The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 51, No 4, July-Aug 1998

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

Man is truly human when his actions are in accord with right reason. And for the Christian we must add, he is truly Christian when his actions are in accord with right reason enlightened by divine faith. Made to the likeness and image of God, man is endowed with an intellect capable of reason, and with a will capable of free choice. It is these two faculties that make humans superior to brute animals which, while they can be highly trained, are without reason and free will.

However, in common with brute animals, man has sense appetites and passions or emotions that must be regulated in accordance with reason if he is to be truly his own master. As we well know, it can easily happen that the lower appetites and passions can become the master, and man (his higher faculties) the slave.

The will of man, the faculty that chooses, is a blind faculty, and must follow the guidance of reason which points out the way. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains, the will can be hindered in two ways from following the guidance of reason:

  1. by being drawn away by some object of pleasure to something other than the guidance of reason; and this obstacle is removed by the virtue of TEMPERANCE.
  2. by being inclined not to follow the guidance of reason for fear of some difficulty that presents itself; and this obstacle is removed by the virtue of FORTITUDE (II II, 123, 1).

Unlike the virtue of justice which regulates our actions in regard to our duties towards others, temperance and fortitude have to do with the control of our inner life, our appetites and desires, our emotions, our fears. By contrasting these two virtues we can better see the role of fortitude in the Christian life. TEMPERANCE is needed to moderate and control our appetites and emotions (passions) in regard to things that are pleasant and agreeable; while FORTITUDE is needed to moderate the appetites and emotions in regard to things that are unpleasant and disagreeable. The first of these deals with the concupiscible (pleasure seeking) appetites and passions, which need to be controlled, lest they lead one to seek some good contrary to reason; while the second of these deals with the irascible (emergency) appetites and passions which need to be controlled lest they cause one to withdraw from seeking some good that reason dictates should be pursued. For example: because of the pleasure connected with drinking, the appetite being satisfied can lead one to drink to excess; and because of the difficulty connected with fasting and attending Mass on Sunday, man’s emotions can lead him to omit these obligations. Each of these drives of our emotions or passions needs to be regulated by a correcting moral virtue (temperance and fortitude), if man is not to be dominated by compulsion to seek what is forbidden or to shun what is necessary, thus preventing the reign of reason over his actions.

Briefly, then, temperance is needed to control the appetites and passions in regard to what entices or allures us; while fortitude is needed to control the fear that makes one shy away from doing some good because of the difficulty, danger or suffering involved.


This virtue can be understood in a two-fold sense:

  1. In the wide sense it fortifies the soul bringing strength and firmness to all other virtues. The strength that this general virtue brings includes the help that comes from other virtues that come under the general heading of fortitude, such as: patience that helps us to endure daily vexations in union with Christ without weakening or complaining; perseverance - that inclines one to continue in the practice of virtue or the fulfillment of duty in spite of the tedium that tends to arise after a long period of time; magnanimity - that inclines one to undertake great things for the love of God without being discouraged in the face of difficulties, and without failing through pride or presumption. As St. Thomas explains it, “magnanimity makes a man deem himself worthy of great things because of the gifts he has from God” (II II, 129, 3, ad 4).
  2. In the strict sense fortitude strengthens the soul to face great dangers in the pursuit of good, so that it is not shaken by the greatest obstacles - even the danger of death. It moderates and controls the emergency emotions (passions) such as fear, daring or anger which tend to lead one away from the true and virtuous way if they are not checked. These passions can be of great use to man when controlled by reason; but when not controlled, fear can degenerate into cowardice, daring into rashness or foolhardiness, and anger can lead to violence.

This virtue has a twofold function: one active (of aggression), which impels one to attack evil; and one passive (of endurance), which strengthens one to endure evil. It represses the emotion of fear enabling man to endure great danger with true courage; and on the other hand, it controls the emotion of daring, so that in the face of danger the guiding force of one’s aggression is reason and not blind passion or senseless risk.


While we may not be called upon for the supreme act of fortitude - that of martyrdom for our Catholic faith, or the sacrifice of life on the battlefield out of true patriotism, life in this world is a warfare. (Job 7:1) It involves a constant struggle against the spirit of the world which tends to ensnare us if we are not always on guard, relying on constant vigilance and the grace of God, “for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). The strength that Christian fortitude brings is not a stoic endurance of pain, nor a bravado show of strength or endurance, but the moral courage needed to follow Christ. Every Christian needs this virtue in contending with the trials of everyday life, since, coming into this world in a weakened condition and with an inclination to evil due to original sin, he is bombarded from all sides with the many temptations with which this world confronts us.

In the struggle to live the Christian life, many challenges will be encountered which cause some to be discouraged and turn back, or settle on a plateau of mediocrity or compromise. In adverse circumstances when the going gets hard, it is a frequent human failing to give up trying. It is the task of the virtue of fortitude to prevent this, to bring strength and courage to face the difficulties that frighten the weak-hearted at the effort and sacrifice the struggle requires. For example, it takes courage and strength to mortify our appetites and desires that lead us astray if not controlled: to stand up for our faith when it is attacked; to be faithful day in and day out to the duties of our state in life; to accept God’s will, when His plans upset ours to which we are strongly attached and to practice various works of mercy which require the sacrifice of our time, comfort and convenience, etc.

Our Blessed Lord warned His followers that sacrifice would be required: “The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many; but the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt. 7:13). It is true that Jesus said “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Mt. 11:30), but that does not mean that there will be few difficulties to bear, or sacrifices to make. It means that He will give the grace to bear those difficulties and make those sacrifices willingly, even joyfully, to those who sincerely strive to follow Him, relying on His grace to know and accept His will.


Because of the weakened condition of human nature of which we have been speaking, man could never control his unruly appetites and passions by his human powers alone. Our divine Savior by His passion and death won for us healing and strengthening graces to compensate for those weaknesses. By the sacrament of baptism, the new Christian not only becomes a child of God, sharing in the very life and truth and love of God, but also in the very power of God. The seeds of these gifts are infused in the soul with diving grace, and grow as grace grows. This participation in divine strength comes through the infused virtue of fortitude, and the Gift of fortitude, one of the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

So we have first of all the natural virtue of fortitude, acquired by human effort and repeated acts under the direction of reason; but this can bring us only to natural goals. Because we are destined for a supernatural and eternal goal, the infused virtue of fortitude is God’s gift along with sanctifying grace, which further perfects and strengthens us to control the emotions that make us timid and fearful in the face of difficulties to be met. Unlike natural fortitude, it has a goal far above the passing troubles of this life, and strengthens us to bear patiently the hardships we meet for the sake of a reward that is eternal. “The sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). This infused strengthening virtue brings courage in the face of fears that otherwise intimidate, and restrains anger that often leads to a sinful reaction.

However, helpful as the infused virtue is, its help is limited, for it works in a human fashion and through human powers that have been wounded by original and actual sin. This is true of all the infused theological and moral virtues. Helpful as they are, they are not enough, because of the imperfect possession we have of these virtues. For example even though the infused virtue of fortitude brings a share in God’s own power, we ourselves set our actions in motion and determine the direction of our conduct. And we know well from experience that, even with this divine assistance, we find it difficult to avoid faults more or less grave. This is because, although one acts with the help of the infused virtue of fortitude, the power of reason is still in the driver’s seat.

What all this amounts to is that the infused virtues are not enough to enable man to live the Christian life. Additional help is needed, and that is given in the form of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. These Gifts render the soul open to the influence of the Holy Spirit, so that under the influence of the Gifts, the Holy Spirit is in the driver’s seat. When the Holy Spirit operates in this way, man has but to give consent to His action; and the task becomes easier, and difficulties seem to disappear.

Spiritual writers compare these two ways in which one is aided by the Holy Spirit (i.e. by the infused virtues and by the Gifts) to two ways of making progress in a small boat. Being aided by the infused virtues is like one rowing the boat; progress is very laborious and slow. Being aided by the Gifts of the Holy Spirit is like one being carried forward by a sail - the wind of the Holy Spirit furnishing all the power; progress is easier and faster. More than we realize, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are silently at work in the good we do and take credit for. In fact, without the continual added help of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, says St. Thomas, man could not attain his final end (I II, 68, 2, ad 2).

The angelic doctor explains that when the soul is moved by the Holy Spirit in this way, a certain confidence is infused into the mind by the Holy Spirit Who expels any fear of difficulties or dangers in what lies ahead (II II,139,1). Such a one feels capable of the most difficult actions for the love of God. In itself suffering is something our nature shrinks from, but when endured for one who is deeply loved, it can become a joy, as St. Luke relates of the apostles. After the Jewish leaders ordered that the apostles be scourged “they departed from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of Jesus” (Acts 5:41).


The following means are stressed by theologians for growth in this important virtue of fortitude:

  1. Frequently pray for it:Since this virtue is perfected by the Gift of the Holy Spirit, and since it is needful for the growth of every other virtue, we should pray often that the Divine Spirit will come to strengthen us in our weakness. Our prayer for His aid is an acknowledgment of that weakness and our need of God’s strengthening graces. However, it would be presumption to expect God to come with His strengthening grace if we are doing little to grow in the acquired virtue of fortitude through daily acts of renunciation.

  2. To accept with generous spirit little annoyances of daily life: As we have seen, the acquired virtue of fortitude, that is - the habitual disposition to face difficulties with patience and confidence, requires repeated acts of willing acceptance and patient endurance of the trials that each day brings. As the body is strengthened by regular exercises, so the will is strengthened by the frequent and willing acceptance of the little crosses and challenges that God asks of us. Without these challenges and crosses there will be little growth in the virtue of fortitude as St. Gregory the Great explains by the following example:
  3. Meditate on the Passion of Christ:Nowhere will we find a more perfect example of the virtue of fortitude than that of Christ during the hours of His Passion. No human person has ever undergone the physical and mental torture and humiliation that Our Savior endured without complaint in reparation for the sins of mankind. How small are the trials we have to undergo compared to His. The very meditation on the Passion not only makes our trials seem small, but brings us strengthening graces to bear them. St. Peter reminds us of this:

Back to Light & Life Page | Way Back to Rosary Center Home Page