Fortitude: A Cardinal Virtue and a Gift of the Holy Spirit

The Strength to Be Prudent and Just

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Fortitude Is One of the Four Cardinal Virtues

Fortitude is one of the four cardinal virtues. That means that the virtue of fortitude can be practiced by anyone, Christian or not, since, unlike the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues are not, in themselves, the gifts of God through grace but the outgrowth of habit.

The virtue of fortitude is commonly called courage, but it is different from what much of what we think of as courage today.

Fortitude is always reasoned and reasonable; the person exercising fortitude is willing to put himself in danger if necessary, but he does not seek danger for danger's sake. Fortitude always serves a higher purpose.

Fortitude Is the Third of the Cardinal Virtues

St. Thomas Aquinas ranked fortitude as the third of the cardinal virtues, because it serves the higher virtues of prudence and justice. Fortitude is the virtue that allows us to overcome fear and to remain steady in our will in the face of all obstacles, physical and spiritual. Prudence and justice are the virtues through which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the strength to do it.

What Fortitude Is Not

Fortitude is not foolhardiness or rashness, "rushing in where angels fear to tread." Indeed, part of the virtue of fortitude, as Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, is the "curbing of recklessness." Putting our bodies or lives in danger when it is not necessary is not fortitude but foolishness; acting rashly is not a virtue but a vice.

Fortitude Is a Gift of the Holy Spirit

Sometimes, however, the ultimate sacrifice is necessary, in order to stand up for what is right in this world and to save our souls in the next. Fortitude is the virtue of the martyrs, who are willing to give up their lives rather than to renounce their faith. That sacrifice may be passive—Christian martyrs do not actively seek to die for their faith—but it is nonetheless determined and resolute.

Fortitude Is the Virtue of the Martyrs

It is in martyrdom that we see the best example of fortitude rising above a mere cardinal virtue (able to be practiced by anyone) into one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit enumerated in Isaiah 11:2-3. But fortitude as a gift of the Holy Spirit also shows itself, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, "in moral courage against the evil spirit of the times, against improper fashions, against human respect, against the common tendency to seek at least the comfortable, if not the voluptuous." In other words, fortitude is the virtue that helps us to stand up for what is right, even when others say that Christian belief or moral action is "outdated."

Fortitude, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, also allows us to cope with poverty and loss, and to cultivate the Christian virtues that allow us to rise above the basic requirements of Christianity. The saints, in their love for God and their fellow man and their determination to do what is right, exhibit fortitude as a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit, and not merely as a cardinal virtue.