At Baptism, we are infused with the three theological virtues, which are the three greatest virtues: love, faith, hope. These are given as an unmerited gift of God, not obtained by our own efforts, and so they are called ‘infused’, not ‘acquired’, virtues. At Baptism, we are also given the four moral virtues, which traditionally have also been called the cardinal virtues — prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice — and the three intellectual virtues — wisdom, understanding, knowledge. In my book, The Catechism of Catholic Ethics, I suggest that all seven virtues should be termed cardinal:
“The four moral virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice) are traditionally called cardinal (meaning ‘hinge’) because they are pivotal virtues in any moral life. The term cardinal indicates the fundamental importance of the moral virtues. However, the three intellectual virtues (wisdom, understanding, knowledge) are of lesser but still fundamental importance to living a moral life. For the moral virtues are not able to be exercised without the intellectual virtues. Without wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, no one can exercise prudence, fortitude, temperance, or justice. For the proper exercise of the free will is dependent upon the proper exercise of the intellect. Therefore, all seven virtues deserve the name cardinal: the four moral virtues and the three intellectual virtues.” (Catechism of Catholic Ethics, n. 526.)
But this next question is more important than terminology. Are these seven cardinal virtues the same as the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit? My speculative theological opinion is that they are the same, except that the seven gifts are these seven cardinal virtues in their infused form, not in their acquired (and therefore substantially-limited) form.
“At Baptism, we receive the three theological virtues, and the three intellectual virtues, and the four moral virtues. At Confirmation, all these virtues are increased and strengthened and perfected. Confirmation perfects Baptism. All these ten virtues are supernaturally infused at Baptism, and supernaturally strengthened at Confirmation.” (Catechism of Catholic Ethics, n. 527.)
These seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, fortitude, counsel, piety, and fear of the Lord. These correspond to the seven cardinal virtues respectively as: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, fortitude, prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice. Counsel corresponds to prudence, as St. Thomas taught. He says that counsel perfects prudence. But I would understand this as the relationship between the infused form and the acquired form of the same virtue. The infused form is the perfection of the acquired form.
Now temperance is often described as moderation. But only when moderation is practiced for the sake of higher spiritual goods is moderation the virtue of temperance. And this type of temperance, in its fullest and truest form as an infused virtue, is identical to piety.
The infused virtue of justice does what is good and right out of fear of the Lord. This fear of the Lord is a virtue whereby the person does what is just for the sake of God, not for the sake of self, and not merely for the sake of family or friends. The fear of the Lord is a gift of the Spirit whereby each person does good and avoids doing evil because God is and does only good. Again, this describes the infused cardinal virtue of justice.
“And so, for all the seven cardinal virtues and the corresponding gifts of the Spirit, the infused form of each cardinal virtue is the same as the corresponding gift of the Spirit. However, the acquired form of each cardinal virtue is merely related to the corresponding gift of the Spirit, in that the gift helps and perfects the acquired virtue. So the only distinction that needs to be made between the seven cardinal virtues and the seven gifts of the Spirit is that the cardinal virtues may be infused or acquired. These seven virtues are identical to the gifts of the Spirit when we are considering them in their infused form. But when we are considering them as merely acquired virtues, they are only related to the gifts of the Spirit.” (Catechism of Catholic Ethics, n. 528.)
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator