The theological virtues are faith, hope and charity (love). They are called “theological” because their object is God. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the theological virtues “adapt man’s faculties for participation in the divine nature” (CCC 1812). They are infused by God into the faithful and “dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity” (CCC 1812).
Faith is defined in Hebrews 11:1 as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is the virtue by which we believe in God and all He has revealed. By faith “man freely commits his entire self to God” (CCC 1814). The object of faith is the divine truth revealed by God. We believe in God’s word because He is the Truth and cannot deceive or be deceived (1 Thessalonians 1:5, John 14:6).
Faith is necessary for salvation, as Scripture tells us, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6) and “He who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18). At Baptism, we receive the theological virtue of faith by the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Faith enables us to assent to all the truths God has revealed, not because we understand them but because God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, has revealed them.
St. Paul beautifully summarizes the pre-eminence of faith among the virtues and its decisive significance for salvation: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
The theological virtue of hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God. Like faith and love, hope is a divinely infused virtue given to human beings by God. It is associated with the desire for blessedness in heaven as promised by Christ.
St. Paul encourages us that “faith, hope, love remain” between all the virtues “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). This indicates hope as one of the foundational virtues. Hope also helps to inspire the theological virtues of faith and love. As the Catechism states, “By hope we desire, and with steadfast trust await from God, eternal life and the graces to merit it” (CCC 1843).
The object of theological hope is the divine promise of eternal life. By hope we desire the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life as we trust in Christ’s promises and rely not on our merits but on the grace of the Holy Spirit. Hope gives us the assurance that we will be resurrected like Christ and share in His glory.
As Romans 8:24-25 states, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
Charity, often translated “love,” is known as the greatest of the theological virtues. While faith helps us believe in God and hope helps us to desire God, it is charity that allows us to love God above all things for His own sake, and to love our neighbor as ourselves for God’s sake. As 1 John 4:8 states, “God is love.”
The Catechism defines charity as “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC 1822). Infused by sanctifying grace, charity allows us to practice the twofold commandment of love and fulfill the law of Christ (CCC 1844). As Christ Himself said, the greatest commandments are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40).
St. Paul elevates the supremacy of charity above faith and hope in 1 Corinthians 13:13 – “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” By charity the Christian “participates in the very life of God” and is transformed into the likeness of Christ who reveals divine love to us (CCC 1814).
The practice of charity, enabled by God’s grace, brings us joy in this life and to eternal happiness with Him in heaven. Mother Teresa described charity beautifully: “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put into the doing.”
Infused vs. Acquired Virtues
The theological virtues are infused in human beings by God Himself, while human virtues are acquired through effort and practice. As the Catechism explains:
“The human virtues are rooted in the theological virtues, which adapt man’s faculties for participation in the divine nature: for the theological virtues relate directly to God. They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object.” (CCC 1812)
Cardinal virtues like prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance can be practiced by anyone through human effort aided by God’s grace. In contrast, the theological virtues can only be infused by God’s grace. They are not achievable through human action alone.
Fruits and Gifts of the Holy Spirit
The theological virtues relate closely to the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit described in Galatians 5:22-23 and Isaiah 11:2. The fruits of charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity flow from living the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.
The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit also perfect the theological virtues. Wisdom perfects faith; understanding, hope; counsel, prudence; fortitude, courage; knowledge, the mind; piety, justice; and awe and wonder in God’s presence, temperance.
Practicing the theological virtues allows the fruits and gifts of the Spirit to be more abundantly produced in the Christian’s life.
Necessary for Salvation
The theological virtues are necessary for the sanctification and salvation of humankind. As the Catechism states:
“The theological virtues are the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it its special character. They inform and give life to all the moral virtues. They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being.” (CCC 1813)
Without theological hope we cannot desire heaven or eternal life with God. Without faith we cannot believe in God or His revealed word. And without charity we cannot truly love God above all things or love our neighbor with a self-sacrificing love. Living the theological virtues is essential to following Christ and being transformed into His image.
Growth in the Virtues
Although infused by God, the theological virtues can and should grow through proper exercise, prayer, sacraments, good works and God’s grace. We can always deepen our faith, expand our hope, and increase our charity. The saints provide outstanding examples of heroic virtue fueled by faith, hope and charity.
As we cooperate with God’s grace, He increases these virtues within us, strengthening our friendship and communion with Him. Although human effort is necessary for the growth in virtue, its ultimate origin remains the grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit. We are called to humbly submit to the action of the Spirit and remove the obstacles to His workings in our soul.
In Civilization of Love
The practice of the theological virtues is necessary for the “civilization of love” that St. John Paul II described as the path to true peace. Living authentic charity, faith and hope can overcome evil in the world. As the Catechism beautifully expresses:
“The practice of the moral life animated by charity gives to the Christian the spiritual freedom of the children of God. He no longer stands before God as a slave, in servile fear, or as a mercenary looking for wages, but as a son responding to the love of him who “first loved us”:
If we turn away from evil out of fear of punishment, we are in the position of slaves. If we pursue the enticement of wages, . . . we resemble mercenaries. Finally if we obey for the sake of the good itself and out of love for him who commands . . . we are in the position of children.” (CCC 1828)
Interrelation of the Virtues
In his work “Splendor of Truth,” St. John Paul II describes the interconnection between the theological virtues:
“As we contemplate the whole of Revelation, we can say that charity is the response to God’s gift of His only-begotten Son to the world. … In the Church, faith in the Crucified and Risen Christ weds the theological virtue to the other two theological virtues, providing them also with an interior unity in relation to their common source. This link and unity in the mediation of Christ generates a persevering and indomitable love in which the Christian fully trusts in his Lord and gives himself over to that love.” (Veritatis Splendor, 26)
The theological virtues reciprocally enrich and strengthen each other on the path of sanctification. United with the cardinal virtues, they provide the framework for living as disciples of Christ.
Mary as Exemplar of Virtue
Among all creatures, Mary, Mother of God provides the greatest example of living faith, hope and charity. As the perfect disciple, she heard the word of God and acted upon it. Mary’s exquisite faith enabled her fiat – “let it be done unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
By faith Mary conceived Christ in her heart before conceiving Him in her womb. Her unwavering hope in God’s promises allowed her to persevere in suffering at the foot of the Cross. And Mary’s sublime charity loved God and neighbor in the most perfect way humanly possible.
For these reasons, Mary is honored for her heroic virtue and unconditional surrender to God’s will. She shows us the beauty of responding to God’s grace. By imitating her virtues of faith, hope and charity, we can participate in the very life of God who is Love.
The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity form the very foundation of the Christian life. Infused by God, they make us capable of living in relationship with the Holy Trinity and aspiring to the divine nature. These virtues animate our humanity and actions, vivifying each day with supernatural grace. Through living faith in God’s truth, hope in His promises, and charity in all things, we open our heart to the transforming power of divine love.