Justice, Fortitude, Temperance

Last week, Straight Answers addressed the topic of the cardinal virtues — those “hinge” virtues that are the foundation of all virtues. Having examined the virtue of prudence, we now turn to justice, fortitude and temperance.

St. Thomas Aquinas defined justice as “a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will.” The first duty in justice is toward God. We have the duty to pray, to worship and to obey the God who has shown such great love to each one of us and whom we must love above all things. In justice to God, we uphold vows taken to Him and make sacrifices for the sake of His love, such as accepting martyrdom rather than abandoning the faith.

The second duty in justice is toward our neighbor. A person must not only refrain from doing evil toward his neighbor, but also do what is good toward his neighbor. As such, a person must respect the rights of each person and establish relationships that promote equity among all people and build-up the common good.

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The virtue of justice has three dimensions: commutative or reciprocal justice, distributive justice and legal or general justice. Commutative or reciprocal justice governs relationships between individuals. Strictly speaking, here is contractual justice. The meaning of the contract between individuals is to identify each party’s rights and to guarantee one party’s claim to a certain benefit as much as the other’s obligation to provide that benefit.

Looking at the broader spectrum of justice, distributive justice orders the relationship of the community as a whole to its individual members. In justice, the whole community must promote the common good for each person, not just the majority. Therefore, those entrusted with the care of the common good must make sure individual members are given what is their due. For example, in justice, the government must ensure that each person has proper food, clothing, shelter, medical care and educational opportunities, which are basic goods for the dignity of each person. Here one recognizes the duty of the whole community to care especially for those members who are most vulnerable — the unborn, the old, the sick and the disabled.

Finally, legal or general justice concerns the individual’s relationship to the whole community. Every person has the duty to uphold and obey the just laws that ensure the common good. For instance, every citizen has a duty to support the common good through the defense of the country or through the payment of taxes (too bad, but true).

Virtues that derive from justice include piety (here the proper reverence and service to our parents, country and others in legitimate authority), obedience, gratitude, veracity, affability (the proper friendliness and civility among all) and equity.

Next, the virtue of fortitude enables a person to stand firm against and endure the hardships of life, and to remain steadfast in pursuit of what is good. Here such steadfastness and endurance reflect the soul’s clinging onto what is good. Genuine fortitude does not entail making sacrifices or risking one’s life arbitrarily or foolishly. However, genuine fortitude is always exercised in accord with reason, assesses the true nature and value of things (i.e. asking whether something really worth sacrificing for) and involves a just cause. Fortitude strengthens the individual’s resolve to resist temptation, overcome personal weaknesses and make sacrifices for what is good.

To have fortitude does not mean that a person is immune from fear. Instead, a person with fortitude recognizes fear, but does not allow fear to prevent him from doing what is good or, worse, to make him do what is evil. Think then of how important fortitude is to withstand peer pressure. Fortitude strengthens a person to conquer the fear of death or persecution, and even to make the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom.

Virtues stemming from fortitude include magnanimity, which inclines a person to perform great works in every virtue; munificence, which inclines a person to perform great physical works; patience, which inclines a person to endure present evils; and perseverance, which inclines a person to continue steadfastly in the pursuit of virtue. Vices contrary to fortitude include timidity, recklessness, presumption, ambition, vainglory, pusillanimity, inconstancy and pertinacity.

The four cardinal virtues in tarot

The four cardinal virtues in tarot

Finally, the virtue of temperance enables a person to keep his passions and emotions under the control of reason. While temperance moderates a person’s attraction to pleasures and gives balance in the use of created goods, it also involves using these goods in a good way. Here one approaches pleasures and the use of created goods in the light of faith, of reason and of one’s own vocation and circumstance of life.

The exercise of temperance includes two essential parts: a sense of shame and a sense of honor. The sense of shame causes a person to fear feeling the disgrace, confusion or embarrassment from being intemperate in action. The sense of honor causes a person to want to feel the dignity, esteem or love for practicing temperance. On one hand, the sense of shame prevents a person from acting intemperately and, thereby, sinfully; while on the other hand, the sense of honor inspires a person to act temperately and, thereby, meritoriously.

In all, temperance in action is self-preservation, whereas intemperance in action is self-degradation and self-destruction. Virtues aligned with temperance include abstinence, sobriety, chastity, purity, continence, humility, gentleness, clemency, modesty and lack of greed. On the contrary, vices opposed to temperance include gluttony, drunkenness, unchastity, impurity, incontinence, pride, wrath and greed.

The practice and development of the four cardinal virtues are essential to anyone’s spiritual life. However, as the old saying goes, “Easier said than done.” Being the poor victims of original sin, each of us has difficulties living a virtuous life. Therefore, we need the abundant graces our Lord offers through prayer, the frequent reception of the sacraments and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Looking to the example of the saints and invoking their prayers also strengthen our resolution for holiness. We must never forget our Lord’s challenge: “You must be made perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Through the practice of virtue, assisted by God’s grace and the aid of the saints and angels, we can meet the challenge.

By Father William Saunders


Saunders, Rev. William. “Justice, Fortitude, Temperance.” Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is borrowed from https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/justice-fortitude-temperance.html


Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a “Straight Answers” column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

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