Four Cardinal Virtues and Conscience
Four Cardinal Virtues
What is Prudence?
Prudence is “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” (CCC, 1806) It is the when a person recognizes his moral duty and the good means to accomplish it. Therefore, a prudent person looks at the concrete reality of a situation with a clear, honest objectivity; references and applies the moral truths (e.g. the Ten Commandments or the teachings of the Church); makes a moral judgment; and then commands an action. Moreover, prudence is the virtue that guides us in specific circumstances to choose what is good and avoid what is evil.
What is Justice?
Justice is “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” (CCC, 1807) It is only just to God that we uphold the vows taken to Him and make sacrifices for the sake of His love. Likewise, it is only just not only refrain from doing evil toward our neighbors, but also do what is good toward our neighbors. Thus, we must respect the rights of each and every individual and establish relationships that promote equity among all people as well as build-up the common good.
What is Fortitude?
Fortitude is “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.” (CCC, 1808) In a nutshell, fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures that the person recognizes fear, but does not allow fear to prevent him from doing what is good or, worse, to make him do what is evil.
What is Temperance?
Temperance is “the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable.” In the Old Testament, to practice temperance is to “not follow your base desires, but [to] restrain your appetites." “In the New Testament it is called ‘moderation’ or ‘sobriety.’” (CCC, 1809) Hence, the exercise of temperance approaches pleasures and the use of created goods in the light of faith, of reason and of one’s own vocation and circumstance of life.
Oftentimes, we hear people say that, "if it feels good, then it must be good". On the contrary, does this feeling automatically make our thoughts and actions morally good? Now, what about an instance when a person feels guilty for missing Mass on a Sunday for the reason that they were sick? Does this awful feeling truly make them guilty of sin? Absolutely not! Why is that so? It is primarily because conscience is not a feeling and it would be wrong to equivocate true conscience with a particular feeling.
In addition to that, our conscience should not be confused with our super ego. In psychology, the super ego simply describes the list of "should’s" and "have to's" that we received from authority figures like our parents and teachers while we were growing up. Some of these "should’s" were good such as “you should not take something that is not yours.” On the other hand, some of these “should’s” were, as a matter of fact, damaging to our growth, like “you should not cry nor show fear.” Hence, in contrast to the super ego, our conscience is that which moves us to do something because we ourselves have come to personally see the truth of some value. True conscience, therefore, is value-oriented. Through the process of prayer, study, reflection, dialogue with others and one's own experience, one comes to recognize a particular truth or value and is then moved to embrace it. Meanwhile, the super ego is merely authority-oriented. It is when we do something only because some external authority or law says that we should. If we don't follow this "should", we may wind up feeling guilty.
Thus, as opposed to some external authority telling us what is right and wrong, conscience is “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.” (CCC, 1778) In the depths of our conscience, there lies an inner law that we do not impose upon ourselves, but which holds us to obedience. It is that which always summons man “to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man.” (Gaudium et Spes, 16) It is that which guides us to distinguish right from wrong and it nudges us to do what is genuinely good and to avoid that which is evil.
A correct conscience, therefore, makes decisions that are in accordance with reason—that which draws its own truth and authority from the eternal law—and with the law of God—that has its origin in God and always finds its source in him. “Certainly, in order to have a ‘good conscience’ (1 Tim 1:5), man must seek the truth and must make judgments in accordance with that same truth. As the Apostle Paul says, the conscience must be ‘confirmed by the Holy Spirit’ (cf. Rom 9:1); it must be ‘clear’ (2 Tim 1:3); it must not ‘practice cunning and tamper with God's word’, but ‘openly state the truth’ (cf. 2 Cor 4:2).” (Veritatis Splendor, 62)
Should one always follow one’s conscience?
One should always follow a well-formed conscience. A well-formed conscience is that which formulates judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.” (CCC, 1783) In the formation of conscience, therefore, we must bear in mind that “the Word of God is the light for our path.” Therefore, we must “assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice.” We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross daily, “assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.” (CCC, 1785) Indeed, “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.” (CCC, 1790)