As an Evangelical who’s investigating Rome, I’d like some clarification (preferably biblical) on the meaning of the term “virtue,” which I’ve always understood to mean generic holiness. In Catholic writings virtues are sometimes called “theological” and other times “moral.” What’s the difference?
The word “virtue” is used as a synonym for goodness or sobriety or some likable personality trait, but the Church uses the term in a much more precise way. Virtues are special graces given by God to the soul for the accomplishment of particular objectives. They inhere in the soul and are subject to strengthening or weakening. The Church distinguishes between two general categories of virtues: theological and moral.
Faith, hope, and charity are called theological virtues because they are the most important characteristics in a Christian’s life, as Paul explains in Romans 5:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 13:13. They pertain (exclusively, in the case of faith and hope, and primarily, in the case of charity) to one’s relationship with God.
Faith is the grace of believing in God’s love for us and in his revealed truths (Lk 1:45, Jn 11:25-26, Eph 2:8). Hope is the grace of trusting God will be true to his promise to save us from eternal death if we turn to him in repentance (Rom 5:2, 8:25; Heb 6:17-20; 1 Pt 1:3-5). Charity is a two-fold grace with the primary effect of moving the will to love God fervently and above all things and with the secondary effect of intensifying love for our neighbor (Dt 6:4-6; Mt 22:36-40, 25:31-46; Mk 12:28-31; Rom 13:8-10; 1 Cor 13:1-13).
Moral virtues are so called because they help us live within the moral parameters set forth by the gospel. Chief among them are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, also known as cardinal virtues (derived from the Latin cardo, meaning hinge, because on them hinge all other moral virtues).
Prudence is the grace to form correct judgments (Mt 10:16; 1 Pt 4:7). Justice assists us in dealing equitably with others (Prv 21:21; 1 Tm 6:11). Temperance helps us subdue our sensual appetites and make proper use of God’s creatures (1 Cor 6:12, 10:23-24). Fortitude helps us persevere despite temptations to sin and despair (Rom 8:32-35, Jas 5:10-11). Other moral virtues are humility (Mt 18:1-5), patience (Heb 10:36-37), obedience (Rom 13:1-7), chastity (1 Cor 6:15-20), piety (Eph 5:15-20), and veracity (Eph 4:15, 25).