The Seven Catholic Virtues

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” Traditionally, the seven Christian virtues, heavenly virtues (or The Seven Catholic Virtues) combine the four classical cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude) with the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These were adopted by the Church Fathers as the seven virtues.

A list that was developed later, sometimes called the seven heavenly virtues, was proposed by a Christian governor named Aurelius Prudentius who died around 410 AD, in his poem “Psychomachia” or “Battle/Contest of the Soul”. This poem proposed seven virtues to directly counteract the seven deadly sins. The virtues were chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

The Seven Catholic Virtues

Seven Virtues by Francesco Pesellino and workshop, c. 1450 [Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama]

History

The seven virtues were first penned by the Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. However, when they first came into being, there were not seven of them as we know them now, but four. These four initial virtues – temperance, wisdom, justice, and courage – were seen as the main attributes for a person to have. It was not until the New Testament began to be more extensively studied that these first virtues are widely referred to as the four cardinal virtues while the latter three are referred to as the three theological virtues, as mentioned by Stalker in his book The Seven Cardinal Virtue.

Seven virtues

Seven virtues

Seven heavenly virtues

There is another list of the seven virtues to oppose the seven deadly sins. The seven heavenly virtues were derived from the Psychomachia (“Contest of the Soul”), an epic poem written by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (c. AD 410) entailing the battle of good virtues and evil vices. The intense popularity of this work in the Middle Ages helped to spread the concept of holy virtue throughout Europe. Practicing these virtues is considered to protect one against temptation from the seven deadly sins, with each one having its counterpart. Due to this they are sometimes referred to as the contrary virtues. Each of the seven heavenly virtues matches a corresponding deadly sin.

Chastity

Abstaining from sexual conduct according to one’s state in life; the practice of courtly love and romantic friendship. Cleanliness through cultivated good health and hygiene, and maintained by refraining from intoxicants. To be honest with oneself, one’s family, one’s friends, and to all of humanity. Embracing of moral wholesomeness and achieving purity of thought-through education and betterment. The ability to refrain from being distracted and influenced by hostility, temptation or corruption.

Temperance

Restraint, temperance, justice. Constant mindfulness of others and one’s surroundings; practicing self-control, abstention, moderation, zero-sum and deferred gratification. Prudence to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time. Proper moderation between self-interest, versus public-interest, and against the rights and needs of others.

Charity

charity

charity

Generosity, charity, self-sacrifice; the term should not be confused with the more restricted modern use of the word charity to mean benevolent giving. In Christian theology, charity — or love (agäpé) — is the greatest of the three theological virtues.

Love, in the sense of an unlimited loving kindness towards all others, is held to be the ultimate perfection of the human spirit, because it is said to both glorify and reflect the nature of God. Such love is self-sacrificial. Confusion can arise from the multiple meanings of the English word “love”. The love that is “caritas” is distinguished by its origin – being divinely infused into the soul – and by its residing in the will rather than emotions, regardless of what emotions it stirs up. This love is necessary for salvation, and with it no one can be lost.

Diligence

A zealous and careful nature in one’s actions and work; decisive work ethic, steadfastness in belief, fortitude, and the capability of not giving up. Budgeting one’s time; monitoring one’s own activities to guard against laziness. Upholding one’s convictions at all times, especially when no one else is watching (integrity).

(The vice “acedia” is more commonly known as “sloth”.)

Patience

Forbearance and endurance through moderation. Resolving conflicts and injustice peacefully, as opposed to resorting to violence. Accepting the grace to forgive[2]; to show mercy to sinners. Creating a sense of peaceful stability and community rather than suffering, hostility, and antagonism.

Kindness

Charity, compassion and friendship for its own sake. Empathy and trust without prejudice or resentment. Unselfish love and voluntary kindness without bias or spite. Having positive outlooks and cheerful demeanor; to inspire kindness in others.

Humility

Modest behavior, selflessness, and the giving of respect. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less. It is a spirit of self-examination; a hermeneutic of suspicion toward yourself and charity toward people you disagree with. The courage of the heart necessary to undertake tasks which are difficult, tedious or unglamorous, and to graciously accept the sacrifices involved. Reverence for those who have wisdom and those who selflessly teach in love. Giving credit where credit is due; not unfairly glorifying one’s own self. Being faithful to promises, no matter how big or small they may be. Refraining from despair and the ability to confront fear and uncertainty, or intimidation.

Theology

Restraint is the keystone of the seven holy virtues. The other holy virtues are created through selfless pursuits:

  • Valour: Pursuit of Knowledge
  • Generosity: Pursuit of Charity
  • Liberality: Pursuit of Will
  • Diligence: Pursuit of Ethics
  • Patience: Pursuit of Peace
  • Kindness: Pursuit of Love
  • Humility: Pursuit of Modesty

Theological Virtues

The traditional understanding of the differences in the natures of Cardinal and Theological virtues, is that the latter are not fully accessible to humans in their natural state without assistance from God. “All virtues have as their final scope to dispose man to acts conducive to his true happiness. The happiness, however, of which man is capable is twofold, namely, natural, which is attainable by man’s natural powers, and supernatural, which exceeds the capacity of unaided human nature. Since, therefore, merely natural principles of human action are inadequate to a supernatural end, it is necessary that man be endowed with supernatural powers to enable him to attain his final destiny. Now these supernatural principles are nothing else than the theological virtues.”

Seven Capital Virtues and the Seven Capital Sins

A list of the Seven Capital Virtues,” which are also sometimes referred to as simply the Seven Virtues, and which oppose the Seven Capital Sins appeared later in an epic poem titled Psychomachia, or Battle/Contest of the Soul. Written by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a Christian governor who died around AD 410, it entails the battle between good virtues and evil vices. The enormous popularity of this work in the Middle Ages helped to spread the concept of holy virtue throughout Europe.

Virtue Latin Sin Latin
Chastity Pudicitia Lust Sodomita Libido
Faith Fides Worship-of-the-Old-Gods Veterum Cultura Deorum
Good Works Operatio Greed Avaritia
Concord Concordia Discord Discordia
Sobriety Sobrietas Indulgence Luxuria
Patience Patientia Wrath Ira
Humility Mens Humilis Pride Superbia

After Pope Gregory I released his list of Seven Deadly (Capital) Sins in AD 590, the Seven Capital Virtues became identified as chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. Practicing them is said to protect one against temptation from the Seven Deadly Sins.

Virtue Latin Gloss Sin Latin
Chastity Castitas Purity, abstinence Lust Luxuria
Temperance Temperantia Humanity, equanimity Gluttony Gula
Charity Caritas Will, benevolence, generosity, sacrifice Greed Avaritia
Diligence Industria Persistence, effortfulness, ethics Sloth Acedia
Patience Patientia Satisfaction, compassion Envy Invidia
Kindness Humanitas Forgiveness, mercy Wrath Ira
Humility Humilitas Bravery, modesty, reverence Pride Superbia

These Seven Capital Virtues do not correspond to the Seven Heavenly Virtues, the latter having been derived by combining the Cardinal and the Theological Virtues. Furthermore, efforts in the Middle Ages to set the Seven Heavenly Virtues in direct opposition to the Seven Capital Sins are both uncommon and beset with difficulties. “[T]reatises exclusively concentrating on both septenaries are actually quite rare.” and “examples of late medieval catalogues of virtues and vices which extend or upset the double heptad can be easily multiplied.” And there are problems with this parallelism.

The opposition between the virtues and the vices to which these works allude despite the frequent inclusion of other schemes may seem unproblematic at first sight. The virtues and the vices seem to mirror each other as positive and negative moral attitudes, so that medieval authors, with their keen predilection for parallels and oppositions, could conveniently set them against each other. … Yet artistic representations such as Conrad’s trees are misleading in that they establish oppositions between the principal virtues and the capital vices which are based on mere juxtaposition. As to content, the two schemes do not match each other. The capital vices of lust and avarice, for instance, contrast with the remedial virtues of chastity and generosity, respectively, rather than with any theological or cardinal virtue; conversely, the virtues of hope and prudence are opposed to despair and foolishness rather than to any deadly sin. Medieval moral authors were well aware of the fact. Actually, the capital vices are more often contrasted with the remedial or contrary virtues in medieval moral literature than with the principal virtues, while the principal virtues are frequently accompanied by a set of mirroring vices rather than by the Seven Capital Sins.