Him. Next question.

What are the qualities of Christian charity? They are spelled out in the famous First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians. In which he says, and each time I glance at the English, sure enough, it’s love this and love that. Says Paul, “Charity is patient. Charity is kind. Charity is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. Charity does not resist or insist on its own way. Charity is not irritable, or resentful. Charity does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Charity believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” unquote St. Paul First Letter to the Corinthians, thirteenth chapter, fourth through the seventh verses. This is a daily examination of conscience for all of us. And notice this charity as prescribed by Christ as taught to St. Paul by the Spirit of Christ is especially deeply interior, does not insist on its own way. Every person wants his own way. It has got to be this way. There is no objective reason under heaven why this way is a better way. Ah, but there is a profound reason on earth, because I want it. It is not irritable. What irritates us? Oh! That’s simple, when people do what we don’t like. And what they are doing can be very good, we just don’t like it. Or, because they have smaller feet they walk more slowly: we have big feet we walk faster, we don’t like it.

Charity does not rejoice in wrongdoing. Ah! What a subtle temptation against charity. Somebody does something stupid, when they smile and say I’m sorry. But down deep in our hearts we may be glad. Serves her right. And the peak of charity believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Always, of course, under the ambit of the Divine Law. Charitable people are believing people. Charitable people are trustful people. Charitable people are patient people, and living with others, this closing statement of St. Paul, “Charity endures all things.” Could just as well be, “charity endures all people all kinds of people.” and one of the great blessings of religious community life. All people are different. And would you believe it, they are all different from me. And having said that within twenty-four hours of entering a community you must resign yourself. And as you grow in sanctity you begin to love living among people who are, oh how different, they call them how strange. We adjust to others. One condition that we never compromise, our love for God. The most heroic love for another person may never for a moment or a millimeter compromise with my love for God.

You think we’ve said enough about charity, oh, there’s more coming. Do we have the time? What is Christian charity? Christian charity is the practice of all the virtues animated by love. That again should be memorized. Christian charity is the practice of all the virtues animated by love. It is as we have been saying more than natural love, because it is a supernatural virtue, which enables a person to love beyond the powers of human nature. It purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the super human perfection of the very love of God; of the God, remember, who allows his sun to shine on the good and the bad, and His rain to fall on the virtuous and the wicked.

Charity does, and this is of its essence, the humanly impossible. And how the world needs this. Christian charity is a moral miracle. There by definition: a moral miracle is where the real does what is beyond its natural powers of volition. We go on.

How is Christian charity the bond of unity? We need to hear and answer this question. Where the world, torn apart by disunity, families broken by the hundreds of millions, and the words of St. Paul, quote, “Charity binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Without charity there could be no Christianity and Christianity is only as vital, only as vibrant, as the members of Christ’s Mystical Body are united in the practice of selfless charity. This is the iron law of unity in a religious community and communities that practice this Christ like charity. And they will have the corresponding unity become magnets, I mean it, attracting vocations. Love draws, love attracts, love you might say pulls others to join itself. Because this is what God when He became man and instituted the Church He told His followers; by this and this most fundamentally shall the world know that you are my followers. But watch it if you have love for one another, mutual reciprocal charity.

Last question. What are the fruits of Christian charity? They are joy, peace, and mercy. Charity begets, surprised to hear this begets, fraternal correction. Charity begets friendship and communion. Says St. Augustine, “Charity is the fulfillment and goal of all our good works.” Charity is not only the means, but the goal of all our efforts. And once we have reached that goal we have entered our eternal repose; not sleep, but the peace of living in the company of those who during life had practiced charity. And in heaven are united by that love which is the happiness of becoming a member of the Holy Trinity.


Lord Jesus there is nothing on Earth we need more than the practice of charity. Because if we practice charity here on Earth we will enjoy heavenly beatitude which is enjoying the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit through all eternity. Amen

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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