Virtue and Vice

Printer-friendly version Printer-friendly version

A well-formed conscience and the practice of virtue lead us toward holiness and away from sin

by Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori

Bishop William E. Lori

Bishop William E. Lori

The 27th installment of Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori’s faith formation program addresses questions 370-400 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Let your conscience be your guide.” Sometimes, this phrase is taken to mean that our consciences create the truth about what is right or wrong — that is, what is right for me might be wrong for you and vice versa. In reality, the conscience is at the very core of where God speaks to us. It is a judgment of reason that directs us to choose what is good and avoid what is evil. It does not establish moral truth but instead perceives it. This is how we take responsibility for our thoughts, words and deeds (Compendium, 372).

A well-formed conscience listens to the voice of God. It pays attention to the natural law and to the Word of God conveyed by the Church. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, received in baptism and deepened in us through confirmation, help us know and do what is good and affirm our God-given dignity (374). In forming one’s conscience, each person must carefully respect the rights of others and the good of society (373).

The conscience should follow three ground rules: First, one may never do evil so that good may result from it; second, we should treat others as we wish to be treated; and third, we must respect others and their consciences while avoiding the trap of accepting as good that which is evil (375). We are right indeed to follow our consciences, but we can reach wrong judgments. We are culpable when we deliberately fail to see the wrongness of an action, and we sometimes reach a wrong decision despite our best efforts (376).


A well-formed conscience is strengthened by virtue. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (377). We are shaped by the decisions we make, and when we habitually choose what is good, we grow in the likeness of God.

The Church distinguishes two types of virtue: human and theological. Human virtues strengthen us to control our desires and to guide our conduct according to reason and faith. We acquire them by repeatedly doing what is good. God’s grace purifies and elevates human virtues. They are grouped under the four cardinal virtues on which the entire moral life is hinged. These include prudence, which strengthens our reason so that we may discern not only the good to be done in a particular situation but also the best way to do it. Justice strengthens the will so that we will give to others — and to God — what is their due. Fortitude makes us firm in choosing the good, even when it is difficult or costly to do so. And temperance helps us achieve self-mastery over our desires for pleasure and the use of this world’s goods (see 377-383).

The theological virtues — faith, hope and charity — are from God and direct us to God. Unlike human virtues, they are not acquired by practice but are infused in us through the Holy Spirit. These grow through prayer and through the Church’s sacramental life. They strengthen our relationship with the Trinity and help us to follow Christ by living the law of love (384).

Faith enables us to believe in God, in all that he has revealed and what the Church proposes for our belief. By faith we affirm that God is truth itself and commit ourselves freely to God. Hope enables us to live in the present, in expectation of eternal life. Through hope, we rely on the Holy Spirit to persevere and prepare for the joy of heaven. Charity enables us to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. By sharing in God’s love revealed in Christ, we find the strength to live the law of love (385-388).

The twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit are the signs that we are becoming more Christ-like by living the law of love in the spirit of the Beatitudes. They include: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity (Gal 5:22-23; 390).


Since we are inclined to sin, it is often not easy to do the good. Sin is a thought, word or action that offends against God’s love. In sinning against God, we wound our human dignity and weaken both the Church and the wider community. By his suffering and death, Jesus revealed the seriousness of sin while overcoming it by his merciful love (392). We accept the mercy of God when, in the light of God’s truth and love, we admit our sins and allow his love to heal us (391).

Sin can be directly against God, one’s neighbor or oneself. There are sins of thought, word and deed, as well as sins of omission (393). The distinction between mortal and venial sins is very important. Mortal sins involve grave matter, full knowledge and full consent of the will. They deprive us of sanctifying grace. If we fail to repent of them, we risk losing eternal life. Baptism and the sacrament of penance are the ordinary ways they are forgiven (395). Venial sins weaken our relationship with God and others. They impede us from progress in virtue and in the spiritual life. We should seek forgiveness of venial sins in the sacrament of penance and mortify ourselves so as to be purified from the effects of all the sins we have committed.

Sin can take hold of us when it is repeated. Habitual sins are called vices. These cloud the conscience and incline us toward evil. The main vices correspond to the capital sins: pride, avarice, envy, anger, lust, gluttony and sloth. We must also be on guard not to cooperate with the sins of others. Finally, it is important to recognize that human sinfulness has given rise to social structures that are contrary to God’s truth and love (see 398-400).