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The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Cardinal is the Latin word for “hinge.” All of the other virtues hinge around these four virtues. This includes the lesser virtues which are corollaries of these and the higher theological virtues of faith, hope, and love which could be called the fruit of the cardinal virtues.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides concise definitions for these four virtues:

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.[1]

Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.[2]

Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.[3]

Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.[4]

Developing the Cardinal Virtues

Plato first formulated the concept of these virtues by observing human nature. The cardinal virtues are related to man so they do not change as the culture changes. They are valid for all ages.

The Catholic Church teaches that the human person is a unity of body and soul.[5] Just as the human body has an inherent structure unchangeable by the culture, so the laws of the health of the body are also inherent and unchangeable. “The same is true of the human soul. Virtue is simply health of the soul,” says philosopher Peter Kreeft.[6]

Regarding the virtue of prudence, the Catechism says that with “the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.”[7]

The Catechism says the virtue of justice “disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good.”[8]

“The virtue of fortitude,” says the Catechism, “enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.”[9]

Temperance “ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion: ‘Do not follow your inclination and strength, walking according to the desires of your heart’ (Sir 5:2).”[10]

As fallen human beings, it is hard to live a virtuous life. God has not left us alone. He has sent us the Holy Spirit who will guide us into all truth (cf. Jn 16:13), wisdom, and understanding. And we have God’s grace to help us grow in holiness and virtue…

Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them. It is not easy for man, wounded by sin, to maintain moral balance. Christ’s gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues. Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evil.[11]

The cardinal virtues are the foundation for all of the other virtues. We must build a solid foundation on these virtues in order to grow in all the others.

Husbands and wives must daily strive, and with mutual support, grow in virtue to build a strong, holy, and healthy family. We must intentionally and repeatedly choose the good (prudence), treat each other with respect (justice), endure trials and difficulties (fortitude) and sacrifice our own desires for the good the other (temperance) . As the Catechism says, God will purify and elevate our efforts with divine grace.

The work of developing virtue continues as our relationship grows and children are born. Change and struggles require new virtues. So we must continue to ask for the grace and strength to pursue virtue. The family is a school of love and virtue. St. John Paul II called the family “the first community of life and love, the first environment where man can learn to love and feel loved, not only by other people, but also and above all by God.”[12]

Join us again on the first Sunday of Lent as we continue our journey toward a virtuous life.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition (Washington, D.C.: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), 1806.

[2] Ibid., 1807.

[3] Ibid., 1808.

[4] Ibid., 1809.

[5] Ibid., 364.

[6] Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 64.

[7] Ibid., 1806.

[8] Ibid., 1807.

[9] Ibid., 1808.

[10] Ibid., 1809.

[11] Ibid., 1810-1811.

[12] John Paul II, Homily, Chihuahua, Mexico, May 10, 1990; internet: https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/it/homilies/1990/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19900510_chihuahua.html (original in Italian, Google translated into English, accessed February 25, 2020).