Virtue: It's in the Big Stuff

Everyone knows about the ever-popular theme of 'Catholic guilt'—the popular portrayal of the Church and her doctrine as being so oppressive that even the smallest transgressions are worthy of the greatest shame. While it is certainly true that any sin is to be avoided at all costs, there is definitely a spectrum of gravity (i.e. seriousness) that we acknowledge; mortal sin cuts off all sanctifying grace from the life of the sinner, while venial sin does not. In other words, the further someone moves toward the extreme of sinfulness, the graver the consequences and more profound the effect on the relationship with God.

That’s enough about sin, but it was an appropriate and helpful little prologue to the topic I really wanted to talk about: virtue. Saint Thomas Aquinas writes that “human virtues are habits,” and not only that but “good habit[s], productive of good works.” (cf. Summa Theologica, 1a 2a, Q. 55) Although he says much more about the subject (which you’ll notice if you hit the link...) his main thrust is nevertheless that virtue is not something accidentally stumbled upon, but rather something acquired through learning and repetition. Incidentally, if virtue is defined as a habit, vice (or ‘sin’) must also be defined as a habit, but a bad one as opposed to a good. Thus, through Thomas’ argument, virtue and vice—sin and good works—are opposed to one another even on the philosophical level. If this is the case, that both virtue and vice are habits, then it must be true that virtue is not something isolated (e.g. a one-time occurrence of charity by an otherwise uncharitable person); thusly, neither is vice (e.g. a one-time lapse of goodness on the part of an otherwise holy person). While both sin and good works can occur in singular instances, virtue and vice cannot. Rather, singular instances are often a good indication of the direction a person is moving, toward one of the two extremes.

Back to the original example of mortal and venial sin. While even a truly holy person can indeed lapse into the most serious of sin, the likelihood of this happening is rather slim; true holiness (in a real, Catholic sense) is partly defined as a detachment from all things not of the Lord. However, if it were to happen, we could not assert a lack of their prior virtue based on the one fall. The same is true for virtuous acts: while a person typically unconcerned with the Lord’s will may perform the most heroic of virtuous acts (motivated by a true love of God), the likelihood is slim; the same logic applies.

I hope this little run-around has been helpful in illustrating both the nature of virtue and the nature of individual good works (and their opposites). Ultimately, the topic seems to be important since the term virtue is often thrown around in a way that really devalues the true meaning of the word; we cannot simply fall into virtue, we need to practice it. Because virtue is a habit, it also has the character of replacing other habits (since we only have enough room in our lives for a certain number of things). Thus, again, virtue and vice can be seen as diametrically opposed; if you have one, you can’t have the other. Really—as the title of this post suggests—virtue is in the bigger picture of our lives. We ought not to preoccupy ourselves with a solitary sinful instance as if it were an indication of our imminent damnation (although if it is a mortal sin, we need to approach the Sacrament of Confession immediately to restore our relationship of sanctifying grace with the Lord). In like manner, we ought not to be too elated by a single good work, but instead should thank God for his grace in allowing us to move one step closer to him. In the Christian life, there is no sitting on the fence—we are moving either toward God or away from him. The most important part is to realize that we are moving and to always stay aware of which direction we are moving in. Virtue is the constant and consistent motion of the human person toward his divine Beloved.

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    # by Anonymous - February 23, 2008 at 10:18 AM

    I'd never read this about virtue being a habit, so that's helpful! What I wonder is if you realize that most folks (at least where I live) don't really know what virtue means anymore. You really need to back up a step.
    I recently heard our parish priest say that he's tired of hearing people start out their confessions with "I really haven't been that bad lately" & he wanted to hear sins etc.
    I wanted raise my hand & say "With all due respect, could you please hand out a good examination of conscience & give us a clue?" I'm sure he assumes that people in the pews have a 'formed' conscience but that was the old days, not now.

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    # by Andrew Haines - February 23, 2008 at 10:45 AM

    Thanks for the insight. I think you are definitely right that many people don't know what the word "virtue" means anymore. This article was an attempt to show that meaning from a more philosophical perspective; the meaning of the word, per se, as opposed to its application in the moral life of the individual.

    The practical application and quest for virtue in one's life is something much more personal than any article could seek to show. If you've been reading the blog, you'll notice that a lot of the posts have touched on issues of prayer and morality--if even in the broader, more global context--in an attempt to bring some idea of this "personal virtue" to light. If you are new to the site, then I can see how you might find this particular post as quite over-the-top! Really, it was just a more academic look at the same topic that I try to look at most of the time: i.e., holiness of life.

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    # by Anonymous - February 24, 2008 at 7:24 PM

    This little verse might be pertinent here:


    First we make them,
    Then we break them,
    Then we make ourselves anew;

    We're completed,
    Find there's one thing left to do:

    Break the habit
    Of the habit,
    Let ourselves be made by You.

    By Frederick Turner