Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J.

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When we are born into the natural world we are given a complete set of faculties necessary to live a natural life in the world. When we are born again into the supernatural world by Baptism we are given a complete set of faculties to live a supernatural life in the world.

Virtues are a part of this complete set of faculties. Virtue comes from the Latin word virtus which in English means power. A virtue then is a power to accomplish moral good and to do it joyfully and perseveringly even in the midst of interior and exterior obstacles and at the cost of sacrifice. When this power is not turned to good but to evil it is called a vice. So we have virtues and vices.

There are two sets of virtues; those which have to do immediately with our relationship with God and therefore are called theological virtues. These theological virtues are faith, hope and love. The virtues which have to do immediately with others are called moral virtues. The four moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude are called the cardinal moral virtues because the other moral virtues depend on them. The theological virtues provide for our life as a creature dependent on God and the moral virtues provide for our life as a unique person who is also a social being interdependent on others. These cardinal moral virtues enable us to be at peace with ourselves, with others and with God. What greater incentive do we need to be interested in them?


The first of the cardinal moral virtues is prudence. Prudence is essentially the ability to discern; to discern what is to be done in a concrete situation. In other words, “What is the best way for me to do the right thing?” It is not just an attitude of caution or timidity. It is the ability to make decisions. Not to decide is to decide. Prudence means to discern to make decisions and then to act on that decision. When we think the blood rushes to our head and we get cold feet. Action is a part of the discernment process. You cannot steer a car when it is parked. Prudence involved three D’s: discern, decide and do.

The virtue of prudence is closely connected with the discernment of spirits and with spiritual direction. The spiritual life is the life of the Spirit in us. To be prudent is to be open to that Spirit and to be receptive and responsive to the specific promptings of the Spirit. But the promptings of the Spirit are never unequivocally and unmistakably clear. We must infer the Spirit’s presence from what we see and experience. Prudence, therefore, presupposes knowledge of moral principles, experience and the ability to learn from our experience and the ability to consult and learn from others. If the discernment process does not issue forth in the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness and chastity (Gal. 5:22) it is not of the Spirit.


Justice comes from the Latin word jus which means right. So justice is concerned with rights and duties which correspond to those rights. Right and duty are correlative. You can’t have one without the other. A right is the power to do what is necessary to achieve the end and purpose for which we are destined as rational and free persons. So rights flow from duties. Because we have this duty we have the right to fulfill this duty. This is called the natural rights theory. The Declaration of Independence seems to affirm this theory. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” (Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness)

The virtue of justice is divided into four divisions. Commutative justice relates to contracts made between individuals. Distributive justice relates to the obligation of the government to regulate justly the burdens and benefits of the government. Legal justice relates to a citizen’s obligation to the government. And Social justice relates to all to apply the Gospel to the structures, systems and institutions which are the framework in which all human relationships take place.

It is in this last field that the Church has been preeminent with a rich heritage of social teaching. Unfortunately, it is also the “The Best Kept Secret of the Church.” The encyclical “Rerum Novarum” of Leo XIII has been called the Magna Carta of the economic and social order. “Mater and Magistra” of John XXIII called on all nations to create institutions that respect human dignity and promote justice and peace. “Populorum Progressio” of Paul VI proclaimed a faith that works through justice. And “Laborem Exercens” of John Paul II teaches that central to a just society is the priority of labor over capital. These encyclicals refute the criticism of Marx who claimed that religion is the opium of the people; it promises pie in the sky bye and bye not bread for today.

The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II proclaims that the Church is interested in every thing that affects humans in this life as well as the next. Christians are to be the light, salt and yeast of the world. We are unique individuals but also social beings. We live together in society. No one is an island. We are all interdependent a fact that is most evident in the beginning and the end of life. Assisted living applies to the whole of life. It is in our relationship with others that we identify ourselves, grow and mature and become the person God created us to be. We are one family of God through creation and redemption. We all have a common origin, nature and destiny. The world is the all-encompassing context of our existence, the stage on which the drama of human life unfolds. We are all actors on this stage with our own little parts, entrances and exits. As Christians we are to influence this world.


Temperance is the virtue which enables us to control what has traditionally been called the concupisible appetite, our desire for food, drink and sex. There is nothing wrong with these things but they can become crutches or escapes from our human and Christian responsibilities. Temperance enables us to moderate and control these desires.

Temperance is closely connected with Christian asceticism, those exercises which help us to regulate the conflict between the spirit and the flesh which is a result of original sin.

St. Paul expresses this conflict very well, “For I take delight in the law of God in my inner self but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Rom. 7:22-23)

The concupiscible appetite can be expressed as the pleasure principle. Pleasure is an indispensable element in human life. There is nothing wrong with pleasure. God put pleasure in the use of things to get us to use them. For example, the most powerful instinctive drive in every human being is for self-preservation. With all the fibers of our being we want to live. Self-preservation depends on our taking sufficient nourishment, food and drink. Therefore, God put pleasure in eating and drinking to insure that we would take enough nourishment to preserve our life. The second most powerful drive in human beings is for race-preservation. Therefore, God has put an intense pleasure in the exercise of the act by which this is accomplished. There would be little danger of the over-population of the world if it were not for this intense pleasure.

So pleasure is an indispensable element in preserving and propagating human life. But the unbridled, unrestrained, undisciplined pleasure seeking is self-destructive. We can eat ourselves to death. Obesity is a great national problem today. We can drink ourselves to death. Go to the skid row in any large city and there you will see people sitting on the sidewalk with a brown paper bag in their hand drinking themselves to death. We can work ourselves to death. We can become a workaholic. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy but all play and no work makes Jack a neurotic.” What we need is moderation, balance, temperance. We should be willing to sacrifice the short-term pleasure principle for the long-term happiness principle. Pleasure and happiness are not the same thing. In fact, pleasure can be the cause of great unhappiness. Perhaps nothing has caused as much unhappiness as the pleasure of adultery. Our desires always exceed our capacity. Anticipation is always greater than the reality, both in pleasure and in pain. There are limits to human power but there are not limits to human desires.

Today we are realizing the importance of preventive medicine. For too long we have had unreal expectations of expensive late-stage intervention and neglected the relatively cheap early-stage prevention. We spend too much time, money and technology on crises-management, when many of these crises could have been prevented by practicing temperance.


Whereas temperance moderates our concupiscible appetites, fortitude moderates our irascible appetites. It strengthens them against the passion of fear and restrains their immoderate tendencies toward audacity and rashness.

Fortitude is necessary for human life, human actions and human responsibility; the lack of fortitude, is a denial or an escape from humanity. Human life is no adventure for a coward. Man must conquer fear before he begins to live and he must sustain that conquest as long as he hopes to live humanly. For he is surrounded, indeed penetrated with dangers. If he shrinks from these dangers he is forever paralyzed. The dangers will not disappear by his cowardly attempts to escape them. The principle object of fortitude is to prepared man for the most relevant fact of human life and that is death. Death is the most terrible of all corporal evils, destroying as it does all corporal goods.

Prudence and justice precede fortitude. Only the prudent person can be truly courageous. Fortitude presupposes a correct evaluation of a situation and must always be in the service of justice. Fortitude is a kind of bodyguard to reason. Fortitude marks a path between the extremes of temerity and timidity, rashness and fear. Of these two passions by far the most difficult to conquer is fear which is more fundamental, more vehement and more completely opposed to human life.

Fortitude enables a person to face serious challenges, even death, with some measure of calm. It gives the strength to enduring suffering for a just cause. It is the virtue of courage by which one overcomes an instinctive fear in order to pursue some good. Fortitude, therefore, has an active and a passive side. Its active side has to do with taking bold action for the sake of the Kingdom. Its passive side has to do with enduring some pain, suffering or even death for the Kingdom. But not even endurance is passive. Non-violent resistance is still resistance requiring much courage and commitment.

Without fortitude growth is impossible. We can grow in and through adversity. We can be ennobled by suffering; not that we seek it for its own sake. Fortitude then is our affirmative answer to the inevitable shocks of human existence. The cross is an inevitable fact of human life. We enter the world in the pain of another and we leave the world in our own pain. And in between the entrance and the exit there is more of the same. Fortitude is the ability to dare and to endure.

Without fortitude we suffer frustration. We become restless and tense, aggressive and destructive against the perceived sources of our frustration, apathetic and sullen, prone to fantasy and escapism, rigid and locked into comfortable routines or simply regressive, returning to familiar modes of behavior characteristic of an earlier stage of development.

Finally, the virtue of fortitude is missing in a person who is always fearful of displeasing others, who remain silent in the face of injustice, who shuns conflict at all cost, who avoids “rocking the boat” and who, therefore, does whatever he thinks is expected.

© 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J. all rights reserved