Faith, Hope, and Charity: the Three Theological Virtues

Baptism of Christ, by Giovanni Bellini
Christ receives the baptism by John at the presence of the three theological virtues in this painting by Giovanni Bellini. Mondadori Portfolio /Getty Images 

Like most religions, Christian Catholic practices and customs enumerate several sets of values, rules, and concepts. Among these are the Ten Commandments, the Eight Beatitudes, the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit, the Seven Sacraments, the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Catholicism also traditionally enumerates two sets of virtues: the cardinal virtues, and the theological virtues.

The cardinal virtues are thought to be four virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—that can be practiced by anyone and which form the basis of a natural morality governing civilized society.They are thought to be logical rules that offer common sense guidelines for living responsibly with fellow human beings and represent the values that Christians are directed to use in their interactions with one another.

The second set of virtues are the theological virtues. These are considered to be gifts of grace from God—they are given to us freely, not through any action on our part, and we are free, but not required, to accept and use them. These are the virtues by which man relates to God Himself—they are faith, hope, and charity (or love). While these terms have a common secular meaning that everyone is familiar with, in Catholic theology they take on special meanings, as we'll soon see.

 

The first mention of these three virtues occurs in the biblical book of Corinthians 1, verse 13, written by the Apostle Paul, where he identifies the three virtues and pinpoints charity as the most important of the three. The definitions of the three virtues were further clarified by the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas many hundreds of years later, in the medieval period, where Aquinas defined faith, hope, and charity as theological virtues that defined mankind's ideal relationship to God.

The meanings set forth by Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s are the definitions of faith, hope, and charity that are still integral to modern Catholic theology. 

The Theological Virtues

Faith

Faith is a common term in ordinary language, but for Catholics, faith as a theological virtue takes on a special definition. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, theological faith is the virtue "by which the intellect is perfected by a supernatural light." By this definition, faith is not at all contrary to reason or intellect but is the natural result of an intellect that is influenced by the supernatural truth given to us by God.

Hope

In Catholic custom, hope has as its object eternal union with God in the afterlife. The Concise Catholic Encyclopedia 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." In the virtue of hope, desire and expectation are united, even while there is recognition of the great difficulty of overcoming obstacles in order to achieve everlasting union with God. 

Charity (Love)

Charity, or love, is considered the greatest of the theological virtues for Catholics.

The Modern Catholic Dictionary defines it as the "infused supernatural virtue by which a person loves God above all things for his [that is, God's] own sake, and loves others for God's sake." As is true of all the theological virtues, genuine charity is an act of free will, but because charity is a gift from God, we cannot initially acquire this virtue by our own actions. God must first give it to us as a gift before we can exercise it. 

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Richert, Scott P. "Faith, Hope, and Charity: the Three Theological Virtues." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-are-the-theological-virtues-542106. Richert, Scott P. (2018, January 26). Faith, Hope, and Charity: the Three Theological Virtues. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-the-theological-virtues-542106 Richert, Scott P. "Faith, Hope, and Charity: the Three Theological Virtues." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-the-theological-virtues-542106 (accessed February 20, 2018).