April 12, 2024

By Jake Geis

America in 2024 offers a dizzying array of choices. Purchasing something seemingly simple, such as a new coffee maker, becomes a complex game of compare and contrast between dozens of different makes, models and styles, each with its own features and price points. Great-grandpa didn’t know there was anything but an enamel percolator that was up to that task.

Yet, there is a series of choices that we share with our forefathers, the kinds of choices all humans must make. How will we react to the world around us? Will we take the hand life has dealt us and play the cards well? And do those choices we make, those cards we play, matter?

As Catholics, we would answer this question with a resounding, “Yes!” The more we choose things that are of God, the closer we come to him, thereby drawing others nearer to him as well. A firm and habitual disposition to do the things of God—the good—is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) calls a “virtue” (CCC 1803).

Defining a virtue

Monsignor Charles Mangan, priest of the diocese currently serving as associate professor at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, says a virtue allows a person to perform good acts and give the best he or she has. 

“The virtuous man or woman, boy or girl, pursues the good and chooses it and acts,” he says. “It doesn’t just remain in thoughts or desires or ‘that would be nice,’ but rather a virtuous person puts it in action.”

Monsignor Mangan explains that, in all, there are seven best known virtues. The first three are the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. The next four are termed the cardinal virtues. “Cardinal in Latin means ‘hinge,’” Monsignor clarifies, “and this shares the root with ‘cardiology.’ As cardiology is about the heart, being a cardinal virtue is like the heart is to the body—it is what other moral behaviors hinge on. There are other virtues, but they spring forth from these [four].”

The four cardinal virtues are temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence. Three of the four are uncommon in the modern lexicon, while the fourth (justice) is often brandished without understanding its meaning. But our culture’s unfamiliarity with them does not mean they are far from us.

“By living a grace-filled life, receiving the sacraments and daily prayer, we can grow in these virtues,” Monsignor says. “However, if we commit mortal sin, it places a roadblock in our ability to live these virtues.”

Because we make poor choices from time to time, coming back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation revitalizes our ability to live these virtues.

Living virtue

While understanding virtue is valuable, how does it impact us in the trenches of daily life? Quite a bit, if you ask Alice Cournoyer, parishioner of St. Paul Parish in Marty. While her desire to join the Benedictines brought her to South Dakota, she discerned out of religious life. She stayed in Marty to work at the dormitories where she met her future husband, Raymond. Together, they have eight children, 31 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

The choices Alice has faced in the past, as well as today, have given her the opportunity to develop in these virtues. A convert to the faith in her youth, Alice draws from both Jesus and the Blessed Mother. “She [Mary] has been central to my whole life, and she has given me strength through everything I’ve been through.”

Alice is currently raising five of her grandchildren due to life circumstances favoring this arrangement for the grandchildren. A lifetime spent caring for young people has had its highs and lows, wins and losses. And in each of these, there was the opportunity for Alice to grow in virtue.

Temperance

Of these virtues, temperance is one that seems the least popular in modern Western culture. 

“Temperance is moderation in various pleasures,” Monsignor Mangan explains. “These things are good, or at least neutral, on their own, but they need to be controlled with direction and order. For example, the Church does not object to alcohol, yet over-indulgence is a problem because we are robbed of our ability to reason.”

In raising children, Alice knows that directing the children towards temperance is more than simply creating a list of do’s and don’ts. It requires instilling a life open to direction by the Holy Spirit, so when the temptations come, the children are more apt to choose the right path.

“Everything in my life, I operate out of prayer,” Alice reveals. “The little children are happy to pray and happy to read the books about Jesus. It gets harder as they get to be teenagers. But if it gets into their minds now, I know that will still be in there; they will still be able to go back to that.”

As children grow up to make their own decisions, it can be hard as a parent when they make poor choices. Yet, Alice feels hopeful because of the Catholic upbringing she gave her children. She tells the children, “I don’t care what you do in your life, … but have Jesus in your life because I can’t imagine anyone living without him or without prayer. Even the kids that went through hard times, they were able to pull through because they told me, ‘It’s the prayers you taught me, Mom. They are what helped me overcome that time.’”

Fortitude

The pain of watching children make poor choices breaks a parent’s heart. And the struggles of living your own life righteously are difficult as well. To meet these challenges, it takes fortitude.

“Fortitude is different than courage,” Monsignor Mangan points out. “Courage is similar to fortitude, but with more arduous circumstances, with things that are more strenuous and more dangerous, we must have fortitude.”

Courage gives a person the initiative to act when confronted with an issue, such as speaking up on an uncomfortable issue at work. Contrast this with fortitude, which carries a person through the depths of sorrow that we inevitably encounter on our walk through life. 

“Fortitude provides the strength and perseverance, even in the midst of suffering, to carry out the right action,” Monsignor Mangan says.

Faced with difficult family circumstances, the natural question to ask Alice is why she keeps trying to parent amid it all. Her response drips with fortitude. 

“I’m never going to give up. I have times when I feel like I want to break down and give up, but I know my Father and my Mother Mary, and in praying to them they give me strength,” Alice says. “I know Scripture says God will never give us more than we can bear. Sometimes I have to ask him, ‘Are you sure? I know you are always right, but this is hard.’ But he gives me strength.”

Her determination to carry on is not without its high points. “Over time I am able to see the rewards. Sometimes one of the kids is being a problem at home, but when they go up for the children’s homily, they are very attentive. It helps me know they are listening at home.” 

This provides encouragement for her mantra, “You don’t give up. You just ask for more grace and ask for more help and God gives it to you.”

Justice

But virtue isn’t an inward reflection, laser-focused on our will power. It also concerns our choices regarding our actions toward others. Monsignor explains, “Justice is the virtue that governs our relationships with others.” This virtue, often cited today, contains more depth than a catchy slogan on a protest sign.

“We hear a lot about justice in various ways today,” Monsignor Mangan says. “Justice is giving to someone what is due to him, what he is entitled to. For example, we can think of the right to life, the right to a good name, the right to food, clothing and shelter. Being just is making sure another has what he needs to flourish in the human community.”

But justice isn’t simply another name for good works. Monsignor connects it to other values. “Mercy is closely tied to justice. It’s a good thing for us to think of this too—to be merciful and compassionate towards those who have not been given justice.”

The sting of injustice is one that Alice has experienced. She is of Native American and white ancestry, and Raymond is a member of the Ihanktonwan Nation (Yankton Sioux Tribe). Their children and grandchildren show varying degrees of Native features, which has led to unfair comparisons and, at times, outright discrimination.

The young children have the most difficulty processing these experiences and, in her opinion, seem to take them the hardest. She has a technique to comfort them when it happens. 

“When something happens with the kids that involves prejudice, I remind them about the song that Jesus loves all the little children—red, yellow, black and white,” Alice says. “And I show them a vase of flowers and say ‘Look at all the different colors. Doesn’t it look prettier because they are all different?’”

Prudence

Being capable of explaining to and nurturing these children in sad situations highlights the final cardinal virtue, prudence. “Prudence is doing the right thing in a particular situation, in the right time and manner,” Monsignor Mangan says. He echoes St. Thomas Aquinas’ assertion that prudence is, “right reason in action,” which allows us, as the catechism says, to “apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid” (CCC 1806).

Prudence is a key when evangelizing. Alice relies heavily on it when sharing the Gospel during acts of charity. 

“I pick up a lot of people and give them rides,” Alice starts. “Sometimes, I pick up people who have been drinking. They see my rosary hanging on the mirror and they tell me they are sorry and that they can’t quit, and they feel bad about themselves. I tell them I’m a sinner, too, and ask them if they want me to pray with them.”

And she isn’t just making small talk about prayer; Alice means it. When praying during these car rides, she says, “My go-to is the divine mercy chaplet. I say, ‘If you don’t mind, would you like to join in on that short part (have mercy on us and on the whole world)? I think you will feel better if you do.’”

From there, she builds a connection through empathy. “I’m not here to judge you,” Alice tells the riders. “My life is hard, too; I have family that has gone through this, too. God came here for sinners, and if you feel like you are a bigger sinner, then there is the opportunity for more glory for you because Jesus died for you and all of us.”

Instead of awkward, Alice finds the experience fulfilling. “They always feel better when they do join in, and they thank me when they get out of the car. I’ve had really good experiences with it.”

Virtuous choices bring order to relationships

The choices Alice has made in her life, from parenting to evangelizing, have been marked by the four cardinal virtues. Embracing these puts our relationships with others in right-order. 

“These virtues can help us appreciate we are sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters to one another,” Monsignor Mangan says. “God invites us and expects us to live out our call to holiness by way of practicing these virtues.

“There is a great incentive to live these virtues, because if we do so, we will know our relationships with others are ordered as they should be. If we don’t live these virtues, we know that our relationships with others will be very tattered and very scattered. These virtues are a protection for us, a check and control for our actions, because of our human inclinations to sin, we can get off track,” Monsignor concludes.

And those inclinations to sin, that concupiscence, leads us back to our daily choices. Do we exercise prudence to maximize safety on the road when confronted with a reckless driver, or do we succumb to the temptation to pull alongside and extend a rude gesture? Are we temperate with the good things God has gifted us, or do we gluttonously engulf sweet treats or cold brews? Do we have the fortitude to bear sorrows patiently, or shirk from a duty or task because it is difficult? Do we extend justice to our neighbor, or do we fall into the “me first” mantra that is sinking American culture?

In short, the real choices in life ask more of us than selecting a coffee maker. The question is, will you choose virtue or not?

Jake Geis is a freelance writer and parishioner at Holy Spirit in Mitchell. He is a husband and father who has taught religious education and led youth groups over the years.