By Bishop Louis F. Kihneman III
Bishop of Biloxi
In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas lists prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude as the cardinal virtues. These are virtues of the Holy Spirit. They are basic to our living as Christians and Roman Catholics. Without them, we are what St. Paul refers to as “a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13: 1) With them, we are a sign of Christ and we are signs of His love. We need to pray for these virtues but we also need to actively work on them.
These are critical to the Christian life and, if we have difficulty with any one of them, that is where our prayer needs to start.
Prudence is knowing what is good and bad, especially in the light of God’s love and making logical decisions on what we should or should not do based on that love, our experiences, and the information that we have. This is really an intellectual virtue. It is the wisdom that guides us in practical decision-making based on God’s love. It is the ability to exercise discretion in actions in whatever matters are taking place in one’s life.
There is a need to have a sense of what are the moral principles that will guide the actions and the particular circumstances in which a decision is required. Even in a sinful moment when someone does something to us and we get very angry over it, it is a moment of prudent judgment. Do you choose to go off on that person or do you instead choose to make it a teaching moment both for that person and yourself? A moment in which you love that person as opposed to unloading on them?
We come to these decisions in part by relying on our own memory of what is right, our intelligence, or knowing what is right and our commitment toward what is right and not toward what would be considered wrong.
There is a certain shrewdness and reasoning that needs to take place. Shrewdness in the sense of not making the deal of a lifetime. It is more of being to share faith with someone depending on where they are in their own journey. It involves a willingness to be patient in difficult or challenging times.
Justice is the act of doing what is right and just, especially during times of adversity. Justice governs our relationships and social interactions, rooted once again in God’s love. In other words, love your neighbor as yourself. (Mk 12: 31) Justice starts with our own ability to understand what is right, what is true, what is good and what is faithful.
There are a couple of different aspects of justice. One is legal justice or general justice for society. Within that would be particular justice for ourselves and for individual circumstances. Community justice or distributive justice would be the other aspect of this. One of our biggest sins in today’s society is that we do not pay a lot of attention to distributive justice. It can tend to be very one-sided or about who you know. That is against the cardinal virtue of justice.
For us it is about getting in touch with the teachings of the Church, staying in touch with the Creed that we profess, whether it be the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed and, once again, being in touch with the two great commandments that Jesus has given us. If we bounce things off those two great commandments, we really have our answer. We know what is right. We know what is just. We know what is true.
I think that in today’s world justice is one of the virtues that is often overlooked or just simply not considered. We talk about justice but, oftentimes, it goes lacking. If we look at war, would one consider it a just war? If you are on one side, they would say yes but, if you are on the other side, they would say no. That does not mean there should not be peace. That is actually a part of it because you cannot have peace without justice.
It is not that actions do not matter. They do but, unless we are willing to talk to one another, unless we are willing to listen to one another, unless we are willing to come together and, at least, express our own views, even if they are contrary, the sense of being able to work together in communion is almost impossible. To come to some kind of agreement becomes even more difficult. As a result, justice gets cast off by closed hard hearts. Yes, there are some very difficult circumstances out there. However, we know from history that violence begets violence. Jesus said, if you live by the sword, you will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). It is really meant for us to be an invitation to meet each other, even with different views or very strong feelings.
Temperance or moderation is having control over our impulses and emotions, favoring a goal of true long-term happiness over short-term pleasures. It is the means by which we regulate or moderate our appetites, passions and emotions, based on the two great commandments, love of God and neighbor.
For example, temperance in the consumption of alcohol. We see this with people who attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. They need to temper their passion for alcohol but it is also based on the reliance on a higher power, which is God. Those folks are really an example of living one’s life in a way that is truly temperate.
Temperance is the kind of moderation that would be common in every moral virtue. However, it is more focused on what would happen with our appetites, our passions and physical pleasures including eating, drinking, or whatever else it might be. It involves a willingness to sacrifice the moment for the greater good of the individual and the person or persons they are with at that particular moment. It is a real willingness to resist self-gratification and where there is a need for real selflessness. It is funny how it works but, as we are selfless, we really learn how to love ourselves and love others.
Some of the words that we associate with temperance are chastity, sobriety and abstinence. In the modern world, those are almost bad words. However, in truth, that is actually where we learn to love ourselves – by living a chaste life, a life that is sober in the sense that there is nothing taking over our lives. That is part of the experience for people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs. By losing their sobriety, they are not only losing their temperance but they are also losing their lives.
Abstinence is something that happens regularly for all of us. There is a story about a little boy who goes to his grandma’s house and her grandma says, “For breakfast, you can eat all the pancakes you want.” So, he ate one pancake, then another, then another and so on and, by the time he finished his fifth pancake, grandma was still cooking pancakes. There finally came a point where the grandmother asked do you want any more pancakes and grandson said, “Grandma, I don’t want any more pancakes and I actually don’t want the ones that I’ve already eaten.” That story describes what temperance and abstinence are all about.
Fortitude or courage is resilience in the face of adversity. It is essentially inner-strength. It is both a gift and virtue of the Holy Spirit. It is really our willingness to stand up for what is right, just and true. We celebrate the virtue of fortitude in the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is a willingness to step out in faith, hope and love. It is a willingness to stand up for our beliefs even when they seem contrary to what is happening in the world.
It is the courage to really represent Jesus Christ and show that the love of God is at the center of our lives and that love is what we really celebrate when we love ourselves and what we give away when we love others.
Throughout history, there have been many examples of martyrs who have displayed extraordinary courage or fortitude. For example, there is St. Andrew Dung-Lac and the 117 Vietnamese Martyrs who were mutilated and tortured because they refused to renounce their faith. There is also St. Stephen, one of the first ordained deacons and a great evangelist who was stoned to death because of his beliefs.
It does take courage and fortitude to be prudent, it does take courage and fortitude to be temperate and it does take courage and fortitude to live a life in justice. Courage and fortitude involves patience but also perseverance. St. Paul references the good fight in 2 Timothy 4:7 where he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Fighting the good fight of the faith is also about perseverance and continuing, even when the road is hard and that faith lies in contrast to what is happening in the world.
These cardinal virtues, coupled with the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, which I will discuss in my next column, are really at the center of who we are called to be. Thomas Aquinas considered these virtues as the principal habits of living as a Christian but also living as a human being who is rooted in God’s love and goodness. All of the other virtues stem from these four cardinal virtues.