When the Church takes up someone’s cause for sainthood, one of the things they look for is heroic virtue. Drawing from Pope Benedict XIV and St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Encyclopedia defines “heroic virtue” as

“…a habit of good conduct that has become a second nature, a new motive power stronger than all corresponding inborn inclinations, capable of rendering easy a series of acts each of which, for the ordinary man, would be beset with very great, if not insurmountable, difficulties. Such a degree of virtue belongs only to souls already purified from all attachment to things worldly, and solidly anchored in the love of God.”

I think that Christians are often in situations that call for heroic virtue. Periods of religious persecution, in the past and today, are obvious examples of heroic actions, but I think there are many more “mundane” examples. There’s the heroism of the woman being open to life in the face of postpartum depression and other health issues. The heroism of the alcoholic striving to get sober. The heroism of the gay man converting to Catholicism and a life of abstinence. The heroism of the chronically ill who are simply functioning with kindness and patience. While these situations are commonplace they are still scenarios where heroic virtue may be demanded.

The Church’s teaching on grace and human weakness is absolutely essential to the discussion of demanding heroism from Christians, let alone non-believers or recent converts. The Catechism says this about the Jesus’ command to love as God loves:

“…’You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’; ‘Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful’; ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.’ It is impossible to keep the Lord’s commandment by imitating the divine model from outside; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make ‘ours’ the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (CCC 2842).

In other words, the Holy Spirit transforms our mind and will into the divine mind and will, and only to the extent they have been transformed are we able to follow the commandments, are we capable of heroic virtue. A process of transformation is exactly how Pope Francis talks about grace in Gaudete et Exsultate:

“Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once….Unless we can acknowledge our concrete and limited situation, we will not be able to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words” (GE 50).

Our capacity to follow the moral law is a process that happens within time, thus there are periods where we know the good and desire the good, but are too weak to act on the good. As Where Peter Is contributor Brian Killian wrote, loving as we ought, keeping the commandments are like a “final cause.” “It is not forever out of reach but neither is it yet in reach – it is that which is becoming reachable by God’s grace.”

The Lord said to Saint Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Our weakness is an opportunity for God to reveal his power. The circumstances of one’s life can limit one’s freedom to follow the moral law even if they know the moral law, especially in situations that demand heroic virtue. The pope says that it’s our conscience that can tell us when we are too weak to follow the moral law and what concrete actions God is calling us to in our circumstances. From Amoris Laetitia:

“Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (AL 303).

I get the sense from many Catholic preachers and pastors that they don’t understand human weakness. Their rhetoric gives the impression that God demands heroism from someone as soon as the Gospel is presented to them, laying on them the full burden of the moral law. This is how the pope describes Pelagianism. Again, from Gaudete et Exsultate:

“Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, ‘ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style’. When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything’, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace” (GE 49).

Reflecting on all of these teachings, I would say that heroic virtue isn’t our burden to carry as much as it’s God’s burden. What I mean is, God desires and invites us to be perfect as he is perfect, to theosis. However, we do not have the strength of will to act heroically without grace. It’s not that God acts for us, rather, we can’t act until he first acts on us.

The denial of human weakness warps our idea of God. If weakness isn’t acknowledged then “God’s grace is sufficient” is code for “just try harder.” And saying “just try harder” to the person who is weak could very well crush their spirit. It presents God as someone who demands the impossible. “As Saint Augustine taught, God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot” (GE 49). So in those moments when heroism is demanded in the face of weakness, we are simply called to do what we are able, even if it’s not the objective ideal, and also pray fervently to the Lord for the grace to reach, in His time, that ideal.

[Photo Credit: Marion on One Secret Mission]

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Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is.  He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation

“My power is made perfect in weakness”

10 Responses

  1. Jessica says:

    Before I finish the article, I feel compelled to say how much this line delights me: “The heroism of the gay man converting to Catholicism and a life of abstinence.”

    Setting aside the controversy around the Church’s teachings, I think those who intentionally give up having a spouse and nuclear family, in a world that would allow it, in order to follow their beliefs truly deserve to be considered heros and (God willing) future saints. I sincerely pray that their sacrifices aren’t in vain.

  2. chris dorf says:

    When I visited Medjugorje in 1989 this was a scripture verse that was close to me as we prayed outside the church. It has always been close to my heart:

    –Zechariah; 4:6-7 An Oracle.

    6Then he said to me: “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, and not by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts.

    7Who are you, O great mountain?* Before Zerubbabel you become a plain.

  3. carn says:

    “Periods of religious persecution, in the past and today, are obvious examples of heroic actions, but I think there are many more “mundane” examples. There’s the heroism of the woman being open to life in the face of postpartum depression and other health issues. The heroism of the alcoholic striving to get sober. The heroism of the gay man converting to Catholicism and a life of abstinence. The heroism of the chronically ill who are simply functioning with kindness and patience.”

    I am not sure, why you put these examples in contrast to persecution of the past.

    While not organized, at least on a psychological level the pressure some pregnant women, when doctors think there is some health condition “justifying” abortion, some patients near death, when nursing staff and relatives get impatient, or some gay man experiences, when his “friends” get aware about his intentions, would be well suited for a soft persecution regime.

    So no problem to talk about heroic virtue there.

    But “I get the sense from” what you wrote “that” you “don’t understand” what problem many preachers have with how “human weakness” is handled.

    There are mainly 3 options:
    a) telling people what the law is and require its fulfillment with too little compassion;
    b) not telling people what the law is; or
    c) telling people what the law is and help to fulfill it compassionately.

    I would assume it a rather sure bet, that many preachers you think are falling into a) actually have the perception that they are trying to walk against the immense and powerful tide and flow fully into b) and try to go for c) while they feel a pressure not being far from soft persecution to shut up and happily swim with anyone else into b) (if you go for a target one can miss in two directions and there is some strong force to one side, overcompensation is usually not thee slightest bit sinful if one takes all what you say about human weakness serious).

    • carn says:

      to clarify: “telling people what the law is” of course includes various more or less compassionate sub-options; e.g. telling a woman heading for an abortionist that she should not kill her unborn child is a way of telling her what the law is; telling her that she has it in her to be a good mother for her child and that you are ready to help her or at least listen to her problems is another way of telling her what the law is; but the two might differ in respect to harshness/rigidity.

      • carn says:

        And the reason is, why i think that there are considerable number of people in the Church going and even pressuring for b) is that I know personally people who try to approach women heading for abortion in the latter way, by being kind and offering help, but also with implicitely advising against abortion and implying that it is wrong.

        Guess what, for not few Church people in Germany they are paria, cause allegedly they are harsh and rigid christians.

        If someone obviously struggles to go for c) with the complex issue of abortion, but is lambasted as going for a) by people who never explicitely state that killing unborn humans is wrong, what else am i too conclude that these people want b), want that it is no longer said what the law is?

        (to clarify: that criticism is specific to Germany; at least the Pope has no problem stating in – actually in my opinion a bit too harsh words – what the law is with abortion; but if i would ask the prolife people in Germany trying to walk that difficult path, from whom in the Church in Germany they receive the most antagonism for allegedly being harsh and rigid, there would be some relevant overlap with Germans having influence in Rome)

  4. Marie says:

    Thank you Paul for this. I think most of us have at least at some point been overconfident in our own strengths, only to realize we succumb to the very sin or sins we were so certain we ‘had in the bag’. Very humbling, and a reminder of God , his love and graces.

    I wonder too, if our gifts that we so often take for granted, are challenged in a similar way as sin, where we become so confident in ourselves and our talents, that we no longer see their connection to God. We don’t realize these gifts can become our worst enemies when they become corrupted because we no longer recognize them as gifts. As an example, intelligence and our ability to reason can actually be blocked by pride, preventing us from recognizing obvious truths. This is something that comes to mind.

    • Paul Fahey says:

      You are welcome. This was a very thoughtful comment:

      “We don’t realize these gifts can become our worst enemies when they become corrupted because we no longer recognize them as gifts.”

      I’m reminded of a passage from The Name of God is Mercy where the pope says that sometimes the Lord allows us to fall into mortal sin so that we remember that it’s by His strength, and not ours, that we become holy.

      • jong says:

        Paul Fahey
        Yes. it is correct and this is called a lesson on humility, so that we won’t condemn others because we too our sinners forgiven by the Mercy of God.
        This is why Jesus challenge the crowd in the scene on Magdalene;”Anyone who had not sinned cast the first stone.” (John8:7)

  5. Christopher Lake says:


    As a sinner who aspires to be a Saint, but finds himself broken and humbled, again and again, by his human weakness and his sinfulness– thank you for this post. I particularly needed to read it today, when the loss of someone very dear to me has laid me very low, in great emotional pain– but thanks to God and His grace (and definitely *not* due to my own strength!), not low enough to make things worse by descending into serious sin to temporarily ease my pain. Your words were, and are, helpful to me in a very trying time, brother. Thank you.

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