Category Archives: Building Catholic Character

For the Holy Apostles College and Seminary course titled “Building Catholic Character”

Nicomachean Ethics – Books VI & VII

Book VI: Intellectual Virtues (most especially prudence)


In book VI, Aristotle takes up the question of the intellectual virtues, having already treated the virtues that pertain to the sensitive part of the soul directly (but as informed by reason). We now proposes to treat the intellectual virtues in a way similar to that of the previously discussed virtues: ‘consequently, we should divide right reason, an intellectual virtue that is rectitude of the reason, into its species, as in a similar fashion we have already divided the moral virtues.’ (Aquinas Commentary, 1109)

The intellectual virtues seem to be five: art, science, understanding, wisdom, and prudence. This enumeration is given, and Aristotle goes on to show that, although similar to other intellectual virtues, prudence cannot be reduced to one of the other four. The key distinction I take to be the difference between art, where the ‘product’ is external (the operation passes into external matter, such as the resulting sculpture or music) and action, where the act is intrinsic (the act may effect another. Where art is productive through reason, prudence is active through reason.

Aristotle makes it clear that prudence is not to be equated to science, which demonstrates from necessary things. Prudence, rather, takes its principles from necessary things, but applies them to contingent things, and in this way it might rightly be related to dialectics. There can be, then, a syllogism reasoning from principles to what must be done in the here and now, but the syllogism will include contingent matter, and therefore not be demonstrative. In simpler terms, prudence cannot be reduced to simply applying principles and deducing the right action in the same way principles can be used in geometry, for example.

‘Prudence then will be neither a science nor an art. It is not a science because the thing to be done is contingent; it is not an art because the genus of action and making differ.’ (EN 1165)

An important point is the simultaneous necessity of the moral virtues and the virtue of prudence. ‘A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.’ (CCC 1803) As St. Thomas comments, ‘But moral virtue, for instance, justice, causes a craftsman rightly to use his art. On the other hand, in the use of prudence an additional moral virtue is not required, for it was said (1170, where the example of the mutual influence of temperance and prudence were discussed) that the principles of prudence are ends in regard to which rectitude of judgment is preserved by the moral virtues. Hence prudence, which is concerned with things good for man, necessarily has joined with it the moral virtues preserving its principles.’ (Commentary, 1172)

Book VII: Continence and Incontinence

There is not only vice and virtue, but there are two other ‘degrees’ of moral dispositions that must be understood. The rarest, and yet worst and best degrees possible, are what may be deemed the beast-like and the god-like. Men may be brutish (beast-like) when they are either through extreme corruption by culture or physical/mental handicap more like irrational animals than like human. Likewise, an extreme sort of virtue could be deemed god-like or divine, as perhaps some of the great saints may have seemed at times, or the martyrs (with the help of grace) acted at their final tribulation.

But much more common are those who are not virtuous, but yet are not vicious, but (metaphorically, at least) somewhere in between. The virtuous, remember, do the good with joy and are not even tempted to the evil, for the good is habitual to them. The vicious, on the contrary, conclude that, for example, every pleasure is right for them to partake (the intemperate).

But between these two are those who, with right reason, would avoid the excess in pleasure but, at times and because of the passion arising in them, fail to adhere to right reason. A key indication of this is their sorrow and repentance when the passion has cooled and they regret their actions (something the vicious do not do, i.e., feel remorse). Likewise, the continent person succeeds in not giving into the temptation to enjoy and excess pleasure, but does so with sorrow, for although he obeys right reason, he is not so habitually exposed as to take his joy in doing the right, but often feels pained to do so. Nevertheless, he is on the right path and may in time build the habit and do later with joy and ease what he only does now through battling with his passions.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book V – Justice

After Aristotle has discussed the virtues that pertain to the passions as they relate to reason, he discusses the virtue of justice, which will be about relation between the agent and another. The question of justice to oneself is discussed at points throughout the Book, and is definitively answered in the last section.


I use here the division according to the lectures in the commentary by St. Thomas Aquinas:


Properly (885-1090)


Justice (885-1077)


Aquinas points out first that “concerning justice [Aristotle] proposes for consideration three differences existing between justice an the previously mentioned virtues”…the previous “are concerned with the passions…we took the mean and not the thing…Each of the afore-mentioned virtues is a mean between two vices, but justice is not a mean between two vices.”


Will, and not the senses more directly, is the proper subject of justice; justice is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” So justice is a mean in one way, in that it gives what is do, and not more or less (when we are speaking of strict justice). But true justice is found first in the will, and only then in the object, to which the will is conforming and striving. Therefore, an event can occur that is objectively unjust, but it may not be an unjust act on the part of the agent, who wills to be just, but mistakenly, and thus commits an objective unjustice.


Legal justice (885-926)


He says first that justice itself is a certain perfect virtue not in terms of itself but in relation to another. Legal justice is justice as relates to the community at large, that is, primarily, the polis or state.


Partic. Justice

Absolutely (927-999)


Aristotle then discusses distributive justice and commutative justice. The first of these deals with what the state or community owes the individual, and this in a proportionate manner, meaning it is based on what the individual contributes to society and perhaps to his rank or position. So a general may deserve more honor and a bigger house from the state. However, when it comes to communitive justice, this is not necessarily so. The general and the peasant will generally pay the same price for a new set of Reeboks.  Because of this more strict equality of communitive justice, economic issues get discussed by Aristotle, to include the coming into being and use of money as a standard of trade.


Relatively (1000-1077)


We are reminded, frequently throughout Aristotle’s account of the virtues, but seemingly more often during his treatment of justice, that it is reason and not man that should truly govern man. In legal justice especially, but in all three aspects of justice, man is the reasoner, but it is reason that is law, and not man arbitrarily.



Epikeia (1078-1090)


Its object (1078-1088)


St. Thomas clearly states the overall topic of this part of the treatise: ‘In Greek epiiches is understood as what is reasonable or becoming; it is derived from epi meaning “above” and ikos meaning “obedient,” because by equity a person is obedient in a higher way when he follows the intention of the legislator where the words of the law differ from it.’


Today, we often discuss keeping the intention of the law versus the letter, and often find that there arise cases where keeping the letter of the law is in direct opposition to the intention of the creator of the law in its original and universal conception.


Its subject (1089) and habit (1090)


The virtuous man is not a zealous enforcer of the law for vengeance’ sake, but rather, to make the offender better and safeguard the community. The habit, then, of equity is not a virtue distinct from justice, but a species thereof.


Metaphorically (1091-1108)


Aristotle lastly revisits a topic he has touched upon several times throughout the treatise on justice, once again affirming that, despite the arguments that appear to the contrary, a man cannot really do injustice to himself, and this because to do injustice requires it be against one’s will, and one so to commit injustice against oneself implies a contradiction.


Personal Reflection


Justice and Equity


The difference in justice and equity is certainly a debated point in Christian theology, and no more is it a more pressing and divisive topic than when concerning election. The main point seems to be this: that God, in justice, could let us all remain unsaved (not justified) and yet, He, by mercy, wills to save some. This salvation of only some is, then, certainly just, but most certainly not equitable.


St. Thomas states in his commentary that “The reason why not everything can be determined according to the law is that the law cannot possibly be framed to meet some rare particular incidents, since all cases of this kind cannot be foreseen by man. On account of this, after the enactment of the law, a decision of the judges is required by which the universal statement of the law is applied to a particular matter. Because the material of human acts is indeterminate, it follows that their norm, which is the law, must be indeterminate in the sense that it is not absolutely rigid.”


While I certainly do not have the space here to propose how this may give insight into the justice/mercy question and the will of God “that all be saved” is also in conformity with the fact that “few enter” and are saved (combined with God as universal first mover but creatures as true causes), I think that the above comment can indeed be a point of reflection on the mystery of God’s justice and election.

Noble Character and Virtuous Habits

“Noble and great characters are all made so by the constant repetition of virtuous actions…Those who really succeed in life can find no other way but the way of self-discipline and self-control, which is also the way to the greatest happiness possible on earth.” (Garesche, Ch. 3)


“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. (CCC 1810)


To build a character that is truly noble and Catholic, we must pray, seeking God’s grace, and faithfully receive the Sacraments, by which God gives us these graces.


Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The fruit referred to in this saying is the holiness of a life made fruitful by union with Christ. When we believe in Jesus Christ, partake of his mysteries, and keep his commandments, the Savior himself comes to love, in us, his Father and his brethren, our Father and our brethren. His person becomes, through the Spirit, the living and interior rule of our activity.”(CCC 2074)


In these brief essays, however, we will focus on “our part,” inasmuch as we are cooperators in God’s plan for us. “God is the sovereign master of his plan. But to carry it out he also makes use of his creatures’ cooperation. This use is not a sign of weakness, but rather a token of almighty God’s greatness and goodness. For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan.” (CCC 306)


“It requires plenty of courage and honesty to be sincere with oneself. There are many men and women who, their whole lives long, are afraid to stand face to face with their own mistakes and with the defects of their own character…It is only by seeing ourselves as we are that we can remake and perfect our own character.” (Garesche, Ch. 6)



We ought, then, to practice regularly the examination of conscience. There are many ways of doing this, to include going through the Ten Commandments or looking at the Beatitudes or even all the major points in the Sermon on the Mount. We might also, however, do so by examining the cardinal virtues, seeing where we have failed to be prudent, just, temperate, and where we have lacked fortitude. We should likewise examine ourselves in the light of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.


“…by learning from our mistakes, we cooperate with God in building up a noble character.” (Garesche, Ch. 6)


“…you can choose what to imitate. On that choice depends, to a great degree, your character and your destiny…by taking all the good characteristics of those around you, you can build up the ideal of a perfect character…you need not confine yourself to the people you actually know. Through the magnificent works of literature, you can associate with marvelous familiarity with the great minds, the noble hearts, and the shining characters of all history.” (Garesche, Ch. 7)


We, therefore, have no excuse if we say that we are not amongst other noble and virtuous people.  Even if this be true, we have at our disposal the greatness of those hero’s of virtue, whether factual persons of the past, or even fictional characters. As Christians, we certainly have the witness of the great saints of the past.


Of course, in building what we call a “Catholic character,” there is no greater example than that of Christ Jesus Himself.  Building a Catholic character, then, will be to imitate the virtues of first of Christ, but also of those who most imitated Him (“I urge you, then, be imitators of me,” says St. Paul in 1Cor4:16).


We are creatures of habit. But we are also responsible, to a great degree, for the habits we have. “Now, a habit is nothing more or less than an inward tendency to a certain line of action, which springs from the fact that we have often acted that way in the past, and that we are by nature inclined to do what we have often done before and in the way in which we have done it before.” (Garesche, Ch. 8)


We must, then, in building a noble character, focus on the four cardinal virtues, which are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. We must rightly understand them, but also strive constantly to build them. Indeed, in many ways, forming our character through the virtues is analogous to training our minds through study and our bodies through exercise. We will grow weaker or stronger in a large degree by whether we exercise or neglect to exercise these faculties.


“By studying these four good habits, or virtues, and by cultivating them diligently, we are able to lay the foundation of a strong, good character in a secure and permanent way.” (Garesche, Ch. 8)


Briefly, the four cardinal virtues are as follows (as described in the “In Brief” section of the Catechism):


1833    Virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good.

1834    The human virtues are stable dispositions of the intellect and the will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faith. They can be grouped around the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

1835    Prudence disposes the practical reason to discern, in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it.

1836    Justice consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due.

1837    Fortitude ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.

1838    Temperance moderates the attraction of the pleasures of the senses and provides balance in the use of created goods.



“The greatest of all historical examples of fortitude is, of course, the example of Christ, whose whole life was an exercise of this virtue, as it was of prudence, justice, and temperance…all these virtues, with a faithful balance, depend on one another, and if you succeed in cultivating any one of them to a notable degree, you will possess them all…” (Garesche, Ch. 12)



Human Dignity in Part 3 of the Catechism

In reading the Third Part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially Section I) the importance of the dignity of the human person in understanding moral instruction is made clear. We are focused in this course on individual morals for the most part, but of course, man is a social animal by nature. We are called to communion. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves (the second part of the two great commandments). So we should reflect for a moment on the social aspect of human dignity.


Catholic social teaching believes that human beings, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), have by their very existence an inherent value, worth, and distinction. This means that God is present in every person, regardless of his or her race, nation, sex, origin, orientation, culture, or economic standing. Catholic social teaching asserts that all human beings must see within every person both a reflection of God and a mirror of themselves, and must honor and respect this dignity as a divine gift. – Daniel Groody (Globalization, Spirituality and Justice).

The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching. You will see this if you open the Church’s Compendium on Social Doctrine. In fact, it is significant, therefore, that in the Church’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, more than half of the document addresses man as made in the image and likeness of God, and the fact that all temporal goods and actions are means towards the one end of all men, that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”


The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God (article 1); it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude (article 2). It is essential to a human being freely to direct himself to this fulfillment (article 3). By his deliberate actions (article 4), the human person does, or does not, conform to the good promised by God and attested by moral conscience (article 5). Human beings make their own contribution to their interior growth; they make their whole sentient and spiritual lives into means of this growth (article 6). With the help of grace they grow in virtue (article 7), avoid sin, and if they sin they entrust themselves as did the prodigal son1 to the mercy of our Father in heaven (article 8). In this way they attain to the perfection of charity. (CCC 1700)


Please see my earlier blog post here for a short reflection on right social teaching, which focuses on the dignity of the human person as made in the image and likeness of God.

The Importance of Character and the Virtues

“The true aim of education is not merely the cultivation of the intellect but also the formation of moral character. Increased intelligence or physical skill may as easily be employed to the detriment as to the benefit of the community, if not accompanied by improved will. Both do not necessarily go together. As it is the function of ethics to determine the ideal of human character, so it is the business of the theory or science of education to study the processes by which that end may be attained and to estimate the relative efficiency of different educational systems and methods in the prosecution of that end. Finally it is the duty of the art of education to apply the conclusions thus reached to practice and to adapt the available machinery to the realization of the true purpose of education in the formation of the highest type of ideal human character.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

We must keep this all in mind as we begin this course. For this course will examine the cardinal virtues and their integration into character development; explore possible remedies advanced by “character education” and approach the relationship of the virtues with an authentic Catholic character formation from both speculative and practical perspectives. In any class, of course, the speculative aspect is emphasized, but in a course dealing with ethics, it is the application that is the final goal.

Aristotle tells us that ethics is primarily a practical science, as opposed to a speculative science or an art. A few of his reflections will be good to consider at the outset:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth… If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.” (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book I)

Aristotle will go on to tell us that man’s ultimate aim, that “which we desire for its own sake,” is happiness. We may build a ship so that we can sail, and sail so that we can cross the ocean, and cross the ocean so that we can see our lost love ones, etc. But we don’t wish to be happy “so that…” We simply wish to be happy. It is an end and not a means to something further. The surprising thing, here, especially given our contemporary culture, is that the classic understanding of ethics was one of happiness.

Our contemporary culture would tell us that the key to happiness is freedom, but the modern understanding of freedom is extremely flawed. True freedom is not the “right” to simply follow the impulses of the will, but a true freedom is what is known as a “freedom for excellence.”

Servias Pinckaers uses the wonderful example of a piano player as a means to show what virtue can do for someone who seeks true freedom towards a specific end:

In the beginning the child, despite the desire to learn will often feel that the lessons and exercises as a constraint imposed on freedom and the attractions of the moment. There are times when practice has to be insisted upon…Of course, anyone is free to bang out notes haphazardly on the piano, as the fancy strikes him. But this is a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom… On the other hand, the person who really possesses the art of playing the piano has acquired a new freedom. (The Sources of Christian Ethics, p.355)

We see, then, that to truly be free to attain the very ends we were both made for and should aspire to attain to, that our freedom involves both a responsibility and a joy in becoming what we are meant to be. It should come as no surprise that, at the same time a new teaching on freedom overtook society (a freedom which emphasizes indifference rather than excellence) the virtues fell out of common knowledge and pursuit.

If we are to once again become a culture that seeks excellence, we must be a culture that strives after virtue. We are meant to be something, and we are meant to have a part in becoming that something. We are truly both what we are (as created) and what we make of ourselves: a sort of theistic existentialism. Made in the image of God, we are meant to be free, but free to be what He made us to be.

A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. (CCC 1803)

The good is what the will seeks. God is goodness Himself. Therefore, the cultivation of the virtues help us to, here on earth, to follow the will of God. They give us the power (virtus, power) to overcome the passions if and when they lead us away from the path we want to choose.

Of course, we recognize the necessity of grace in all of this, and with St. Paul, although we must admit that “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am!” we also have cause to rejoice:

“Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:23-25)

Building Catholic Character

The posts in this section offer some reflection on the course at Holy Apostles College and Seminary called Building Catholic Character.

1. Course Description

This course is an analysis of character: how it is constituted, developed, preserved and perpetuated. What are the hallmarks of the good human being, and how can integrity and virtues (as in 2 Pt. 1:3-9) be taught and learned? The course will examine the cardinal virtues and their integration into character development; explore possible remedies advanced by “character education” and approach the relationship of the virtues with an authentic Catholic character formation from both speculative and practical perspectives. Through Scriptural readings, lectures and other literature, the course will reflect upon particular examples as they occur in various cases in the Old and New Testament, culminating in the perfect human character demonstrated in the Life of Christ.

2. Envisioned Learning Objectives

  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of character, and how it relates to habit, human effort, and grace.
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of why the speculative aspect of the virtues is important for their practical development in our own lives.
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of the four cardinal virtues and their interrelationship
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of the examples of the virtuous life in the Scriptures, especially as shown forth in the life of Christ.