The Hierarchy of Sin, Works, & Virtues

(Ed. I have always wished the Catholic Church would give a numerical 1-10 score to it’s teachings so that there might be some indication for each particular teaching how important it is.  Of course, humans being humans, controversy and acrimonious debate would immediately ensue amongst faithful Catholic theologians, let alone everybody else.  It would still help knuckle-draggers like me.)

“There is an idea among some Protestants that all sin is equal. Although tacitly recognizing that certain sinful actions are morally worse than others, they seem to get hung up on the idea that any sin is imperfection and any imperfection will keep someone out of heaven (this is why Jesus—who is perfect—must stand in our place). If this is the case, then any sin will send someone to hell, so any distinctions in gravity among sins is pointless. Therefore, all sin is equal. Sometimes they will quote St. James, who writes, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” ( James 2:10).

Now, common sense tells us otherwise. A Hyundai and a Lamborghini are both cars, but they are clearly not equal! All broken laws are broken laws, and anyone who breaks the law is a lawbreaker no matter which law he broke. That does not, however, mean that there is no hierarchy within the law. Indeed, it seems evident from numerous passages of Scripture that various sins can result in varying levels of punishment. Jesus tells the Pharisees that they will receive a greater condemnation for their actions (Mark 12:40). He tells his disciples that anyone who will not listen to what they say will be judged more harshly than Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:14–15). James warns teachers that they will be judged more severely than others ( James 3:1). St. Peter says that for those who have come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ but then again defile themselves with the world, it would have been better if they had never known the way of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:20–22). John records Jesus saying that Judas has a greater sin than Pilate ( John 19:11).

We perceive a similar hierarchy when it comes to good works. Several times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that certain actions will lead to greater rewards (e.g., Matt. 5:11–12, 6:1–6, 16–20). How is it that these greater rewards are gained? Jesus said it’s according to what people do (Matt. 16:27). This concept is illustrated in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) and repeated by Paul in Romans 2:5–6: “He will render to every man according to his works.” Paul also distinguishes between the reward received by those whose good works endure and those whose do not: “If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved” (1 Cor. 3:14–15; cf. Rev. 20:12).

But although many Protestants typically shy away from assigning salvation-merit to good works or damnation- judgment to evil works, many agree there is indication that these very things are taught in Scripture. Evangelical apologist Norman Geisler, for example, lists degrees of happiness in heaven and punishment in hell as an area of agreement between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants: “As to the degree of punishment, Roman Catholicism holds that ‘The punishment of the damned is proportioned to each one’s guilt.’ Augustine taught that, ‘in their wretchedness, the lot of some of the damned will be more tolerable than that of others.’ Just as there are levels of blessedness in heaven, there are degrees of wretchedness in hell.”80

In Principle Protestants Agree: Moral common sense and Scripture teach that not all sins are equivalent.

In Particular Catholicism Affirms: Sins are not equivalent— either in seriousness or their effects on salvation.”

-by Robert Kennerson

“Like Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas directly addresses the Neoplatonic theory of a hierarchy of virtues. The theory makes an appearance in the Summa Theologiae, where Aquinas, like Bonaventure in the Collations, does not attribute the theory to Porphyry but to Macrobius.40 The fifth article of question 61 (Iallae) asks: “Are the cardinal virtues appropriately divided into political, purifying, purified, and exemplar virtues?”41

After citing some Aristotelian (and one Ciceronian) objections that seem to arise from Macrobius’s account of virtue, Aquinas allows Macrobius to cite his own authority, whom Aquinas has no reason to doubt is “Plotinus, along with Plato.” To mediate this dispute, Aquinas appeals to Augustine, who says, “the soul must follow something so that virtue can be born in it; and this something is God, and if we follow Him we shall live a moral life.”42 From this, Aquinas concludes:

“…the exemplar of human virtue must pre-exist in God, just as the exemplars of all things pre-exist in Him. In this way, therefore, virtue can be considered as existing in its highest exemplification in God, and in this fashion we speak of exemplar virtues. Thus the divine mind in God can be called prudence, while temperance is the turning of the divine attention to Himself.. The fortitude of God is His immutability, while God’s justice is the observance of the eternal law in His works.”43

Aquinas’s discussion here recalls the words of Porphyry, cited above, concerning the exemplar virtues: “wisdom is nous cognizing; self-attention, temperance; peculiar function [justice], proper action. Valor is sameness, and a remaining pure of self-dependence, through abundance of power.”

Aquinas’s words are surprising because up until this point in the Summa, he has been speaking of virtue primarily in the political sense; “man is a political animal by nature,” and “manz comports himself rightly in human affairs by these [political] virtues.”44 But Aquinas acknowledges the philosophical necessity of understanding the political virtues as having their origin in higher virtues. Thus, in answer to the objection that Aristotle says it is inappropriate to attribute the virtues to God (NE, X, 8, 1178b 10), Aquinas answers that Aristotle must be speaking of the political virtues 45—for surely we would not want to deny to God any excellence of activity. And again, to the objection that the virtues concern the regulation of passions, and so could not exist if the soul was completely purified of passions, Aquinas says this is only true of the political virtues. Beatified souls, however, are without the passions of wayfaring souls; it is these souls which achieve the purer virtues. 46

To the objection that the purifying virtues cannot be virtues since they involve “flight from human affairs,” Aquinas agrees that “to neglect human affairs when they require attending to is wrong.” But otherwise such flight is virtuous. 47 Here, Aquinas appeals to Augustine, who says: “The love of truth needs a sacred leisure; the force of love demands just deeds. If no one places a burden upon us, then we are free to know and contemplate truth; but if such a burden is put upon us, we must accept it because of the demands of charity.”48

The purifying virtues, commonly called the contemplative virtues, are the virtues of “those who are on the way and tending toward a likeness of what is divine.” In agreement with Porphyry’s description of these virtues is Aquinas’:

Thus prudence, by contemplating divine things, counts all worldly things as nothing and directs all thought of the soul only to what is divine; temperance puts aside the customary needs of the body so far as nature permits; fortitude prevents the soul from being afraid of withdrawing from bodily needs and rising to heavenly things; and justice brings the whole soul’s accord to such a way of life.49

Above these are the “purified” virtues. Porphyry would attribute them only to the gods (all those other than the “father of the gods”), that is, to immaterial souls; Aquinas, in keeping with this, attributes these virtues to the souls of men who have been beatified— and even, it seems, to saints in this life:

…prudence now sees only divine things, temperance knows no earthly desires, fortitude is oblivious to the passions, and justice is united with the divine mind in an everlasting bond, by imitating it.50


40 Albertus Magnus also mentions this Neoplatonic theory, attributing it to Plotinus (Albertus Magnus, Super Ethica Commentum et Quaestiones 2.2; 4:12; 5.3; 7.11).

41 ST1-2.61.5: “Utrum virtutes cardinales convenienter dividantur in virtutes politicas, purgatorias, purgati animi, et exemplares.”

42 Ibid., corpus: “Respondeo dicendum quod, sicut Augustinus dicit in libro de Moribus Eccles., oportet quod anima aliquid sequatur, ad hoc quod ei possit virtus innasci: et hoc Deus est, quern si sequimur, bene vivimus.” The citation of Augustine is from De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae 1.6.

43 ST1-2.61.5, corpus: “.exemplar humanae virtutis in Deo praeexistat, sicut et in eo praeexistunt omnium rerum rationes. Sic igitur virtus potest considerari vel prout est exemplariter in Deo, et sic dicuntur virtutes ‘exemplares’. Ita scilicet quod ipsa divina mens in Deo dicatur prudentia; temperantia vero, conversio divinae intentionis ad seipsum…; fortitude autem Dei est eius immutabilitas; iustitia vero Dei est observatio legis aeternae in suis operibus, sicut Plotinus dixit.” Cf. Quaestiones de Virtutibus Cardinalibus 1.4 (“Utrum virtutes cardinales maneant in patria”): “.fortitude divina est eius immobilitas; temperentia erit conversio mentis divinae ad seipsam; prudentia autem est ipsa mens divina; iustitia autem Dei ipsa lex eius perennis.”

44 ST1-2.61.5, corpus: “Et quia homo secundum suam naturam est animal politicum, virtutes huiusmodi, prout in homine existunt secundum conditionem suae naturae, politicae vocantur: prout scilicet homo secundum has virtutes recte se habet in rebus humanis gerendis. Secundum quern modum hactenus de his virtutibus locuti sumus.” Cf. 1-2.61.1, corpus: “.dicendum quod, cum simpliciter de virtute loquimur, intelligimur loqui de virtute humana.”

45 ST1-2.61.5, ad. 1: “.dicendum quod Philosophus loquitur de his virtutibus secundum quod sunt circa res humanas: puta iustitia circa emptiones et venditiones, fortitude circa timores, temperantia circa concupiscentias. Sic enim ridiculum est eas Deo attribuere.”

46 Ibid., ad. 2: “dicendum quod virtutes humanae sunt circa passiones, scilicet virtutes hominum in hoc mundo conversantium. Sed virtutes eorum qui plenam beatitudenem assequuntur, sunt absque passionibus.” Cf. Quaestiones de Virtutibus Cardinalibus 1.4: “Dicendum, quod in patria manent virtutes cardinales, et habebunt ibi alios actus quam hie.”

47 ST1-2.61.5, ad 3: “.dicendum quod deserere res humanas ubi necessitas imponitur, vitiosum est: alias est virtuosum.”

48 Augustine’s words are from De Civitate Dei 19.19.

49 ST1-2.61.5, corpus: “.quaedam sunt virtutes transeuntium et in divinam similitudinem tendentium: et hae vocantur virtutes purgatoriae. Ita scilicet quod prudentia omnia mundana divinorum contemplatione despiciat, omnemque animae cogitationem in divina sola diregat; temperantia vero relinquat, inquantum natura patitur, quae corporis usus requirit; fortitudinis autem est ut anima non terreatur propter excessum a corpore, et accessum ad superna; iustitia vero est ut tota anima consentiat ad huius propositi viam.”

50 Ibid.: “Quaedam vero sunt virtutes iam assequentium divinam similitudinem: quae vocantur virtutes iam purgati animi. Ita scilicet quod prudentia sola divina intueatur; temperantia terrenas cupiditates nesciat; fortitude passiones ignoret; iustitia cum divina mente perpetua foedere societur, earn scilicet imitando. Quas quidem virtutes dicimus esse beatorum vel aliquorum in hac vita perfectissimorum.” Cf. De Virtutibus Cardinalibus 1.4, ad. 7: “dicendum, quod virtutes purgati animi, quas Plotinus definiebat, possunt convenire beads nam prudentiae ibi est sola divina intueri; temperantiae, cupiditates oblivisci fortitudinis, passiones ignorare; iustitiae, perpetuum foedus cum Deo habere.’ Mark Jordan has suggested that in ST 1-2.67.1, Aquinas says that both the purifying and the purified virtues remain in patria (Jordan 1993, 239). In fact, in that question Aquinas says that in patria the “formal” element of the moral virtues remains without the “material” element, and Aquinas’ description of what these virtues are like is consistent with the position articulated in ST 12.61.5, that only purified virtues are had in patria.

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