What is “heroic virtue”?

Recently, the Congregation for Causes of Saints issued the decree concerning the “heroic virtues” of then-Servant of God Paul VI.  The decree has now been promulgated by the Roman Pontiff.  Thus, we may now call Paul VI “Venerable”.

What was at issue in the cause for beatification of Paul VI.  Since Pope Paul was not martyred, the process was construed to determine if Paul VI lived a life of “heroic virtue”.

Some people in discussion under another entry are saying things such as “Paul issued Humanae vitae!  That sure was heroic! I’d canonize him for that!”

“Heroic virtue” and doing heroic things are not the same.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you are about to say.  “Heroic virtue?  Really?  How can any of us aspire to such a thing!  That’s sounds terribly difficult!”

It isn’t easy, but it is possible.

We are all called to be saints.  God wouldn’t ask something of us that isn’t possible.  And when He asks things that are hard, He also provides the means and the occasions.

Even in your suffering, for example, or your obscurity, you can serve Him in a holy way.  God knew you before the creation of the material universe.  He called you into being now, in this world.  Of all the possible worlds God could have created, He created this world, into which you would be born. He has a plan and purpose your you, if you will embrace it.

Back to a virtuous life lived in a “heroic” way.

Perhaps we should spend just a moment on what “heroic” virtue is all about.   It sounds dramatic and, frankly, unattainable by most people.

The term “heroic” comes from Greek (heros).  It points to valor, courage.  The term “heroic virtue” came into the west with a translation of Aristotle’s Nicomacheam Ethics by Robert Grossatesta (+1253).  From there it was brought into the the writings of scholastic philosophers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas.    It was more fully elaborated by the amazing Prospero Lambertini, who was elected Pope and took the name Benedict XIV.  After that, it became a common term when dealing with saints and causes of saints.

The supreme “heroic” Christian is the martyr, who especially in the moment of martyrdom exemplifies the charity that the Lord taught from the Cross.   So, that is a precise act of a Christian.  In the moment of true martyrdom, the martyr is said to manifest Christian virtues in a heroic way.

But “heroic” can also be applied to a large arc of a Christian’s life.

Every person is called to live in union with the Trinity, in charity.  In this life, we can only strive to live this way.  Only in the next life will we truly attain what we were called to.  Nevertheless, this life is what we have now.  By baptism we became members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit, the adopted children of the Father.  We can begin to live the life of charity and other virtues now, to the best degree we can with the help of God’s grace.  It takes both, our elbow grease (we are not Quietists) and God’s grace (we are not Pelagians).

We live in this fallen world, in this vale of tears, with wounds to our intellects and will, constantly dealing with the world, the flesh and the devil. We are called to holiness.  We are actually called to holiness in a heroic degree.  Let’s understand “heroic” properly.

The “heroism” to which we are called does not consist mainly in great or famous or dramatic acts or accomplishments.  It might include those, but it does not mainly consist of those.  Every person has the possibility of this sort of heroism, even if he does nothing spectacular.  When it comes to the causes of saints, very often people with more dramatic or famous lives comes to the attention of others, and therefore they are more likely to be the subjects of causes.

Living a virtuous life even in the tedium of routine or the obscurity of everyday living can be heroic.

Accepting God’s will, living in conformity with God’s will is the true test of a Christian.  That is the essence of “heroic” virtue, not what appears outwardly to be heroic (though that may also be heroic, as in the dramatic case of the martyr).

Furthermore, people don’t, except by a rare gift from God, instantly or easily attain the state of living a life of virtue heroically.  Virtues are habits.  Some virtues, the theological virtues, are infused into us by God with baptism and sacraments.  They “dwell” in us “habitually” (“dwell” and “habit” are etymologically related… think of a “habitat” where critters “dwell”).  Virtues are habits, good practices and attitudes which are in us to a degree that it is easy for us to do them rather than hard.  This usually takes time and maturity.  We don’t suddenly, except by a special grace, become virtuous.  It can take a whole lifetime and many stumbles along the way.

With God’s help we must strive in the concrete details of our lives to avoid faults and even small imperfections, even if we don’t always succeed.  We have to want to succeed and try to succeed and make progress, not giving in to discouragement or, worse, despair, accepting God’s will and going forward with humility.  Do we have to actually make progress in worldly terms?  More on that below.

All the circumstances of our lives play a role in our living as Christians.  Each one of us is born into a particular time and place.   God gives different gifts to different people.  There is no one way to live as a Christian, except for the common calling to holiness.  We cannot be, however, content with mere mediocrity.

So, heroic virtue consists mainly in living in the state of grace, hating sin and imperfections and striving to overcome them while carrying out one’s vocation, always accepting God’s will with faith, hope and charity as we go forward during these short years on earth toward the goal of heaven, trusting that God’s providence guides all things.   This life may have moments which are dramatic and famous.  It will probably be rather plain and obscure.  But it is not mediocre.

Those are some thoughts about “heroic virtue”, so that when you hear the term, you don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the person in question was working miracles while alive, or was going without food in a cave for thirty years, or levitating off the ground at the mention of the Holy Name.

His scriptis

There seems to be a development over the last few decades in what the Congregation accepts as “heroic virtue”.  There seems to be a less and less strong connection between the person’s actual accomplishments according to his “state in life”, with the life of virtue lived in a heroic way.

Some will scratch their heads saying, “But Father! Maybe Paul was personally holy, and he prayed and was sincere, but can he have lived a life of heroic virtue if he wasn’t a very good Pope?”

In trying to make sense of this, in connection with Paul VI and what seems to many to be a lack of positive accomplishments according to his state in life, perhaps we have to take more and more seriously the circumstances in which he was Bishop of Rome.

I don’t have an answer to this difficulty right now.  I have been thinking about it for a while.  One of the things I ponder: Given what happened on Paul’s watch, did he exercise in a heroic way the virtue of Prudence?  Prudence is one of the Cardinal Virtues. Prudence is said to marshal, guide, other virtues.  Paul was faced with many difficult circumstances in which he had to make prudential judgments.  I think he made a lot of decisions which, in the long term, proved not to be so good.  Had he done something else, would things have turned out better? Even worse?  Must we only say a person lived a heroically virtuous life if what he did in life turned out well?

However, something that Pope Benedict said about the role of the Holy Spirit in a conclave or council comes back to tickle my thought process.  Ratzinger said that the role of the Holy Spirit in those special situation was not so much to elect the Pope or write the Council documents Himself.  Rather, the Holy Spirit guarantees that whomever or whatever we choose isn’t a total disaster.

Another thing I ponder in light of this question is of a personal anecdotal nature.  Whenever I bless a car, very soon after it seems to be involved in an accident.  Thus, I always warn people that, if I bless the car, they had better have good insurance.  On one occasion a woman came back to me to tell me, of course, that she had been in an accident.  She added, “Think how bad it would have been if you hadn’t blessed the car!”

Somewhere in these questions and points and anecdotes may lie a way through what the Congregation for Causes of Saints (and Popes) are doing these days with the concept of “heroic virtue”.

I spent time with officials of the Congregation when I did their Studium some years ago.  These guys were super-prepared, not just well-prepared.  They were reliable.   The shift in “heroic virtue” still leaves me turning around on my own axis, but I am slowly getting oriented.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Our Catholic Identity, Saints: Stories & Symbols, The Drill and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to What is “heroic virtue”?

  1. carl b says:

    What is the actual process by which the Congregation decides in favor of or against having lived a life of heroic virtue? Is there like a checklist? Father says, “There seems to be a less and less strong connection between the person’s actual accomplishments according to his “state in life”, with the life of virtue lived in a heroic way.” So, what is it to which heroic virtue is connected?

  2. “But Father! Maybe Paul was personally holy, and he prayed and was sincere, but can he have lived a life of heroic virtue if he wasn’t a very good Pope?”

    Yes. Witness: St. Peter Celestine, one of the most ineffective and failed of popes certainly, but still canonized as a saint.

  3. The Masked Chicken says:

    Very good post, Father.

    Ah, Robert Grossatesta.

    Anyone see the season five, Stargate Atlantis, episode where the Robert Piccardo character tries to start a speech by quoting Grossatesta, but is cut off in mid-sentence by the Wraith, Todd? I think it was Col. Shepard who asked him as the group moved down the corridor, “Robert Who?”

    The Chicken

  4. chantgirl says:

    This is why sometimes I think martyrdom might be the way to go. This heroic virtue thing takes patience and consistency, which I sorely lack. Well, I guess martyrdom would be pretty hard if one hadn’t lived a life of consistent virtue. GRRR. Let’s just say I hope the Lord comes for me on a good day, LOL. Thank God for confession. My passionate personality gets me into trouble more often than it gets me closer to God. Well, if Saint Jerome can become a saint, and if Padre Pio could overcome his temper, and Augustine could overcome his lust, I guess there’s hope for me.

  5. Andrew says:

    In this debate which has surfaced over the last couple of days, I have not heard any mention that Paul VI wore a hairshirt. So that is a brownie poing in favour of the cardinal virtue of temperance.

    One incident that also impressed me when he was pope, was in 1977 when he offered his life to release 86 hostages, after a hijacking of a Lufthansa aircraft by the PLO. That is the virtue of fortitude.

    He rieterated the Church’s teaching on contraception in 1968, to immense criticism in the world wide press, in 1976 retireated a decree on excommunication of Catholics who joined the Communist Party in Italy, and in 1977 forbade the ordination of women, as priests.

    He suffered terrible depression in the last decade of his life, but offered this up in union with Jesus Christ. (I am wondering if he is elevated to the altars, if he can be a particular patron saint of depressed indiviudals!)

    The Church has made a judgement, now let us see if Heaven has responded with a miracle, or two.

    But I hate to say this, if a decision is made to beatify him, we will see another one of those yawning petitions for the Pope not to do this, just as what happened with John Paul II.

  6. I heard the suspense author Dean Koontz interviewed on Catholic Radio and I got on Amazon and peeked into his new book, “Odd Apocalypse.” This post reminds me of one thing I read. His protagonist, Odd Thomas (I think he’s a kind of detective, though I’ve never read the books) reflects on how boring evil is and how interesting virtue is in comparison. He points out that Hannibal Lecter was riveting in the first movie, “but a second is inevitably stupefying.” Then he continues: “We love a series hero, but a series villain quickly becomes silly as he strives so obviously to shock us. Virtue is imaginative, evil repetitive.” I think that’s true, when you think about it. I would imagine heroic virtue must be especially imaginative!

  7. Patrick-K says:

    This is something that I think about when people try to argue that Vatican II was a failure. Subsequent trends and events in the Church were certainly less than optimal, perhaps even disastrous in some cases. The assumption seems to be that Vatican II caused these things to happen, or at least failed to prevent their happening. I have a lot of sympathy for the “traditionalist” view expressed by SSPX and others. But they don’t really seem to consider seriously the idea that it might all have been a lot worse without VII. Many of the modernist type of ideas traditionalists dislike were quite alive and well before VII. For example, St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, which many people point to (rightly, in my opinion) as one of the worst examples of modernist church architecture, was actually built in 1961, several years before VII.

  8. jlmorrell says:

    While I commend Fr. Z’s quite reasonable analysis, I think it ignores the elephant in the room. I try not to be cynical with these things, really, I do. But, it seems almost self evident to me that those in the curia are seeking to prop up Vatican II with these beatifications. I mean really, John XXIII, Paul VI, and JPII all on the road to sainthood within mere decades of their deaths. What happened to the Vatican thinking in terms of centuries. Why the big rush!

  9. PostCatholic says:

    Wow, I actually feel heroically virtuous when I do one of those easily ignored maintenance chores, like running vinegar through the coffee maker, changing the furnace filter, or emptying the expired tubes out of the master bath medicine cabinet.*

    In all seriousness, that was interesting reading, particularly your tracing of the term to Nichomachean Ethics.

  10. tzard says:

    It seems to me many people think in terms of “path to sainthood”. They’re thinking “but he’s not a saint” – well, that’s not the point here – is he worthy of “venerable”?.

    Shouldn’t “Venerable” be a determination on it’s own? It’s achievable as much for the widower down the street as for the starter of a new religious order.

  11. Jennifer B.D. says:

    Thank you for defining heroic virtue and adding your thoughts. There are so many good points that you made that I have come across on several occasions but I needed to hear them again, and I needed to hear them tonight. Thank you for encouraging us to live as saints and to continually work on our spiritual growth. I have been so very blessed to have found your blog. May God bless you and protect you , Fr. Z.

  12. Bill Foley says:

    A blessed Christmas and a grace-filled 2013 to all.

    The following is from Blessed Columba Marmion’s spiritual classic Christ in His Mysteries.

    “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his Master’s Crib,” wrote Isaias, in speaking of this mystery (Is 1:3). They saw the Child lying in the crib. But what could they see? As much as an animal could see: the form, the size, the color, the movement,–an entirely rudimentary knowledge that does not pass the boundary line of sensation. Nothing more.
    The passers-by, the curious, who approached the stable-cave saw the Child; but for them He was like all others. They did not go beyond this purely natural knowledge. Perhaps they were struck by the Child’s loveliness. Perhaps they pitied His destitution. But this feeling did not last and was soon replaced by indifference.
    There were the Shepherds, simple-hearted men, enlightened by a ray from on high: “And the brightness of God shone round about them” (Lk 2:9), They certainly understood more; they recognized in this Child the promised Messias, long awaited, the “The expectation of the nations” (Gen 49:10); they paid Him their homage, and their souls were for a long time full of joy and peace.
    The Angels likewise contemplated the Newborn Babe, the Word made Flesh. They saw in Him their God; this knowledge threw these pure spirits into awe and wonderment at such incomprehensible self-abasement: for it was not to their nature that He willed to unite Himself: not to angels, but to human nature, “but of the seed of Abraham he taketh hold” (Heb 2:16).
    What shall we say of the Blessed Virgin when she looked upon Jesus? Into what depths of the mystery did her gaze penetrate–that gaze so pure, so humble, so tender, so full of bliss? Who shall be able to express with what lights the soul of Jesus inundated His Mother, and what perfect homage Mary rendered to her Son, to her God, to all the states and all the mysteries whereof the Incarnation is the substance and the root.
    There is finally–but this is beyond description–the gaze of the Father contemplating His Son made flesh for mankind. The Heavenly Father saw that which never man, nor angel, nor Mary herself could comprehend: the infinite perfections of the Divinity hidden in a Babe… And this contemplation was the source of unspeakable rapture: Thou art My Son, My beloved Son, the Son of My dilection in Whom I have placed all My delights (Mk 1:2; Lk 3:22)…

  13. Gratias says:

    Andrew says Pope Paul VI was depressed the last decade of his life. If correct this may explain the disastrous implemantation of Vatican Council II.

  14. gracie says:

    The role of Devil’s Advocate should be restored so that persons up for canonization are properly vetted. Pope Paul VI’s pontificate was a very mixed message and serious questions need to be asked about his personal as well as public life. There should be someone looking into all of this with a critical eye asking, “Why should this man be canonized?”, instead of the modern tendency to say, “Of course this man should be canonized; he was the Pope after all.” Perhaps it’s the result of the non-judmental culture we live in where everybody gets a reward no matter what; where no one’s allowed to judge because that’s judgmental and so everyone gets a gold star. It would be a disaster to have his canonization uncritically rubber-stamped only to have a can of worms about him opened up after the fact.

  15. Phil_NL says:


    “the modern tendency to say, “Of course this man should be canonized; he was the Pope after all.” ” isn’t quite that modern; the 35 first popes were all canonized. Of the next 20, only a handful weren’t. Of the 50 thereafter, about half. All of that was well within the first millenium. Hardly modern, I’d say.

    Now it may seem a bit obtuse to point this out, but the underlying point is that God, not man, makes saints. Canonization is infallible, so if it happens, it is that way. Even if there were aspects of the life of the saint which we regard as less saintly (and a few of the aforementioned popes had plenty). Hence I fail to see why people left and right have such reservations regarding the pace or object of canonizations. God is the deciding factor, and will be much more thorough than any ‘Devil’s Advocate’.

  16. NoraLee9 says:

    Just want to thank Chicken for Grossateste reference. Fascinating man. When my Latin gets a little better, maybe I’ll try to tackle some of his works.

  17. Andrew says:

    I appreciate your kind acknowledgment Gratias.

    This was revealed to me by a bishiop who worked for 10 years in the Curia, in 1983. Not much had been written about the problem at this time, but a number of curial officials were aware that in private, they heard the sound of weeping from behind his door.

    Paul VI suffered a mental breakdown as a result of the terrible criticism he received that followed in the wake of the papal encylical Humanae Vitae, and was completely overwhelmed at the large amoung of priests applying to him for laicization. This resulted in prolonged depression.

    I believe one of his former secretaries may have intimated the late Holy Father believed that this was a cross that had been given to him, for the salvation of souls.

    He never wrote another enyclical after Humanae Vitae. After this we had the promulgation of the new liturgy in 1969, and as we know, everything was swept before it.

    The late conservative columnist William Buckley Jr said in an op following Paul VI’s death of August 6, 1978 that “The sad epitaph of Paul VI’s reign is the half filled American church on Sundays”.

    One fact I do find quite interesting is that in 2012, 36 years after the death of Paul VI, all his successors were men he had elevated to the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Albino Luciani (Pope John Paul I) in 1973; Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) in 1967; and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI in 1977, a special consistory where there were only four cardinals chosen).

    The Church may have a had a special man on the throne of Peter, and his legacy may only be realized now.

  18. The Masked Chicken says:

    Robert Grossateste (I usually ends in e) was one of the first Medieval scientists. For those who can read Latin, his works (most, free to download), may be found, here:


    For those who cannot read Latin, Google Translate does a serviceable (if not strained) job of getting the major points of the sentences. Google has a limit on the number of words one can paste at a time :(

    For Christmas reading, may I suggest:

    De ordine emanandi causatorum a Deo

    The Chicken

  19. The Masked Chicken says:

    Should read:

    His name usually ends in an e

  20. Sid Cundiff in NC says:

    Thank you, Father. This season of the year has its sadness for some folk, especially those whom Death has robbed. Your words have been for me a pick-me-up, a morning Tiramisu.

  21. iPadre says:

    I think he lived a white martyrdom. A number of bishops, priests, and theologians thought they could surpass the Council with their mumbo jumbo. A Cardinal friend told me many times, “The Pope is surrounded by enemies.” It was as if all the powers of hell were loosed and there was a concentrated effort by the evil one. Paul saw that “the smoke of Satan had entered the household of God,” and did what he could do. A kind of tsunami of errors attacking the Church from within and without. Enough to test any man’s faith and virtue.

  22. chantgirl says:

    iPadre- I think you are onto something. People have crosses that correspond in some way to the Lord’s suffering- the depressed and mentally ill with the Agony in the Garden, the abused and molested with the scourging, the exhausted mother with the fatigue of Jesus carrying His Cross. I had not considered the cross of failure, though. What must Jesus have felt as He saw the men that He had personally trained, guided, and taught absolutely fail on the battlefield when He was crucified. I can only imagine what that pain must have been like, and it must have been a heavy burden to Pope Paul VI to be at the helm and watch things disintegrate around him, and feel helpless to stop it. From where he stood, it must have looked like the Church had capsized and the faithful were jumping the ship. I am reminded of Mother Teresa’s line that Jesus asks us to be obedient, not successful. Also, Fr. Z, your explanation of heroic virtue seems to sum up St. Therese’s Little Way, a way of practicing heroic virtue that most of us can do.

  23. MichaelJ says:

    Does anyone know when and where we will be able to see the actual decree? I understand now that “heroic virture” is not necessarily tied to specific events or accomplishments, but if that is the case here, I cannot help but ask “what’s the point?”. This sounds very selfish I know, and it is, but delaring Pope Paul VI Venerable does absolutely nothing for him.

    The declaration is for our benefit so that we may emulate that person, right? If there are no details about specific events or accomplishments, what is it that we are supposed to emulate? How can we apply what Venerable Paul VI did to respond to specific events to our own lives if we do not know what he did?

    I know we are all called to live a life of herioc virtue, but without specific details, a declaration does not help at all.

  24. Pingback: Now Venerable Paul VI Still Misunderstood

  25. Pingback: Why You Should Eat Indian Food Today: Saint Thomas' Feastday | Big Pulpit

  26. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Mr. Foley, thanks for quoting Bl. Marmion’s quote of “the seed of Abraham” passage! That Biblical verse was referenced by Beatus in Bk 2 of his Commentary, and nobody else seems to have caught it! Thanks to you, I did! Yay!

  27. avalon-rose says:

    I am immensely grateful for the information that Andrew provides us, above….I had no idea he suffered from depression, nor that all popes since Paul VI were men he created cardinals…the significance of that is rather astounding. And while I knew that there was an ungodly amount of outcry and dissent over Humanae Vitae, I also did not know that there was a large number of priests actually applying for laicization over this. :( That’s just terrible. No wonder the Holy Father was depressed.

    I don’t know if this is common knowledge, or where this information was obtained, but when I was living in Chicago a couple years ago, I attended Saint John Cantius, a beautiful church with beautiful liturgy in both the OF and EF (how I miss this church!). Father Phillips told us more than once during the Lenten class on the liturgy that Pope Paul VI was horrified when he discovered that, in authorizing the Novus Ordo changes, he had unknowingly abolished the Octave of Pentecost. Apparently Paul VI had a great devotion to the Holy Spirit, and this happened ‘right under his nose.’ It’s been so long since I’ve heard Father Phillips tell the story, I forget all the details, but I seem to recall that the Pope had vested for Mass and had done so for the Octave, only to be informed it was ‘no more’. I think, at this, he went into the sacristy and wept. Poor man, my heart hurts to know he wept so much, and secretly in his room! :( I wonder how such a detail got past him, he surely had to read the proposed changes very carefully?

    I thought perhaps this would provide further insight into the man, and his sufferings. I would love to know where Father Phillips got this information, and if it can be verified.

    Venerable Paul VI, ora pro nobis!

  28. I need to hear more about the good points of Pope Paul VI. He has been so demonized, and not just over the changes in the Mass, but concerning his personal life too.
    If the Devil’s Advocate role was reinstated along with the more stringent rules on the candidates’ miracles, I would be more excited about the process for Paul VI and other recently beatified/canonized individuals.

    Thanks for the encouraging post Fr Z.

  29. Andrew says:

    Many of you seem have been struck with the revelation that Paul VI suffered depression.

    I think this might have a lot to do with the fact, that even now when there is a much heightened awareness of the prevalence of mental illness, there remains somewhat of a social stigma in regard to someone who is depressed.

    The typical stoic attiutde in that situation is, “Grab hold of yourself. You should be grateful for what is good in your life. Look at all the people who are far worse off than you”. These sorts of comments prevent many depressed persons, from getting the proper treatment, that can actually be quite effective in normalising the mood of a person.

    Depression is often caused by the fact that in a person’s brain chemistry, there is not enough seratonen, the feel good hormone.

    I hope and pray the knowledge that Paul VI (a Vicar of Christ) suffered from this qute acutely, may give encouragement to those sufferers to treat it like any cross that comes to us in life, (unite it to Jesus, offer it up!) and realize there is plenty of support readily available. Medications that treat depression are much more advanced than when the late Holy Father was living. Of course in extreme cases, hosptialization may be required.

    (Of course we know at the time the Pope was at the helm of the Church, this was a very tumultuous era, that would have a played a very signinfcant part in this, as well!)

    We pray in the Hail Holy Queen that we live in a “vale of tears”. In this time of Our Lord’s birth, if we all try and reach out to our brother, we will be living in the sort of community He desires.