Theological Virtues and the Soul

Virtue, like common sense, is a quality we all think we have in abundance. But what exactly is virtue?

For Aristotle, virtue was the habit of both knowing what is good and acting to achieve that good. Interestingly, Aristotle believed virtue to involve action between two extremes. For example, courage is virtuous in that it is the median between cowardice and recklessness. (See Aristotle. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. University of Chicago Press, 2012).

The Catholic Church lists seven virtues; four cardinal virtues and three theological virtues. The four cardinal virtues are justice, prudence, temperance and courage.

The three theological virtues are so called because they are infused into the soul by divine grace. These three virtues are faith, hope and charity (love). Theological virtues provide the basis or foundation of Catholic moral teaching. These three virtues are meant to perfect human nature and in so doing enable participation in the divine nature. (See Thomas Aquinas, Thomas. Summa theologica and 2 Peter 1:4).

In this book, I will endeavor to explain each of the theological virtues as well as the three faculties of the soul. The three faculties are intellect, memory and will. I will suggest that these faculties correspond to the three theological virtues.

Faith and Intellect

We start with the assumption that faith is having a good reason to accept something as true. In this case, faith as a theological virtue is having good reason to believe in the existence of God and in what God has revealed to us. Since the Catholic Church is the mystical body of Christ, this faith also extends to what the Catholic Church offers to our belief because God is truth itself. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1814).

However, theological faith is not natural. There are two basic reasons why this is so. First, theological virtues are infused into the soul by God. Second, the object of his faith (God) is not natural, but supernatural. Therefore, one can only come to faith by accepting the grace of God.

Now the intellect is that power of the soul which enables one to engage in reasoning and the synthesis of thought. At the level of abstract reasoning, one is able to understand the nature of the object one is considering. The ability to reason allows us to understand a situation and then to determine what is the right and appropriate response to give to the circumstances.

It is true that faith, as used in a religious sense, is suprarational. The human intellect, left unillumined by the light of divine Grace, is not able to comprehend the great mystery of God. Yet faith does not abdicate reason but, in a sense, fulfills it. This is so because faith, as a product of Grace, illumines the mind, making it possible to comprehend supernatural truths that would otherwise be beyond the capacity of the intellect.

As it was said above, intellect is the ability to comprehend or comprehend the nature of things. However, it is impossible to have faith in someone or in something that one does not at least partially understand or that one knows to be false. Faith resides in the intellect for two reasons. First, one must have reason to believe in the existence of God. Second, one must come to possess some understanding of God. This understanding will of course be limited. Finite human beings cannot come to a complete understanding of an infinite God. Nevertheless, one must possess the ability to have some understanding of God in order to have faith in Him. And understanding is a power of the intellect; therefore, faith must be an act of the intellect.

Hope and Memory

Hope is the virtue by which we desire and seek our good and our happiness. For Catholics, hope is the theological virtue by which we desire our ultimate good, the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.

We don’t hope for what we already have. Therefore, when we speak of hope in a theological sense, it is to indicate a desire for eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. Hope is placing our happiness and confidence in the promises of Christ.

The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness that God has placed in human beings – hope is infused into the soul by God. As the object of our hope is not a thing of nature, but God, hope too is a theological virtue.

Memory can be defined as the faculty by which the mind stores and recalls information. When we speak of the theological virtue of hope, we yearn for union with God. However, one cannot aspire to something of which one has no knowledge. Therefore, hope is the desire for something that we know about, and knowledge resides in memory. So it follows that hope lies in memory.

love and will

The last theological virtue is charity. Charity is that virtue by which we love God above all for himself, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. Because the object of charity is God, it is considered the highest form of love.

Since the love of God is the foundation of Catholic life, charity is the foundation or efficient cause of all virtues. By loving God and our neighbors, we order the other virtues correctly. A consideration of love makes clear that its source is theological. As John the Evangelist writes: “We love because [God] first loved us. (See 1 John 4:19).

In a theological context, love is not an emotion. On the contrary, love means seeking the good of another person, even independently of one’s own interests. Seeking the good requires intentionality, and intentionality is a product of the will. Love as a theological virtue therefore resides in the will.

Conclusion

In this book, I have sought to explain what the Catholic Church calls the three theological virtues; faith, hope and charity.

Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us and to the Church that Jesus founded. Hope is that virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life with God. Moreover, hope places our trust in God alone. Finally, charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1814-1822).

I have suggested that these three virtues correspond and are found in the three powers of the soul. Faith exists in and through the intellect, memory as a place of hope and charity as an act of will.


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