The Mystery of the Moral Virtues

In modern theology, biblical criticism, and other sacred sciences, articles are often entitled, “The Problem of X,” or “The X Problem,” as in “The Problem of Free Will” or “The Synoptic Problem.” Modern folk have the bad habit of looking at a mystery and calling it a problem. These things are neither moral problems which show a defect in our dogmatic system, nor mathematical problems that can be solved with advanced calculus, nor even problems of a logical or ontological nature. No, they are mysteries, and many mysteries are and will remain — to borrow the title of a television program I have thankfully never seen — “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Saint Augustine famously asserted of Rachel’s clever Jacob-Esau switcheroo: Non est mendacium, est mysterium (“It is not a lie; it is a mystery”). A similar sense of awe in the face of divine revelation ought to lead us to respect supernatural mysteries and not render them so “problematic.”

It should also be recalled that a mystery is not something about which we can know nothing; rather, it is something about which we cannot know everything. Meditating on mysteries is therefore not futile, but fruitful, if properly done.

The particular non-problematic mystery I wish to consider here is that of the relation of two different classes of moral virtues: the acquired moral virtues and the infused moral virtues. This may at first seem to be a dry-as-dust academic curiosity, but, to my thinking, it is not only one of the most practically applicable parts of mystical theology, but it also helps us to answer something that nags many of us when we look at our non-Catholic (or even utterly irreligious) neighbor and see that, in him, there is something good — not only good, but positively virtuous.

To the task. A virtue is a good habit, one that (normally speaking) we get from repeated acts. In this, it is like other habits: arts and sciences. I practice my piano and acquire the habit of being a piano player. The act of playing it strengthens in my mind, attunes my senses, builds coordination in my body, etc., all to make me a better piano player. From scales and arpeggios, I can eventually tackle a Liszt Transcendental Étude (if I am really good!). Study of the sciences, that is, any field of ordered knowledge (e.g., mathematics), builds certain intellectual habits. All the various human endeavors are either arts, sciences, or moral acts. In fact, there is an aspect of all three in any human undertaking. Once we acquire the habit, it becomes like a power in us, a potency we can put into act on demand.

Moral habits pertain to man’s ethical behavior. Moral habits that are good are called virtues; moral habits that are bad are called vices.

There are four moral virtues which, by their nature, are so pivotal that they are called “cardinal” virtues, that is “hinge” virtues (from cardo, cardinis, meaning “hinge” in Latin). Prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude are a quartet recognized by the ancient Greeks and Latins, as well as in the book of Wisdom in the Old Testament: “her [Wisdom’s] labours have great virtues; for she teacheth temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life” (Wis. 8:7). Catholic theology has spoken of them as “cardinal” since at least the time of St. Ambrose (d. 397), and the scholastics refined the study of them in typical lapidary fashion in all their various summae. All the moral virtues are considered “parts” of these cardinal virtues. For example, the virtue of religion, by which we render to God what is His due, is part of the virtue of justice, whereby we render to others what is owed to them.

In a catalogue that he does not consider exhaustive, Saint Thomas enumerates over fifty moral virtues, explaining that “For every act in which there is found a special aspect of goodness, man must be disposed by a special virtue.”

Over and above the moral virtues, of course, are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These have God as their immediate object and their direct source. That is, they order us to God and are infused by God directly into our souls. They are not and cannot be acquired by any human effort. “Flesh and blood hath not revealed this, but my Father who is in Heaven” our Lord said to Saint Peter concerning the act of faith the Apostle had made. The moral virtues dispose us to good acts, but not to God, at least not directly. Said another way, the theological virtues direct us to our End (God), but the moral virtues direct us in our means to that End.

Here is where we come to “the mystery of the moral virtues.” (If I had not set it up properly, what follows would make no sense.)

The theological virtues, as I have said, are infused. So far, I have been speaking of moral virtues as acquired virtues (acquired, that is, by repeated acts). But this is not complete, for at baptism we receive not only the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the gifts of the Holy Ghost, but we also receive the infused moral virtues. These are also called the supernatural moral virtues. Natural moral virtues are acquired by repeated acts of our nature; supernatural moral virtues are infused in our souls by God.

The two species of moral virtues are not the same thing, but they should work together.

According to Father Jordan Aumann, O.P.,“The natural or acquired virtues are habits in the strict sense of the word. They do not give the power to act (for the faculty has that already), but they give facility in operation. The supernatural or infused virtues give the power to act supernaturally (without them it would be impossible, apart from an actual grace), but they do not give facility in operation.”

An attentive reading of this explains the “problem” we spoke of in the beginning: Why is it that people who have not opened themselves up to the life of grace can act virtuously? It is because they have acquired natural virtues and are very admirable in habitually doing good. Without Faith, it is impossible to please God. Without the life of grace, we can have no supernatural merit. But without supernatural grace men can acquire natural moral virtues, even in an eminent degree. Contrariwise, a Catholic in the state of grace can be very stingy in striving for virtue.

Someone who, through discipline, has acquired natural virtue is worthy of our respect. When such people convert and receive the full panoply of supernatural gifts God has to offer in the order of grace — including the infused moral virtues — they become not only good, but holy. And their holiness can surpass that of the lax “cradle Catholics” who may hold onto grace and the infused virtues by the skin of their teeth, but who do not discipline themselves to acquire virtue.

Those who have the acquired virtues and the infused virtues working together have not only the “facility in operation” (a readiness to do good), but also “the power to act supernaturally,” that is, the power to store up treasure in heaven — the power not only to live virtuously, but to live as children of God.

This is a perfect illustration of that Scholastic axiom that grace does not destroy, but elevates nature, something about which I have written more here.

For the orthodox believer who knows there is no salvation outside the Church, his non-Catholic neighbor’s natural virtue is not a scandal (much less, a “problem”), but an encouragement to help his fellow man to become a saint by living the supernatural life. For our own spiritual lives, the mystery of the moral virtues should be an incentive to sanctity.