Faith, Hope and Love: the three ‘theological virtues’. And what is a ‘virtue’? Virtues are described by the Church as ‘habits’, ‘firm dispositions’, ‘powers’. They are capacities that we have been given. Why are they called ‘theological’? Because they are the holy habits, sacred habits, that lead to life eternal.
Understanding the level
Faith, Hope and Love are, first of all, gifts, to be appreciated and lovingly received. We cannot earn them. We cannot gain them by our own efforts. Only God can place them in our lives. They are supernatural gifts. They take us beyond our natural capacities. They are more than the natural giftedness that comes to us at birth. They are the fruits of rebirth, the free gift of grace given to us in Baptism. No-one can make another believe, hope or love; and neither can we generate these virtues out of ourselves, by sheer will-power.
There is, of course, a natural faith, a natural hope and a natural love, and these belong to us as part of our human nature. But they are not to be mistaken for what the Church has identified as the theological virtues. The theological virtues ‘are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life’ (CCC 1813). Natural hope enables us to hope for the good things of this life, fitted to our human nature in this world. Because our nature and the world around us is changing and uncertain, so our natural hope is ultimately uncertain. Supernatural hope, on the other hand, is rooted in the utter reliability and certainty of God, and makes us capable of acting as God’s children, destined for eternal happiness with Him.
When catechising on these virtues one of the main points that we need to address is the, often unspoken, misunderstanding of them as merely human traits. In other words, the ‘level’ of the virtue is misunderstood, as is its purpose. When this misunderstanding of the theological virtues takes place because of poor catechesis, they are not perceived as capacities of the soul that orientate us towards the life of heaven and engender in us the childlikeness of God’s sons and daughters, but are perceived as either irrelevant or else positively harmful. The supernatural virtue can appear to be a human weakness, a problem. For example, the theological virtue of faith is often not seen as a genuine virtue because faith is understood on the merely human level, and is then misunderstood as credulity. The virtue of hope is not seen as a strength if it is viewed as a purely human hope in the future, as a natural optimism; it can appear as wishful-thinking and lack of realism.
Living the habit
Faith, Hope and Love are divine gifts. But they are not like tools that one can pick up and put down again, used once, or occasionally, and then left. They are capacities for our life. They are powers that need to be exercised. They are pathways to heaven that need to be well-trodden if we are to follow them surely and in safety, as well-marked and accessible avenues.
The dialogue, in John Chapter 6, between Jesus and the people following him is instructive in this respect. The people have experienced the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish and now they ask Jesus, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answers them: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’ (John 6:28-29). Belief is described here as a work. Believing is something that we must do. Faith is a gift, and it is also a work, and often very hard work. Jesus challenges them: ‘you have seen me and yet do not believe’.
The virtues are capacities, are powers, that we have that grow and are strengthened only by being used. Like muscles, they need exercise. Without exercise, they wither. Faith, Hope and Love have to be exercised each day.
The Second Letter to the Thessalonians speaks of those who do not work not being able to eat (3:10). We can regard this as a simple judgement about natural justice. But there is a spiritual point present here as well: the Bread of the Eucharist, Christ Himself, can be eaten only by those who undertake the work of Faith. Only those who will believe in Him can eat of the Living Bread. Faith, Hope and Love are the gateways into eternal life, into the relationship God wants us to have with Himself. And every moment of every day offers us a chance for the exercise of these virtues. At Mass, when we are distracted or bored, we can make an act of love or of hope. As we stand in the queue waiting to receive the Lord in communion we can make an act of faith in His presence. When everything seems to go wrong, acts of hope in the One who is infinitely powerful, faithful and kind sustains us.
‘O Lord God, I love you above all things and I love my neighbour for your sake because you are the highest, infinite and perfect good, worthy of all my love. In this love I intend to live and die. Amen.’
This article is originally found on page 4 of the printed edition.