By Scott P. Richert
One of the Four Cardinal Virtues:
Temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues. As such, it can be practiced by anyone; unlike the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues are the outgrowth of habit rather than the gifts of God through grace.
Temperance, as the Catholic Encylopedia notes, “is concerned with what is difficult for a man, not in so far as he is a rational being precisely, but rather in so far as he is an animal.” It is the control of the desire for pleasure. In this sense, as Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, it corresponds to fortitude, which restrains our fears, physical as well as spiritual.
The Fourth of the Cardinal Virtues:
St. Thomas Aquinas ranked temperance as the fourth of the cardinal virtues, because it serves prudence, justice, and fortitude. The moderation of our own desires is essential to acting rightly (prudence), giving each man his due (justice), and standing strong in the face of adversity (fortitude).
Temperance is that virtue which attempts to overcome the human condition that “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).
Temperance in Practice:
When we practice the virtue of temperance, we call it by different names, depending upon the physical desire that we are restraining. The desire for food is natural and good; but when we develop an inordinate desire for food, we call that the vice of gluttony. Likewise, the inordinate indulgence in wine or other alcoholic beverages is called drunkenness, and both gluttony and drunkenness are combated by abstinence, which is temperance applied to our desire for food and drink.
Similarly, we receive pleasure from sexual intercourse, but the desire for that pleasure outside of its proper bounds–that is, outside of marriage, or even inside marriage, when we are not open to the possibility of procreation–is called lust. The practice of temperance regarding sexual pleasure is called chastity.
Temperance is primarily concerned with the control of the desires of the flesh, but when it manifests itself as modesty, it can also restrain the desires of the spirit, such as pride. In all cases, the practice of temperance requires the balancing of legitimate goods against an inordinate desire for them.