The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 51, No 5, Sep.-Oct. 1998

Theology for the Laity

Christian Temperance

By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

At the start of our consideration of the virtue of temperance, it is important to clarify what we mean by that virtue. When the word temperance is mentioned many think of the temperance movements that were strong in the19th and early 20th centuries that were aimed at eliminating the abuse of alcohol, and that exercised their influence in the passage in 1917 of the 18th amendment of the Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, an amendment that was repealed in 1933. While the cardinal virtue of temperance includes the virtue of sobriety, or the controlled use of alcohol, its scope is far broader than that.


In general, temperance means moderation, not overdoing a good thing. Every moral virtues achieves a balance (a golden mean) between excess and defect, that is, between too much and too little. This spirit of moderation is not the virtue of temperance, but rather a general condition present in every moral virtue.

The virtue of temperance is an habitual disposition that enables man to govern his natural appetite and attraction for pleasures of the senses in accordance with the norms of reason enlightened by faith. Man is defined by philosophers as a rational animal, and it is the animal part of his nature that is the special object of this virtue.

While the virtue of temperance has as its object the moderation and control of all pleasures whose allurement may draw one off the course of reason, the hardest duty of flesh and blood is the self-restraint in the use of food and drink, and of the venereal pleasures connected with the propagation of the human race. God, in His providence, has implanted in man certain appetites that are necessary for the conservation of the human individual and the human race. For example, in order that man would eat and drink sufficiently for the health of the body, the Creator has attached a special pleasure to the act of satisfying his hunger and thirst, and a certain discomfort when this is wanting. If that were not so, with the high cost of food and the difficulty in procuring it, man would not eat sufficiently to sustain the health of the body.

In a similar way, in order to insure the continuation of the human race, the Creator has attached an intense pleasure to acts involved in human procreation. Were that not so, with the sacrifices required in raising a family, the human race would die out. Because, however, of the pleasure connected with the act of eating and drinking, and of the sexual function involved in human procreation, the special virtue of temperance is needed to control the use of these appetites in keeping with the noble purpose intended by the Creator.


Because of the strength of the pleasure-seeking emotions that spring from human nature, and due to our weaknesses resulting from original sin, these emotions easily make demands beyond the limits established by reason and the law of God. For that reason, God gives to one in the state of grace special helps of a higher order, the infused virtue of temperance and the corresponding gift of the Holy Spirit. This elevates one’s outlook and motivation from merely concern about the body to concern about the soul, from a purely natural outlook, to one that is supernatural. It opens the way to added light and assistance from the Holy Spirit to compensate for our weaknesses.

However, it would be sheer presumption to imagine that the Holy Spirit will come with his aiding grace if we neglect prayer, and do not do what we can to practice the virtue of temperance on the natural level; that is, if there is not mortification and self-denial of our appetites extending even to things that are lawful in themselves.

The virtue of temperance is not an enemy of pleasure, but of the excesses to which human weaknesses and passion can draw one. It is a protecting virtue, safeguarding those natural and God-given appetites lest they seek the pleasures to which they are inclined beyond what reason and the law of God dictates. The passions of man have an important role to play in human life, but let them get out of control and man’s very life can be endangered. They need to be harnessed to bring them under the control of reason. That harness is the virtue of temperance.

Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P. pointed out that our modern reform methods are attempting the hopeless when they disregard the need to discipline the passions and try to cope with their consequences:


What theologians call the integral parts of a virtue, are those conditions which are necessary for the virtue. Two important conditions which dispose to the christian virtue of temperance are the sense of shame, and the sense of honor.

A) The sense of shame: This is a praiseworthy emotion that causes one to fear the disgrace or embarrassment connected with something degrading and base; and since grave sins of intemperance are degrading and base - for when they occur the animal in us is master and not human reason - the sense of shame in a special way pertains to the virtue of temperance. We are not speaking of the shame or embarrassment that follows a base action when detected by others (this could be caused by pride), but the fear of any degrading action that helps one to avoid that debasement.

Nor are we speaking of the fear of the loss of one’s good name; for one may refrain from such action if there were concern about being detected, but would not refrain from it if that concern were absent. It is rather a sense of shamefulness of the sin itself, which motivates one to refrain from such action. It lays the foundation for temperance by filling one with horror of whatever is disgraceful.

This sense of shame is not a virtue, for it is not an habitual disposition, but a passing protective emotion, an instinct, a God-given inclination placed in human nature to deter one from going to excess in those matters that are particularly alluring. Since this sense of shame - found particularly in the young - is a safeguard in the matter of temperance, “one can readily see the importance of cultivating this natural instinct of shame in children before they reach the age of puberty.” (Frances Cunningham, O.P. - The Christian Life). The absence of shame for disgraceful actions disposes one to a contempt for the moderation that temperance safeguards, and even to boast of his sins.

B) The sense of honor is an appreciation and reverence for the spiritual beauty connected with the practice of the virtue of temperance. While the sense of shame is based on fear, the sense of honor is a love for the beauty of temperance. One is a fear of the disgraceful, the other is a reverence for the sacred and beautiful. The spiritual beauty of temperance, says St. Thomas, consists in a man’s conduct being well proportioned to right reason. (II II, 145,2) It is poles apart from the base and ugly actions that temperance repels. Here, too, training must start early.

God has endowed the young with an instinctive modesty, a certain innate shyness and reserve which is a natural safeguard in the matter of chastity; but unless this is nurtured and protected it can easily be erased by the secular culture of our day which condones and fosters so many things contrary to the laws of God. Too, it is difficult to see how sex education classes given at a very early age, before the child’s ability to cope with such information, and given without a corresponding training in morals, could avoid undermining this foundation of temperance of which we have been speaking.


Since the areas where our natural desire for pleasure most needs to be controlled by the guidance of reason are the basic instincts for nourishment and procreation which have to do with the senses of taste and touch, the species of temperance can be divided into two groups: those pertaining to the SENSE OF TASTE (abstinence and sobriety), and those pertaining to the SENSE OF TOUCH (chastity).

A) Abstinence is a special virtue under the general virtue of temperance which moderates the appetite for food and drink according to the dictates of reason enlightened by faith. This is not to be confused with the Church’s laws of abstinence requiring the abstaining from meat on certain days. And when we say this virtue regulates the appetite for food and drink, that does not include alcoholic drink which, because of its special problems, is moderated by the special virtue of sobriety. The virtue of abstinence does not bring one to deprive oneself of food and drink needed for the body, but rather enables one to avoid the excesses our pleasure-seeking nature so easily succumbs to, and to abstain from what is injurious to good health. Yet christian temperance, motivated by faith, can bring one to discipline the appetite for food and drink to take less than normal for purposes of mortification and reparation.

Progress in the spiritual life demands a certain amount of fasting, which is a part of the virtue of temperance. Fasting, or refraining for a supernatural motive from taking as much food as temperance would allow has several important benefits, as St. Thomas points out: “Fasting is practiced for a threefold purpose: First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh . . . since fasting is the guardian of chastity. Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of spiritual truths. Thirdly, to satisfy for sins.” (ibid. 147,1)

St. Augustine speaks in a similar vein in a sermon: “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects the flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the thirst of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.”

B) Sobriety is a special virtue which moderates the sense appetite in the use of intoxicating drinks. While non-intoxicating drinks are regulated by the virtue of abstinence, a special virtue is needed to regulate the use of alcohol, because of the problems that can arise from excessive consumption of it, among which are loss of reason and the ease with which an addictive habit can be formed. At the same time alcoholic drinks can have beneficial effects if used moderately, such as the lifting up of spirits, and the contributing to sociability in gatherings as the Scriptures indicate: “Wine is life for man if drunk in moderation. . . . It was created to make men happy. Drunk at the right time and in the right amount wine makes for a glad heart and a cheerful mind. Bitterness of soul comes from wine drunk to excess. . . .” (Sir. 31:27-29) While moderation in this matter can be an exercise of the virtue of sobriety, due to the weaknesses of fallen human nature that moderation, for some, does not come easily. We must not underestimate the importance of this virtue, for drunkenness opens the door to other sins. When the guiding restraint of reason has been clouded because of excessive drinking, the emotions have their way and frequently lead to sins of impurity, outbreaks of anger, displays of carelessness, etc.

C) Chastity is the moral virtue which regulates the desire for pleasure connected with the sexual powers according to the guidance of reason enlightened by faith. These powers and the pleasure involved in their use were created by God for a sublime and sacred purpose; and therefore the use of them in keeping with God’s plan (in marriage only) is both lawful and virtuous. The virtue of chastity, therefore, should not be seen as something negative, merely not doing this or that, or a suppression of God-given instincts, but rather as a safeguard of those God-given powers intended for the procreation of human life and for the mutual expression of love of husband and wife, lest what in God’s plan was intended for so sublime a purpose should be selfishly dragged down into the mire.

Chastity is a difficult virtue, not only because of the vigilance it requires and the intensity of the emotions involved, but unlike other virtues where one can walk away from occasions of sin and sources of temptation, the object of this virtue is the control of the emotions deep within one’s own being. St. Thomas compares the sexual emotions to a little child that always insists on having its own way. Both, he said, need restraint and require constant vigilance lest they get out of control. Grave sins against this virtue - against the 6th commandment - should be seen as stolen pleasure. But the difficult thing about this kind of theft is that what was stolen cannot be restored. Spiritual writers recommend that the next best thing, after asking God’s pardon and resolving to avoid the occasion, is to forego some lawful pleasure to make reparation for the pleasure that was sought wrongfully.


In spite of our good intentions and the fact that with the state of grace we have the added help of the infused virtue of temperance, we are all well aware that, as St. Paul exclaims, “we carry this treasure in vessels of clay.” (2 Cor.4:7) Only too often the surge of passion overpowers the higher faculties and gains victory over reason and grace, making it clear that the added help of the infused virtue of temperance is not enough. “I do, not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not intend." (Rom. 7:15)

There is needed in addition the special help of the Holy Spirit through the gift of Fear of the Lord, through which one is enabled to exercise the virtue of temperance in a way that he could never do aided only by the infused virtues. This gift is not to be confused with the passion of fear that is rooted in the body, a fear of some impending danger. It is a divine instinct springing from love and reverence for God, a fear not of His punishment, but of offending Him. It is a fear of sin which offends God, and which alone could separate one from Him, bringing one to avoid the excesses of the sense appetites with their strong attractions. It is a holy fear that increases as charity increases, for the more one loves another the more one fears to offend him and to be separated from him.

When the gifts of the Holy Spirit are operative, all our faculties are docile to His actions, removing all resistance on the part of the will and bodily appetites and passions. More than we realize the Holy Spirit operates in this hidden manner in our lives. Yet we have no control over when the Holy Spirit operates in this manner. "The wind blows where it will. . . . So it is with everyone begotten of the Spirit." (Jn. 3:8)

This action of the Holy Spirit does not replace our efforts, but presupposes them and strengthens and guides them, making us more aware of God's infinite love and majesty. As Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D. explains, this holy fear dilates the soul and spurs it on the way of generosity and perfection.

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