By Scott P. Richert
One of the Four Cardinal Virtues:
Fortitude is one of the four cardinal virtues. As such, it can be practised by anyone, since, unlike the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues are not, in themselves, the gifts of God through grace but the outgrowth of habit.
Fortitude is commonly called courage, but it is different from what much of what we think of as courage today. Fortitude is always reasoned and reasonable; the person exercising fortitude is willing to put himself in danger if necessary, but he does not seek danger for danger’s sake.
The Third of the Cardinal Virtues:
St. Thomas Aquinas ranked fortitude as the third of the cardinal virtues, because it serves prudence and justice, the higher virtues. Fortitude is the virtue that allows us to overcome fear and to remain steady in our will in the face of obstacles. Prudence and justice are the virtues through which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the strength to do it.
What Fortitude Is Not:
Fortitude is not foolhardiness or rashness, “rushing in where angels fear to tread.” Indeed, part of the virtue of fortitude, as Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, is the “curbing of recklessness.” Putting our bodies or lives in danger when it is not necessary is not fortitude but foolishness.
A Gift of the Holy Spirit:
Sometimes, however, the ultimate sacrifice is necessary, in order to stand up for what is right and to save our souls. Fortitude is the virtue of the martyrs, who are willing to give their lives rather than to renounce their faith. That sacrifice may be passive—Christian martyrs do not actively seek martyrdom—but it is nonetheless determined and resolute.
It is in martyrdom that we see the best example of fortitude rising above a mere cardinal virtue (able to be practised by anyone) into one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit enumerated in Isaiah 11:2-3. But it also shows itself, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “in moral courage against the evil spirit of the times, against improper fashions, against human respect, against the common tendency to seek at least the comfortable, if not the voluptuous.”
Fortitude, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, also allows us to cope with poverty and loss, and to cultivate the Christian virtues that allow us to rise above the basic requirements of Christianity. The saints, in their love for God and their fellow man and their determination to do what is right, exhibit fortitude as a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit, and not merely as a cardinal virtue.