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Catholic Homeschool Articles, Advice & Resources

The Cardinal Virtues

3 minutes

by Father Charles C. Fiore

Every Catholic knows the primacy of love in the Christian life. Jesus’ words (Mt. 19:19 and 22:37) about love of God and love of one’s neighbor as oneself immediately come to mind, as does St. Paul’s warning (I Cor. 1:13) that without charity as a motive, all that we do becomes “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.” The Christian family is “the school of love,” where spouses and children teach each other and learn, by trial and error, by mutual forgiveness and good example, how to love, how to go with Jesus to the Father.

Without question, homeschooling can be a boon in all this because of the give-and-take of family life. While it is not always evident in some families, and may appear tenuous in others, it is fundamental that parents and children share a natural intimacy of heart and soul that provides a “blessed floor” of which the life of the family plays itself out, and where, cleaned and swept by good will and forgiveness, we ourselves learn and help the others in our families to learn what love is all about. Whatever hurts, misunderstandings, and outright disagreements occur, the solidarity of the family ordinarily is a given, an unquestioned haven, a bedrock of compassion, the focus of truth.

It is in the context of our human circumstances—our personalities within our families—that actual and sanctifying graces usually come, and in which they ordinarily work. Family life is the object of the specific sacramental grace of marriage, which the spouses may (and should) daily call down on their families as a matter of justice.

Indeed, the benefits of this sacramental grace for their and their children’s spiritual needs flows in large measure from the “contract” they made with God in their marriage vows. Those benefits are their entitlements, something they may demand, so long as they are in the state of grace, from Jesus who promised that He would not be outdone in charity (Lk. 6:27-38), and would “not leave [us] orphans” (Jn. 14:18).

The theory and the focus of the Christian life is love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But as every recipe is made up of ingredients, and each successful touchdown drive is the result of the cooperative efforts of a skilled team, so too one’s ability to love virtuously is the result of the coalescence and interplay of other virtues—the four supernatural cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

They are called “cardinal” from the Latin word for “hinge,” i.e., the living of the Christian life “hinges” upon their implementation in the lives of the faithful, and a great many other subsidiary virtues “hinge” upon, are connected with or related to them. These four, with the activity of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity as their common objective, make possible the Christian life—love of God and of neighbor as oneself.

Put another way, faith, hope and charity are clearly the greatest of the virtues, and of them, charity alone perdures in heaven, we know. But prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance give us the constitutive parts, the means, the guidelines, in how to love (for like everything else, love has its counterfeits).

It sounds artificial and theoretical, anything but “spontaneous.” But the Christian, the follower of Jesus, must always love prudently (wisely) and justly (observing the rights of others), at times in the face of great doubt or difficulty (bravely, with fortitude), and always temperately, that is, not unreasonably, but with self-mastery.

The order in which we list the cardinal virtues is not arbitrary, but is an illustration of the hierarchy among them and their interdependence. They can neither exist in us by grace independently, nor can temperance exist without fortitude, fortitude without justice, and justice without prudence.


Prudence is called the “matrix,” the “mold,” the “cause” of the other cardinal virtues. Without its pervasive influence, one cannot be truly just, brave or temperate in thought, word or deed. Our practice of the moral life here and now is dependent, first of all, on our vision or understanding of how the general principles of the Gospel are to be applied in these present circumstances.

Supernatural prudence, sometimes defined as “right reason, enlightened by grace, applied to doing things,” combines one’s theoretical knowledge and the dictates of a properly informed conscience, and in the light of these tells us to “Do this” or “Don’t do that” here and now. It needn’t be a long, deliberative process; it can happen quickly for one practiced in virtue; but, it is eminently practical.

Justice, informed by prudence, compels us in our dealings with others, to give them their “due,” i.e., those things to which they have a true right, whether supernaturally by grace, or naturally as human, by promise or contract.

Fortitude, sometimes called bravery, emboldens us to do what is right in the face of opposition, despite danger or under difficult circumstances.

Temperance helps us to moderate our appetites, whether by excess or defect, according to our human nature, our personalities and our circumstances.

The supernatural cardinal virtues discipline our minds and hearts, our wills and appetites, and help to root and strengthen our faith, hope, and charity.

Loving God and our neighbor as ourself is never easy. But the practice of the cardinal and other moral virtues as means to the love of God and neighbor is a light for our minds, for our hands and feet.

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