We are now in the first period of Ordinary Time, which extends from the Baptism of the Lord until Ash Wednesday. It is a good time to do a short series on a theme. This series will look at virtues.
To begin, we might ask the question, what is a virtue? The Catechism, deriving from the Greek and Roman roots, provides the following definition: “A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” A virtue is an internal quality, but is ordered to exterior realities, i.e. doing the good. This quality is more than an unreflective character trait. It is “firm.” It is something which is intentionally chosen by the individual. Further, it is something which has become a habit, which means it has been chosen time and time again.
There are, therefore, three elements to forming a virtue: intentionality, practice, and objective good. We will consider each separately.
First, virtue always has to do with an objective good, a moral good. Though excellence in athletics, or music, or the sciences often shares many characteristics with virtue, they are not the same. Virtue has to do with the perfection of the human person, becoming a good man or woman. I might be an expert gymnast, pianist, or physicist, but not be a good person. However, I can be a very good person, a virtuous person, and lack expertise in any of those above areas. Virtue, then, pertains to those universal goods such as justice, mercy, patience, and generosity.
However, we do not grow in virtue accidentally. It requires intentionality. We won’t just wake up one morning and find that we have a deep virtue of generosity, or humility, or patience. Instead, we must first perceive that some attribute is good and desirous. For example, I might observe generosity in a neighbor and thus become aware of how good generosity is. I then desire to be generous myself and decide to attempt to grow in that virtue.
Growth in virtue begins with this desire for an objective good, but can only grow through concrete action. It is only by choosing the good time and time again that it becomes a habitual and firm disposition within us. For example, when one chooses to act generously repeatedly, it eventually becomes second nature. It no longer is a single action or a series of actions, but a part of who one is. This person doesn’t just act generously, he or she is generous—so too with all the virtues.
Next week we will consider how it is virtue that leads to true human freedom—the very freedom promised to us in Christ.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!