Mercy: The fifth cardinal virtue?

There is a passage in Robert Wilkin's excellent book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, that I find intriguing. He writes that once, while praying in the Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, England, he caught sight of something.

. . . I noticed several large medallions set in the stone floor at the front of the apse. From where I was sitting I could see that one was prudentia, then I noticed temperantia and fortitudo. I knew there had to be a fourth, justitia, and after the service I went to the front of the church. To my surprise I noticed there were five, not four, medallions. The fourth was indeed justitia but the fifth was misericordia, mercy. Whoever designed the cathedral understood that the four cardinal virtues did not say everything Christians believed about the moral life.

As a young college teacher, I taught the four cardinal virtues with gusto, convinced — as were the ancients — that human beings could, by practicing certain acts, make them second nature. That is, after all, what we mean by a virtue: a good habit, something that one does with greater and greater ease because resistance has been overcome by practice. Athletes understand this on the physical level, as do musicians and other artists on the aesthetic plane. It was important to me to convince students that the moral life could also be rendered habitual, so that one became a person for whom it was easy to do the good.

Now these medallions on the floor of a church I've never seen challenge me to rethink all that. Why would Christians add mercy to the great foursome of prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude? The philosophers of ancient Greece deemed these four sufficient. Christian thinkers from Thomas Aquinas to Josef Pieper felt no need to add a fifth. Nevertheless, I long ago learned to listen to the artists, especially the artists of church architecture and liturgy. The presence of mercy in the company of these secular virtues is significant.

Before trying to solve the puzzle, let me review the four cardinal virtues. They are called cardinal — from the Latin word for hinge — because the moral life, so the ancients thought, is supported by them; all good habits are "hinged" to these four. If one has facility with these four habits, it is possible to attain that happiness which the Greeks thought to be the end or purpose of human life. The four are inseparable. In order to have one virtue, a person must have all four, because they work together in important ways. Prudentia, prudence, is the ability to make wise decisions, decisions that actually work out well. To become better and better at making decisions, two things are requisite. A person must have a true memory of what happened before (or the mistakes of the past will keep on being repeated); and he or she must take time to think about the possible consequences of the decision under consideration (or the decision can bring about unintended results). But true to being memory and foresight require self-control.

This is the connection to temperantia, or temperance. It is the virtue by which a person becomes capable of resisting enslavement to any particular desire. A temperate person is one who can say no to drink or drugs or sex, who is not driven by anger or fear or jealousy. In a temperate person, desires and passions are at the disposal of the self, not the other way round. Therefore, if a decision requires a denial of some desire or control of some passion, the well-ordered person is capable of doing so.

When integrated in such a way, the self can be risked for something loved and desired more than self. That is the meaning of the virtue of fortitudo, or courage. It is the virtue that enables one to risk life or health, fame or fortune, family or friends for the sake of some other good. For the risk to be truly virtuous and not an act of folly, the risk must be worth it, and the self must be under control. In this way, courage connects to prudence and temperance. Above all, however, the good for which one sacrifices must be in reality a good. Thus enters the virtue of justice.

Justitia, or justice, is the virtue that enables a person to be fair, to give to others the things they have a right to. It also calls one to dispense benefits to the community in equitable ways (if one is in authority) and (if one is a participating member) to donate to the community according to the laws governing that community. Justice is the crown of the virtues because it makes it possible for persons to aim at what is truly good, rather than at the things that masquerade as true goods but inevitably disappoint in the end.

We can see now, I hope, that the cardinal virtues are aimed at the perfection of the self. If one acquires prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, one is able to live the good life, as the ancients understood it. Happiness is within one's reach.

Now why would Christians add the virtue of mercy to this mix? Because Christian wisdom is very aware of the ways that human beings fail at the moral life and of the suffering that ensues from that failure.

Human beings make a lot of mistakes trying to learn to make decisions. Many times desires or emotions overwhelm all attempts at self-control. Foolish risks can land a person in messes bigger than one can fix alone. The allure of false goods is ever present. Moreover, it must be admitted, many people grow up without ever being instructed in the concept or the practice of virtue, so that they are ignorant of the ways that they can shape their character. The need for mercy is ever with us. The opportunities to extend mercy abound. The virtue of mercy directs all the powers of the four cardinal virtues toward the suffering other.

Against all the natural inclinations to avoid those who suffer, mercy impels one toward them. Thomas Aquinas maintains that it is a compassionate heart that will bring one to acts of mercy. The compassionate heart feels with another, takes into itself the misery of another — as does pity. But mercy, unlike pity, is not simply a passive experience; it is an active virtue. The merciful one will seek first to relieve misery but will not stop there. The causes need to be addressed, and the person supported in the struggle to attain fullness of life.

For the Christian, then, mercy is an indispensable "hinge" virtue. While the natural virtues remain in the realm of what is owed in justice, mercy goes beyond what is owed to bring grace, bounty, unmerited kindness, the healing power of divine compassion. It connects, then, to the theological virtues — those gifts that enable more than nature can attain on its own. At the same time, as Sydney Callahan has observed: "To perform the works of mercy all the natural virtues and strengths, such as courage, temperance, justice and prudence, must be cultivated and developed . . ." (Created for Joy A Christian View of Suffering).

Such compassion can be both modeled and taught. In this respect, stories are indispensable. Those who feed on narratives of mercy will develop fellow feeling, the capacity to enter into the "chaos of the others," as James F. Keenan has termed it. Those who feed on stories of hard-heartedness will not only fail to acquire the virtue of mercy but end up with hearts of stone. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, it is imperative that we who have received mercy exemplify it in our lives and instruct others in its ways. The intriguing medallion of misericordia among the cardinal virtues at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford continues to issue its challenge.

[Mary Aquin O’Neill is a Sister of Mercy who holds the doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt University. After many years of college teaching, she founded Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women and was its director from 1992 to 2009. Since the center closed in August of 2013, Sr. Aquin is in semi-retirement, writing as well as giving lectures and retreats.]