Natural Virtue

Last Sunday I presented the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the subject of the grace of justification, which is effectively another name for sanctifying grace. (cf. CCC 1266)

Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift that makes us to share in the life and nature of God, introduces us into the bosom of the Most Holy Trinity, makes us to become truly children of God, sharing the life of Jesus Christ. (cf. CCC 1996-2000)

If we consider sanctifying grace as ‘divine life’, we can compare it with natural ‘human life’. We are alive as human beings even when we are asleep; we are alive even when we are not consciously exercising our vital powers of intellect and will that characterize our human nature. We have, then our human nature, the stable root of our living powers (intellect, will, sensation, emotion, self-movement, growth, nourishment, and reproduction), and the actual exercise of those powers. So with the life of grace there is sanctifying grace itself, the stable root of that life, the ‘vital powers’ of grace, which are referred to as the ‘infused virtues’, faith, hope, and charity, but also the moral virtues as supernatural realities, and also the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that directly subordinate this whole ‘supernatural organism’ to the action of the Holy Spirit. (cf. CCC 1266)

My intention here is to begin writing about this supernatural organism that is born of the life of grace, but first it will be helpful to write something about the difference and relation between natural and supernatural virtue. According to a famous dictum, grace builds upon nature.

Let us begin with the natural. In the state of fallen humanity every child begins with a combination of good dispositions and bad dispositions.

Just speaking of the good, one child is naturally kind, another naturally sensitive to the feelings of others, another naturally generous, another tolerates pain well and is not given to complaining, another has a strong will, another has a keen sense of justice, and so on. Actually, if we consider these natural good dispositions, they can have a ‘dark side’ to them. The one who has a strong will can devolve into mere stubbornness, or it can develop into a real commitment to something good. The one who is naturally generous can end up giving away money in a reckless fashion, letting people take advantage of him, while neglecting obligations of justice.

The most important part of education really is guiding a child so that he learns to master his bad dispositions and impulses, develop and harness his good dispositions in the service of what is truly good, while learning also to ‘fill in the gaps’ in his character. The most important part of education is the development of a well-rounded, virtuous character, the building of good habits and the weeding out and overcoming of bad impulses.

This leads to solid virtue. Basically, the virtues are a choir of firmly established rooted qualities of soul, acquired through practice and training, that enable the person to easily recognize what is truly good in the different circumstances of life, and choose to do it, with ease, promptness, and gladness.

A truly virtuous person has little inclination to reach into the cookie jar before dinner; rather he waits until the cookies are served as desert. He does not overindulge and he shows appropriate gratitude and praise to the cook. That is how he is.

Recognizing what is truly good is not some abstract intellectual exercise, but it does require some basic understanding of human nature and the goal of human life. It also requires self-knowledge, knowledge of the society in which one lives, and so also knowledge of one’s place, one’s role, and the consequent duties and obligations that entails.

A good wife and mother must know the duties she has towards her husband, the needs of her children, the priority she must give to the home, and also her own needs spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical, because without proper self-care she will not be able to fulfill her duties towards others.

I wrote recently about the ‘common good’. Virtue puts a person at the service of the common good and of others in relation to the common good. Every good we have is a gift that should be used in the service of the common good; that is also how we find our own personal fulfillment. Even on the natural level we find happiness not through finding some private satisfaction, but by taking part of a good that is bigger than ourselves.

That is how it is on a quality sports team. The players individual skills not only enable them to play well, they enable them to contribute to the team’s victory, and enjoy that victory with their teammates. That is how it is in a symphony orchestra. Each musician’s talents not only enable him to play his instrument well, but also enable him to play that instrument as part of the orchestra, playing at the right time under the guidance of the conductor, taking part in the production of a musical performance that is beyond his individual capacity. Virtue is an individual quality that both brings joy to the possessor and to the community because it integrates him into that community in a fruitful manner.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.