Charity: the Greatest of the Theological Virtues

Charity by Raphael
Baglioni Retable. Theological Virtues: Charity, by Raphael (1483-1520). 1507. Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Leemage/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Charity is the last and the greatest of the three theological virtues; the other two are faith and hope. While it is often called love and confused in the popular understanding with common definitions of the latter word, charity is more than a subjective feeling or even an objective action of the will toward another person. Like the other theological virtues, charity is supernatural in the sense that God is both its origin and its object. As Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., writes in his "Modern Catholic Dictionary", charity is the "infused supernatural virtue by which a person loves God above all things for his [that is, God's] own sake, and loves others for God's sake." Like all virtues, charity is an act of the will, and the exercise of charity increases our love for God and for our fellow man; but because charity is a gift from God, we cannot initially acquire this virtue by our own actions.

Charity depends on faith, because without faith in God we obviously cannot love God, nor can we love our fellow man for God's sake. Charity is, in that sense, the object of faith, and the reason why Saint Paul, in ​1 Corinthians 13:13, declares that "the greatest of these [faith, hope, and charity] is charity."

Charity and Sanctifying Grace

Like the other theological virtues (and unlike the cardinal virtues, which can be practiced by anyone), charity is infused by God into the soul at baptism, along with sanctifying grace (the life of God within our souls). Properly speaking then, charity, as a theological virtue, can only be practiced by those who are in a state of grace. The loss of the state of grace through mortal sin, therefore, also deprives the soul of the virtue of charity. Deliberately turning against God because of attachment to the things of this world (the essence of mortal sin) is obviously incompatible with loving God above all things. The virtue of charity is restored by the return of sanctifying grace to the soul through the Sacrament of Confession.

Love of God

God, as the source of all life and all goodness, deserves our love, and that love is not something that we can confine to attending Mass on Sundays. We exercise the theological virtue of charity whenever we express our love for God, but that expression does not have to take the form of a verbal declaration of love. Sacrifice for God's sake; the curbing of our passions in order to draw closer to Him; the practice of the spiritual works of mercy in order to bring other souls to God, and the corporal works of mercy to show the proper love and respect for God's creatures -- these, along with prayer and worship, fulfill our duty to "love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind" (Matthew 22:37). Charity fulfills this duty, but also transforms it; through this virtue, we desire to love God not simply because we must but because we recognize that (in the words of the Act of Contrition) He is "all good and deserving of all of my love." The exercise of the virtue of charity increases that desire within our souls, drawing us further into the inner life of God, which is characterized by the love of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus, Saint Paul rightly refers to charity as "the bond of perfection" (Colossians 3:14), because the more perfect our charity, the closer our souls are to the inner life of God.

Love of Self and Love of Neighbor

While God is the ultimate object of the theological virtue of charity, His creation -- especially our fellow man -- is the intermediate object. Christ follows the "greatest and first commandment" in Matthew 22 with the second, which is "like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matthew 22:39). In our discussion above, we saw how spiritual and corporal works of mercy toward our fellow man can fulfill our duty of charity toward God; but it is perhaps a little harder to see how a love of self is compatible with loving God above all things. And yet Christ assumes self-love when He enjoins us to love our neighbor. That self-love, though, is not vanity or pride, but a proper concern with the good of our body and soul because they were created by God and sustained by Him. Treating ourselves with disdain -- abusing our bodies or placing our souls in danger through sin -- ultimately shows a lack of charity toward God. Likewise, disdain for our neighbor -- who, as the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) makes clear, is everyone with whom we come into contact -- is incompatible with love of the God Who made him as well as us. Or, to put it another way, to the extent that we truly love God -- to the extent that the virtue of charity is alive in our souls -- we will also treat ourselves and our fellow man with the proper charity, caring for both body and soul.

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ThoughtCo. "Charity: the Greatest of the Theological Virtues." Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, ThoughtCo. (2020, August 26). Charity: the Greatest of the Theological Virtues. Retrieved from ThoughtCo. "Charity: the Greatest of the Theological Virtues." Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).