Hope: A Theological Virtue

Baglioni Retable . Theological Virtues . Hope, by Raffaello Sanzio a.k.a Raphael (1483-1520). Oil on wood, 16x44 cm, 1507. Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums, Vatican State
Baglioni Retable. Theological Virtues: Hope, by Raphael (1483-1520). 1507. Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums, Vatican State. Leemage / Getty Images

The Second Theological Virtue:

Hope is the second of the three theological virtues; the other two are faith and charity (or love). Like all virtues, hope is a habit; like the other theological virtues, it is a gift of God through grace. Because the theological virtue of hope has as its object union with God in the afterlife, we say that it is a supernatural virtue, which, unlike the cardinal virtues, clearly cannot be practiced by those who do not believe in God.

When we speak of hope in general (as in "I have hope that it will not rain today"), we mean mere expectation or desire for something good, which is quite different from the theological virtue of hope.

What Is Hope?

The Concise Catholic Dictionary defines hope as

The theological virtue which is a supernatural gift bestowed by God through which one trusts God will grant eternal life and the means of obtaining it providing one cooperates. Hope is composed of desire and expectation together with a recognition of the difficulty to be overcome in achieving eternal life.

Thus hope does not imply a belief that salvation is easy; in fact, just the opposite. We have hope in God because we are certain that we cannot achieve salvation on our own. God's grace, freely given to us, is necessary in order for us to do what we need to do to achieve eternal life.

Hope: Our Baptismal Gift:

While the theological virtue of faith normally precedes baptism in adults, hope, as Fr.

John Hardon, S.J., notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, is "received at baptism together with sanctifying grace." Hope "makes a person desire eternal life, which is the heavenly vision of God, and gives one the confidence of receiving the grace necessary to reach heaven." While faith is the perfection of the intellect, hope is an act of the will.

It is a desire for all that is good—that is, for all that can bring us to God—and thus, while God is the final material object of hope, other good things that can help us grow in sanctification can be intermediate material objects of hope.

Why Do We Have Hope?

In the most basic sense, we have hope because God has granted us the grace to have hope. But if hope is also a habit and a desire, as well as an infused virtue, we can obviously reject hope through our free will. The decision not to reject hope is aided by faith, through which we understand (in Father Hardon's words) "the omnipotence of God, his goodness, and his fidelity to what he promised." Faith perfects the intellect, which strengthens the will in desiring the object of faith, which is the essence of hope. Once we are in possession of that object—that is, once we have entered heaven—hope is obviously no longer necessary. Thus the saints who enjoy the beatific vision in the next life no longer have hope; their hope has been fulfilled. As Saint Paul writes, "For we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen, is not hope. For what a man seeth, why doth he hope for?" (Romans 8:24). Likewise, those who no longer have the possibility of union with God—that is, those who are in hell—can no longer have hope.

The virtue of hope belongs only to those who are still struggling toward full union with God—men and women on this earth and in Purgatory.

Hope Is Necessary for Salvation:

While hope is no longer necessary for those who have achieved salvation, and no longer possible for those who have rejected the means of salvation, it remains necessary for those of us who are still working out our salvation in fear and trembling (cf. Philippians 2:12). God does not arbitrarily remove the gift of hope from our souls, but we, through our own actions, may destroy that gift. If we lose faith (see the section "Losing Faith" in Faith: A Theological Virtue), then we no longer have the grounds for hope (i.e., a belief in "the omnipotence of God, his goodness, and his fidelity to what he promised"). Likewise, if we continue to believe in God, but come to doubt His omnipotence, goodness, and/or fidelity, then we have fallen into the sin of despair, which is the opposite of hope.

If we do not repent of despair, then we reject hope, and through our own action destroy the possibility of salvation.