An Introduction to the Theological and Cardinal Virtues

Virtues are the building blocks of a holy life. They’re the characteristics of how our relationship with Jesus is played out daily.

Virtue is tied up in our spiritual life.

So, don’t try to be virtuous for the sake of self-improvement.

Instead, try to practice virtue for the sake of growing closer to Christ, for the sake of being more like Him, whom we’re made in the image of.

“The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.”

– CCC 1803 quoting St. Gregory of Nyssa

Here’s the deal… I’m not a pro at virtue. I love studying them because I desire so much to grow in them.

So today, I’m going to introduce you to each of the theological and cardinal virtues, but I’m also going to draw on the wisdom of other bloggers who’ve been so amazing to share their knowledge and experience with us!

The 3 Theological Virtues

The theological virtues are how we relate to God.

They form the basis of our knowledge of and relationship with him. These three virtues: faith, hope, and love, are…

“…infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life.”

– CCC 1813

Have you ever had infused water?

My favorite is strawberry citrus. You drop a slice of lemon and a few fresh strawberries in a pitcher of water and let it sit for a few hours.

You’ll notice, as time passes, that the water changes. The beautiful colors, flavors, and nutrients seep out from the fruit and change the water.

The water becomes more like the fruit it’s infused with.

I think of the theological virtues every time I drink infused water. I’m like that plain pitcher of water. God places the beautiful combination of faith, hope, and love inside my soul.

The more receptive I am to these virtues, the more I absorb them, the more I’m transformed in them.

I become something more than plain old water. I become more like God who infused these virtues in me.

Faith is believing in God and all he has revealed

Faith is the virtue..

“…by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself.”

– CCC 1814

Faith is both a gift and an act.

It’s something we receive freely from God, but also that we freely decide to cooperate in.

As Catholics we’re also called to witness to our faith in every aspect of our lives.

Rosie Hill, mom of 6 and author of A Blog for My Mom talks about witnessing to the faith as a big family.

“Some days just leaving the house is an act of faith. Will there be a diaper blowout? A potty accident? Stacks of library books toppling over as the less-than-capable younger children insist on “helping” check them out?

Honestly, it would be easier just to stay home.

And yet…One of the reasons so many people think big families don’t exist is simply because they *don’t see them in public*—if we stay cooped up in our comfortable homes, maybe there’s less potential for embarrassment…

But there are also fewer opportunities to share our faith.

And while we’re not on the street corners holding loudspeakers, sometimes our cheerful public witness is just that extra nudge a stranger might need to persevere in his or her faith journey.

Rosie Hill, A Blog for My Mom

No matter what state of life we’re in, we carry the Faith within us wherever we go.

It’s our duty to be living witnesses of the difference this faith makes in our lives.

We could be the only place where people encounter Jesus, and by living fully Catholic we can make sure that they know his love through knowing us.

Hope keeps our eyes and hearts on heaven

As a virtue, hope is different from what may think it is according to our everyday use of the word.

Hope is not wishful thinking.

“Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

– CCC 1817

Though we can’t ever be 100% certain that we’d go to heaven if we died right now, we don’t have to live in doubt, fear, and turmoil.

The virtue of hope helps us live in assurance that if we’re doing our best to follow God’s will in our lives, he will take us to heaven at the end of our lives as he promised.

Hope also challenges us to live our faith ever more faithfully, and to seek forgiveness through the sacrament of Reconciliation when we fall.

Chiara, founder of Catholic Mothers, writes this about hope:

“Hope, O my soul, hope.

You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one.

Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.”

– Chiara Finaldi, Catholic Mothers

The virtue of hope encourages us to pray always, and to order our actions to be pleasing to God at every moment, in case today should be the day we meet him face to face.

Charity is the love of God and neighbor

Faith, hope, and love (or charity), are the three theological virtues.

Here’s the really cool thing about charity: It’s the only of these three virtues which will remain after we die.

Faith is the virtue of believing in God. At our death, we will see him face-to-face, and we won’t need faith any more. God will be revealed to us.

Hope is the virtue of longing for heaven. At our death, (God willing) this hope will be fulfilled and we’ll be in possession of our eternal reward.

Love, however. Love alone remains.

When we die, we’ll carry with us all the love for God and our neighbor that we showed in this life.

Ginny Kochis, mom of 3 kids and author of Not So Formulaic, has some keen insight into the process of growing in the virtue of charity as a mom.

“The truth is, dying to the self always seems like it’s going to be incredibly painful, like the moment you make that choice, every nerve – every sinew – is going to cry out in anguish to God.

But there’s a reason for that discomfort, for the pain that makes us recoil from its touch. It’s growth. It’s the stretching and the changing and the moving taking place in your soul and imprinting on your heart.

It is the pain of no greater love, of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. Well, in this case, one’s kids.

Charity changes us. It rips our vices out by the roots and replaces them with grace and love. It enables us to become the women – the mothers – God has intended us to be.

And the beauty of it all, really, is that He gives us the least of these, our children, to affect that change within us. To shake off our selfishness. To let go of our pride. To embrace change and growth and His time, not ours.

As my friend Sara says, love loves with sacrifice. You are laying down your life for the beloved.”

Ginny Kochis, Not So Formulaic

Whenever we practice the virtue of charity, we die to ourselves a little bit, and live a little more for God – himself, and his presence in others.

The 4 Cardinal Virtues

Prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude are the four cardinal virtues.

“Four virtues play a pivotal role and accordingly are called “cardinal”; all the others are grouped around them… These virtues are praised under other names in many passages of Scripture.”

-CCC 1805

These four virtues require our human effort to practice and to grow in.

If you’re not naturally prudent, not naturally courageous – that’s to be expected!

These virtues take a lifetime to grow and perfect.

Prudence is the virtue of prayerful discernment.

According to the Catechism,

“Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.”

-CCC 1806

In order to be prudent, we need to conform our conscience to the guidance of the Holy Church. We have to have a well-formed conscience to discern what’s good and right for us!

One of the challenges to prudence in our day and age, is the challenge of social media. It’s hard to set proper limits, to use it for good, and to really discern if our use of it is best for us.

Katie Warner, author of the First Faith Treasury books, shares her tips about prudence and social media:

Here are some of the things I do to use social media more prudently, more discerningly:

– I moved social media apps off my phone’s home screen (extra points if you remove it from your phone entirely)!

– I check social media at designated times, rather than anytime I feel like it. I set limits on when and how long I’ll be online.

– I regularly unfollow accounts or pages that aren’t contributing to a positive, life-giving experience for me (this can be for any reason. Maybe someone you follow is crazy good at something that you’re not so good at, and after you see their posts you beat up on yourself, think jealous thoughts, etc. You can make peace with that and overcome those vice tendencies somehow …or just unfollow. It’s amazingly freeing.)

– I ask myself before I post: “why am I posting this?” Purity of intention and prudence in this matter specifically is EVERYTHING.

– I turned off notifications so I’m not tempted to log in at the sound of every ping.

– On Facebook, I customized my newsfeed to see what really matters to me and I often save links to read later. Read more about how to do those things here

– I go straight to my notifications and tackle those, rather than just mindlessly scroll.

– If I do start playing the comparison game, I quit the app. Immediately. I want to come online to be inspired, connect, learn, grow, maybe even challenged. Not to be demotivated or fall into sin.

Katie Warner, First Faith Treasury

I think these are amazing tips.

And the best thing about it is, prudence often requires us to seek the counsel of those whose wisdom is greater than ours!

So, I’m glad that Katie shared her wisdom with us – and glad for the opportunity to practice prudence and put some of her ideas into practice.

Justice is the virtue of giving others what they are due

Justice is not the virtue we may think it is.

“Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.”

-CCC 1807

Justice recognizes God’s infinite superiority over us.

It also recognizes that others are made in the image of God, and as such deserve our love and respect.

Amy Thomas, author of Catholic Pilgrim – whom I greatly respect and admire, has some very powerful insights about the virtue of justice,

As I’ve gone through life, I’ve heard numerous people and myself comment on what God owes them.

“He owes me a long life. How dare He let anyone go too soon.”

“If God is really all-loving, then no matter what, He’d never send anyone to Hell. He owes me Heaven if He’s gonna say He loves me.”

“Nobody gets to tell me how to do religion–not a church, not a priest, not you. God doesn’t care how I ‘do religion’ as long as I believe in Him.”

We all stand around dictating what God needs to do for us and we make demands of Him while demanding nothing of ourselves.

God is our Creator, not the other way around. We owe Him our lives, our worship, our adoration, and our love. Quite literally, we are nothing without Him.

Justice demands that we give to Him all that we can–not seeking to take but to give. If the virtue of justice truly ruled our lives we would say:

“God, thank you for everything you have given me. Thank you for my life. I lay it in your hands.”

“God, I will strive to live a life of holiness and follow your Will. May my life reflect my love for you. It is my hope to be with you in Heaven one day.”

“God, this life is not about me. I will be obedient to your Will and the Church you founded.”

Amy Thomas, Catholic Pilgrim

Amy’s words highlight the importance of knowing our duty towards God, as required by the virtue of justice.

Temperance is the virtue of ordering all our desires toward God

Temperance doesn’t mean that things are bad. It doesn’t mean that pleasure is bad.

The virtue of temperance reminds us that all our desires, and all earthly pleasure are designed to point our hearts back to God.

“Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasure and provides balance in the use of created goods.”

-CCC 1809

It can be tough, in a culture that values ease and the novelty of treating yourself, to use created goods in moderation.

Amy Brooks, author of Prayer Wine, Chocolate has some thoughts about growing in this virtue – and a prayer for it, too.

Saint John Paul once said, ” It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted . . .”

Do you think we talk about temperance enough? Temperance is a virtue that allows us to experience true joy. It allows us to be at peace and act less impulsively.

Personally, I know I don’t think about it as much as I should. We live in a world where we equate the notion of freedom to mean, “do whatever you want, whenever you want – and don’t let anyone tell you different”.

But that’s not freedom. At least not true freedom.

When we lack temperance, we can become addicts. Anyone familiar with addiction knows that is not a life characterized by joy and peace.

I know I need help demonstrating this virtue. If you do as well, let’s pray together:

Dear Lord Jesus, I seek true happiness. I desire to feel more at peace. I long to bring my family and household order and joy. Please strengthen me. Please give me the graces I need and the wisdom to act with temperance.

Help me to demonstrate this virtue for the good of my soul and the souls of those who witness my example daily. Help me to encourage others to embrace this virtue with love and patience.

For the times I failed to show temperance, I am truly sorry. Help me to know that I am not alone. Thank You Lord Jesus for being with me and for giving me a guardian angel that I can call upon to help me in times of temptation. Please allow me to experience the joy and peace that accompanies this virtue, so that I will continue to work towards it’s mastery.


Amy Brooks, Prayer Wine Chocolate

We need the virtue of temperance to be truly free to live the lives God has planned for us.

Fortitude is the virtue of Holy Courage

Fortitude is the virtue of martyrs.

It gives us the strength and courage to do the difficult things we’re called to in life, for the sake of God who created us and loves us with an infinite love.

“Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.”

-CCC 1808

I love Leslie’s thoughts on this virtue in the social media sphere, because they’re so honest about the reality of the constant struggle to have fortitude, holy courage.

I’m a word person, so when I think of fortitude, I think of its Latin origin, meaning strong. I think, too, of fortifying–a process of strengthening.

So, as a virtue, fortitude is that which strengthens our ability to exercise the other virtues. According to the Catechism, “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good” (CCC 1808).

Believe me when I say it takes fortitude to hit the publish button. It takes fortitude to read the comments. It takes fortitude to continue to engage respectfully, to encourage discussion while still standing firmly on the right side of the issue at hand.

Sometimes my fortitude is lacking.

Too many people pile on and I just cannot engage. Or I see something I know belongs on my page but I don’t share it because I just don’t have it in me to deal with the fallout.

I pray to be strengthened in practicing all the virtues, especially fortitude.

Leslie Sholly, Life in Every Limb

Fortitude is the virtue of perseverance in the face of these struggles, not a virtue of “lack of struggles.”

Remember that, and persevere when things are difficult!

For More about the Virtues: Check out the Virtue Challenge!

If you want to learn more about specific virtues, diving in deep to what they are and how to practice them in your daily life, the Virtue Challenge is a program for you!

It’s a series of in-depth posts on a variety of virtues.

Pick a virtue and dive in!

You can take the virtues one at a time, for a month each, or a week each, or at whatever pace you feel comfortable.

Explore the different virtues in the Virtue Challenge now.

My Book: Becoming Holy One Virtue at a Time

This book takes another, deeper, personal look at the theological and cardinal virtues.

If you loved this intro and feel called to grow in these virtues in your daily life, this book is for you.

It has prayers, reflections, Scripture studies, and personal journaling questions to help you get started in embracing a life of virtue.

Pick up Becoming Holy, One Virtue at a Time, today!

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