A ninth-grade class religious education class was learning about the moral teachings of the church when one of the inquisitive students wanted to know, “How far can I go before it’s a sin?”
While the student’s concern about avoiding sin is certainly commendable, the purpose of our lives is not simply to avoid sin. It is much more than that. We were made to grow in love of God and one another.
One way that we can grow in love is to grow in virtue. The root of the word “virtue” connotes courage, character or moral strength. Throughout the many and varied cultures, philosophies and religions of human history, virtue has been understood in terms of integrity and moral goodness.
Virtue has often been associated with the divine. Persons of virtue have been thought to possess godly traits. Some ancient Roman deities were even named for the virtues, such as Prudentia (prudence) and Veritas (truthfulness).
As Christians, we understand virtue as the reflection of God’s goodness in the concrete actions of our lives. This was modeled perfectly for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as a “habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (1803). It goes on to say that virtue “allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself” (1803).
A virtuous person desires what is good and puts all of his efforts and powers toward pursuing and choosing the good in his every word and action.
There are two main types of virtues: those we receive from God (theological virtues) and those we attain from our own efforts (human virtues).
The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are infused into our soul by God. These virtues help us to live as God’s children. They help us live in a relationship with God, both now and eternally.
The theological virtue of faith enables us to believe in God and in all that he has revealed to us. The virtue of hope directs us to “desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness” (CCC 1817). It helps us trust in the promises of Christ and to rely upon the grace of the Holy Spirit to attain those promises. Charity (or love) is the highest of the virtues and the virtue upon which all others are based, “by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC 1822). The human virtues are rooted in the theological virtues and are informed by them. The four cardinal virtues, upon which the other virtues are “hinged,” include “moderation and prudence, justice and fortitude” (Wisdom 8:7). The human virtues take the desire for God that is placed in our heart and put it at the service of concrete actions in our lives. Virtue is an outward expression of love.
The human virtues are “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, and habitual perfections of intellect and will” (CCC 1804). The adjectives — firm, stable and habitual — indicate that a virtue is not just a one-time act of charity. Virtues govern our conduct on a continual basis to help us habitually choose what is good and right.
The human virtues help us lead a morally good life with “ease, self-mastery, and joy” (CCC 1804). They help us resist our inclinations to selfishness and disordered passions. And they help us do so with joy, not begrudgingly.
We are able to grow in virtue, through both God’s grace and our own efforts. In the case of the human virtues, we grow in them through the practice of doing what is right and good.
Performing small acts of love, especially doing what may be difficult, is the first step toward growing in virtue. Being patient with a demanding person puts into practice the virtue of patience. Refraining from gossip exercises the virtue of prudence. Sharing a friendly smile reflects the virtue of kindness. Turning the channel from an inappropriate television program strengthens the virtue of chastity. Directing our money to the poor instead of buying something we really don’t need nurtures the virtue of justice.
Attaining virtue requires more than just trying to avoid sin. In his book “The Heart of Virtue,” Donald Demarco explains, “Trying to become virtuous merely by excluding vice . . . is as unrealistic as trying to cultivate roses solely by eliminating weeds.”
It is certainly important to clear the weeds from the soil, but that is only the first step. The soil must be planted with good seeds and nurtured; otherwise, the weeds take over again. Demarco notes, “The best way to exclude vices is to crowd them out with the presence of strong virtues.”
This analogy of sowing is echoed in the Catechism, which emphasizes that human virtues are “the fruit and seed of morally good acts” (CCC 1804). Virtue provides nourishment to do what is good, and virtue grows when a good deed is done.
As we grow in virtue, we conversely move away from sin. We become less concerned with how close to sin we can get and become more focused on how much better we can love.
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.