Life in modern American culture has a surreal quality to it. In the 80s and 90s, teens and their parents worried about unplanned pregnancy, saying no to drugs, or getting AIDS. Those are serious concerns, but no one questioned that male and female make babies, that drugs are dangerous because they rob you of reality, or that disease should be cured because being human means something.
Today, however, it is the norm for children from a very young age to wonder what gender they identify as. There are now 53 different gender identity terms, from androgynous (both masculine and feminine) to polyamorous (multiple partners) to the gender-fluid slew of pronouns ze/hir/hirs. And if you’ve heard about “furry fandom”, then you know that some folks are not even clear about what species they belong to. This is not your innocent childhood pretending; there are pornographic and zoophilia (and even plushophilia) aspects to the subculture. A five-year International Anthropomorphic Research Project reported that 35 percent of furries say they do not feel 100 percent human, and 39 percent say they would be 0 percent human if that were possible. Social psychosis is being manufactured all around us.
In the midst of this confusion, Catholics carry out their lives trying to do something ancient called “practicing virtue”. We try to raise our children to do the same. But for the most part our culture ignores the word virtue or replaces it with the more ambiguous word value. The good news is that the Church has abundant teaching on this topic. To practice and teach virtue, we have to know what it is from the bottom up. Virtue is a breath of fresh air, a light in the darkness. Virtue fundamentally refers to seeking what is true, good, and beautiful because God made us for it. Virtue makes us different from dogs, cats, monkeys, dogs, spiders, and worm food. Virtue is the power that forms us into who we are meant to be. It’s how to live better lives and be happy. It’s about love.
Virtue has a precise meaning in the Catholic tradition. It derives from the Latin virtus, which means worth, merit, the particular excellence of character or ability, moral excellence, goodness. Virtue means strength or power, maximum potential.
Consider the meaning of the words. The maximum potential output from an engine is measured and given as mechanical horsepower (a comparison to the work that horses could do). When the machine achieves its maximum potential, the machine has reached the fullest and highest expression of its capacity, so to speak. Virtue implies that there is a perfection of a power.
St. Thomas Aquinas defined virtue for human beings in a similar way, as an ultimum potentiae, or the “furthest point to which a power can reach” (ST.I-II.55.1). The German philosopher, Josef Pieper, interpreted this to mean “the utmost best a person can be” (An Anthology, p. 3). But notice: claiming an ultimate implies a penultimate (next to ultimate) and a grade lower than that, and a grade lower than that, and so on, to a first grade. So when we say that virtue is the ultimate potential, we also necessarily assert that virtue occurs in gradations, in steps. We aren’t born possessing perfect virtue! This is where we get the term “practicing virtue”, and it fits with the idea that we are all journeying through life.
Such gradation sets up a view of the human person as someone becoming, rather than as a static being. It is to view personhood as unfolding in a dynamic reality, just as the universe is unfolding in a dynamic reality, constantly moving toward its end. To practice virtue literally means to become who we are meant to be.
But what does power refer to? Power to do what? Power to identify as whatever we can conjure up, like gender identities and anthropomorphic animal characters? No, power to find happiness. According to St. Aquinas, power can be in reference to being and in reference to act, and it is worth considering the precise meanings.
Power in reference to being applies to matter and physical objects, like when we refer to the power of a horse or a John Deere tractor, or even a human body. This definition of power refers to the physical ability to do work. (In physics, power is a rate, equal to the amount of work per unit time.) The mechanical power of a tractor or a horse might even exceed that of a human, so in this meaning of the word, a non-human can have more power than a human.
Power in reference to act refers to willful intent, to spiritual ability, and as such applies to the soul. Humans have a rational soul, which means we have the power to act rationally. The only creatures who have rational souls are humans and angels. Whereas an inanimate machine or a horse with a sensitive soul (governed by its senses and instinct) could have comparable powers to a human in reference to physical capability, humans have a higher power in reference to their souls and ability to make choices about how to act. That is key to understanding moral virtue.
How do we know this? Well, through faith, Sacred Scripture, and Sacred Tradition. God tells us through Divine Revelation. The human person has the spiritual powers of intellect and will, as we learn from the Trinitarian formula (God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and the doctrine of Imago Dei that tells us we are made in the image and likeness of God. (These teachings are subjects each unto themselves, of which we will say much more later.) Hence, virtue in reference to works of reason is most proper to humans—excellence of character or ability, moral excellence, goodness, the perfection of spiritual power.
There are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. There are four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. And they are ordered. Prudence is the ability to make right decisions, and it is the highest of the cardinal virtues. Without prudence, one cannot practice justice because unless right decisions are made, fairness cannot be measured. Without justice, fortitude (courage) and temperance (self-control) cannot be balanced. But prudence also depends on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
It is true that a person can attain some happiness by means of natural principles and reason alone, but such happiness has a limit that only goes to the end of one’s life. There is also a happiness—a blessedness—beyond nature and reason directed toward God, the first beginning and last end of all things (ST.I-II.62.1). This supernatural happiness requires grace, Divine assistance, which is why this supernatural, highest love is a theological virtue. The theological virtues require us to look beyond ourselves and our own lives to God.
In the order of perfection, love precedes faith and hope because goodness and happiness cannot be believed in if it is not hoped for, and such joy cannot be hoped for unless goodness and happiness are first desired and loved (ST.I-II.62.1). As St. Paul says in his first letter to the church of Corinth, the greatest of the theological virtues is love. Authentic virtue is rooted in the highest spiritual power of charity, caritas, the highest form of love, the love we mean when we say that God is love. Aquinas calls this love the “mother and the root of all the virtues” (ST.I-II.62.4). There can be no authentic virtue at all without love.
St. Augustine more succinctly defined Christian virtue as “nothing else than perfect love of God,” the “chief good, the highest wisdom, the perfect harmony” (Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, 15). This is consistent with St. Paul the Apostle’s encomium on love. “And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Authentic virtue, then, presupposes two anthropological realities: 1) that the human person has a rational soul with the powers of intellect and will to reason and make good choices, and 2) that the most perfect act of a person is to love.
Both of these presuppositions follow from the revealed truth of the Holy Trinity and the doctrine of Imago Dei, that humans are made in the image and likeness of God. In turn, both of these revealed truths explain why the human person has intellect and free will, and why humans are made to be individuals in communion, in personal relationship, with other beings. It all fits together. You won’t find such clarity in the list of gender identities or the “furscience” research project. As challenging as it may be to practice virtue in real life, doing so will never, ever lead a person to empty despair. Giving up a healthy lunch to a starving child could be the most edifying act a person ever chooses.
Love is necessary for virtue, and since the pursuit of virtue is how the human person becomes more perfected, love is necessary for the human person. To say that “we all need love” is one of the most serious assertions we can ever make. Indeed the unfulfilled longing for love is at the core of every social and individual ill. A society without love won’t work. A family without love falls apart. A marriage without love is never a happy one. To live without love is to be broken.
Consider how human beings differ from other living and non-living things. Trees are what they are. Any element, molecule, compound, computer chip, rocket ship, or plant exists according to a certain orderliness of matter. But the human being exists as a being in a radically different manner from inanimate matter or organisms. Even the noblest creatures are what they are independent of their own reason or will. No one can convince a dog, for instance, that he should act like a real dog. (I’ve tried.) Humans don’t get off so easy.
God loves us and made us in His image. We are loved unconditionally for simply being, for existing. Because we have intellect and free will we have obligations in return. We should love God and reach beyond ourselves for Him, so we can discover true hope, the hope for a future good. We should find the goodness in the existence of God, nature, others, and ourselves. In realizing such meaning and purpose, we should listen for the voice of God in faith. We should be prudent, and have an openness to reality and accept honestly the unveiling of truth through reason. We should be just, respect and love others, and give others their due. We should be brave, and we should realize the good in the world, willing in fortitude to accept injury for the sake of truth and justice. We should practice self-discipline in temperance and protect ourselves from self-destruction. We have the power to pursue virtue—so we should act human.