Woman and the Cardinal Virtue of Fortitude

Cormac Burke FAITH Magazine January-February 2013

Mgr Burke offers a meditation upon the exercise of fortitude in the context of the vocation to womanhood. This was part of a lecture given at Strathmore University, Nairobi, last year. We hope to publish the complementary reflections upon the other cardinal virtues.


Virtue is not a very popular word today. It is hard to say why, but perhaps the reason is that while everyone can have and in fact needs virtues, they cannot be acquired without an effort: an effort to rise above self-centeredness. And rising above self is not seen as an attractive proposition nowadays. Yet to rise above self is the only way to true personal fulfilment. Let us briefly consider why.

A virtue is a stable and acquired quality that makes for the fullness of a person's humanity. For we are all developing beings. What we are today is not exactly the same as what we will be tomorrow. We will have changed, probably just a little; in terms of the worth of our humanity, we will be a bit better or a bit worse; perhaps a bit better in this and a bit worse in that. In any case we will not be the same. And after a year or five years we may have become quite different: more or less sincere, more or less reliable, more or less selfish, more or less positive in attitude towards others. In a word, more or less fulfilled as human persons. More fulfilled if the habitual ways of thinking and acting in our lives are positive, are virtues; less fulfilled if they are negative, arevices.

The "cardinal virtues" are given that title because they are regarded as the most fundamental human virtues, being the support or hinges (pardo = hinge) for all the others. These cardinal virtues are fortitude, justice, prudence and temperance.

I am going to maintain that while all the human virtues should ideally be acquired by everyone, certain virtues are more appropriate to men, and other virtues are more appropriate to women. When I say "more appropriate", I often (though not always) mean more necessary. More necessary, that is, in order to develop a more integrated and developed sexual identity. Because it is a presupposition of our argument that the achievement of sexual identity is integral to full personal fulfilment.1

If this is so, then one can expect the same virtue to be expressed in a somewhat different way according to whether one is a man or woman. This difference should not be exaggerated; but it should not be minimised either. It is simply not possible to acquire a true sexual identity, and to be proud of that identity, without developing certain virtues in a masculine mode if one is a man, or in a feminine mode if one is a woman. Tenderness, for instance, is a virtue that most people would expect to find in a woman, and would consider her less of a woman if she lacked it. Yet a man too is poorly developed as a man if he has no tenderness in him. Cowardliness would be considered a main defect in a man. Yet a woman too needs to be brave and strong. Which brings us to our first cardinalvirtue.


Fortitude means strength, strength in the face of difficulties. It is not properly applied to animals or machines since it is a human quality, a moral virtue, that a person may have or lack, may have in a high or low degree, may develop or may lose.

If fortitude is possessed, it has been acquired. A baby may be naturally tough, never bawling when it falls, just picking itself up and carrying on. But we wouldn't say it has fortitude. That, if it comes, is for later on, when the growing boy or girl is faced with the inevitable struggle to mature, to overcome moral defects - a struggle that works out well in the measure in which one manages to acquire moral strength, or works out badly to the degree that one fails to acquire it.

So, when we speak about fortitude we are not talking about physical strength. Otherwise we would have to conclude that for the most part men have more fortitude than women. And that is certainly not going to be our starting point or our conclusion. Women can have as much fortitude as men, or more or less. But our main argument is that generally they won't have it or lack it in precisely the same way.

Yet there is something basic here that women can learn from men - or, perhaps better, that girls can learn from boys. Think of how often boys are (or used to be) challenged to grow in their sexual identity, with a few simple words that most sisters will have some time heard their dad or mum say to their brother: "Come on, be a man." It may be when the boy starts to cry or is acting like a coward, or is afraid to own up to something wrong he has done. Naturally he must understand the challenge before he can even face it. Most boys have, or at least used to have, a fairly clear idea of what defects they need to fight against if they want to be more manly: not to whimper too easily before pain, not to be a sneak, not to fold up in the face of difficulties.

Now (and this is important, and will be even more important when we come to talk about girls), most boys used to have some model they could refer to in cases like these: their dad, an older brother, or perhaps a footballer who could rally his team to turn apparent defeat into victory. In other words, they could more or less understand what was being asked of them in the challenge "C'mon, be a man".

What strikes me is that I have never heard anything equivalent said to a girl: "Come on; be a woman!" And yet I think it needs to be said a lot today, because girls are less sure of what it means to be - or to become - a woman, less sure of their sexual identity and, it might seem, less eager to develop it. Are girls today becoming women? Physically, and with the passage of a few years, yes. But are they developing a truly feminine nature, truly feminine qualities? Do they see this as a challenge? A challenge that, unless it is met, means they will never be themselves, never become a truly feminine woman?

I say a truly feminine woman, because today we are in danger of getting more and more masculinised women, just as we are in the danger of getting more and more feminised men. It takes prudence to see that. But it takes fortitude to avoid it. Modern education offers little help in grasping this, as is brought out in a letter from a young mother, a few years out of an American college: "I have come to realise that I was educated to be a successful man, and now must learn by myself how to be a successful woman."2

Am I suggesting that women should not aim at being top in the professions, at becoming the CEO of some large company, or going high in political life? No; on the contrary, I would like to see more women in those fields, and to see them succeeding by bringing the best of their feminine qualities with them. Certainly I would not want to see them succeeding because they have imitated the worst in men, those masculine defects that can lead to political or business success - but, at what a cost! We have enough of hard and ruthless people in business life, of domineering professionals, of robber barons in politics.

Not everyone is like that, but too many are. And if a woman goes into those fields with a tough, macho spirit, she may be as "successful" as many men, but she will be a failure as a woman. Think of it. Not even the men who are successful that way are happy inside (unless they are extremely vain and superficial). They know, if they are sincere with themselves, that their courage is largely intimidation; their honour, deceitfulness; their word, false.
Their cronies may play up to them, but in their hearts, if they ever go there, they know they are debased and corrupt. Perhaps that is why they never really open their heart to their wife (if she is an honest person) and least of all to their children: they would be ashamed for their children to know that their dad is a small or big crook, and certainly not a role model, not someone they can look up to, not a real man at all.

It is much worse if this happens to a woman. Whatever the reason, practically all societies have expected more of their women than of their men. One can take this as a cultural bias, or take it as a tribute.3 In any case the fact is that the woman who fails to measure up in some way to the higher standards expected of her is more likely to excite the contempt of those around her, to forfeit the respect of her children, and (what is most important to our theme) to be dogged by a deep inner sense of personal failure.

A woman can certainly ignore the "higher standards" that others may expect of her, and be content with the goals she sets herself. But, consciously or unconsciously, and especially in her early years, she will be moved by some "role model" whom she thinks has achieved those goals. What types of role model prevail in a woman's world today? They vary of course; but all in some way seem to involve being a celebrity. If one's only role model is that of being a "celebrity", what if one fails? Many girls dream of being a celebrity. How many become one? How many are fulfilled by becoming one?

In a word, it is not in the same way that a man or a woman fails to achieve a clear sexual identity or a legitimate self-esteem. Many men are failing to be men today. Perhaps even more women are failing to be women. Maybe they have even fewer good role models than boys have, or used to have.

Now, we may ask, what has all this to do with the virtue of fortitude? A lot. Because it brings us back to the challenge that needs to be put to girls and women today, and to be heard by them - that challenge of "Come on; be a woman!". For to understand that challenge and to respond to it takes courage and strength: moral strength, strength of character; feminine strength and feminine character. In a word, feminine fortitude.

Modern Education and Feminine Fulfilment

An education that inspires one to go out and assert one's self is not real education. It is antisocial and just develops selfishness. Education is positive and can lead to fulfilment when it inspires a person to go out and make their own unique contribution to society. In many cases, the uniqueness of a contribution will consist, at least in part, in being more distinctively masculine or more distinctively feminine. But it is more and more evident that our modern society is being shaped almost exclusively in a masculine mode. The feminine contribution is being lost. Moreover, I would venture to say, if it is being taken away from women, they themselves are letting it be taken away from them. In some cases, I would go further and say that it is they themselves who are throwing itaway.

Here we are not talking first about the family role of women; we will turn to that in a moment. We are we saying that modern public life is over-masculinised, and is suffering from the lack of a genuine feminine contribution. Pushing that a bit further, we are suggesting that the worst of masculine defects seem to be shaping modern life, without any counter-balance from the best of feminine virtues.4

There is no suggestion here that men have only defects, and women only virtues. Far from it. Yet it so often happens in life, at all levels, that the best of man is drawn out by the best in woman, just as the worst of man can be drawn out by the worst in woman.

That of course is a bit of a generalisation. It is interesting to look at some more sweeping generalisations often made by psychologists: that men are more oriented towards rights and justice, women more towards responsibility and caring (and, yes, self-giving); or, to put it another way, male identity is forged in relation to the world, and female identity awakened in a relationship of intimacy with other persons; or, further, that "development", in the male mode, implies establishing the independence of "self" from others, while in the female mode self is developed by relating to others. In consequence, man is oriented more to action, self-assertion, conquest, while woman is more concerned about relationships and care ("separation" or "autonomy" in contrast to "connection" or"caring").5

There is certainly some truth in all of this. And equally a lot of truth in the assertion that modern society is suffering from too much self-assertion and separation, and from too little connection and mutual understanding. This is happening to women almost as much as to men. And yet I think -1 trust -that women have a greater capacity to realise how destructive for society, and how self-destructive, this trend is. For a woman especially, it is hard to avoid the inner conviction that "self-assertion" is really selfishness and not self-giving; and that she cannot fulfil herself or be happy that way.

So, the strong challenge facing women is one of fulfilling and humanising themselves according to their sexual identity, and of rehumanising society with their feminine presence and influence.

Paradoxically, women have a particular need for fortitude in order not only to be proud of (and if necessary "recover") their feminine character, but to assert it in a society conditioned to look down on traditional femininity. "Perhaps ironically, given the long association of femininity with sweetness and compromise, it is feminine women who currently need the most independence and strength to stand up for themselves against women who are hostile to their nature and men who are ignorant of it."6

Involved in the World

So, far from "retiring" from the world, women need to be involved in it - in order to bring it back on a human path. This will demand clear ideas, and a lot of fortitude. A few aspects of that virtue, which women will need to apply in facing up to their particular challenges, are:

•the fortitude of not going with the crowd;7
•the fortitude of knowing that caring for the world is a nobler task than that of mastering it;
•the fortitude of knowing that a successful woman is not the same as a successful man;
•the fortitude of realising that money is less important than character; that you are worth more than your salary is worth;
•the fortitude of preparing yourself for a worthwhile commitment and sticking by it (self-worth is empty without
•the fortitude of being proud to aim at being a woman of character, and to resist the pathetic envy we are all
capable of towards a man or woman with more power but with a weak character. Napoleon was a man of immense power, but of little fortitude. When his power collapsed, his character too went to pieces.

But since we have mentioned power, let's stop there for a moment.


Does being a CEO mean that you have fortitude, or at least strength? No; it simply means you have power, managerial power, which very often brings out the weaknesses of a person's character: their self-assertiveness, their inability to learn from failure, their dictatorial bent, their intolerance of others. What you have there is power - badly used. And therefore a lack of self-dominion, of the virtue of fortitude.

For most people, power probably suggests power over others, the ability to command, to control others, and maybe to have the satisfaction of seeing them obey. Far fewer people seem to reflect that power also implies the power to control oneself. And yet if we can't control ourselves, we will do harm both to ourselves and to others.

We are talking about feminine fortitude; and a main area where it needs to be exercised today is in matters of sexuality. There is a natural attraction between man and woman, and where there is attraction, where there is desire, there is power. It is a power that lies particularly with women, for they control the situation. The controlling person is always the one who can say the decisive yes or no; and that is the woman. There is indeed a definitive moment when she can and should say Yes, and that is the moment of matrimonial consent. But before that, if she is decisive in her "Nos", when No should be said, she is showing fortitude and also meriting admiration.

Do women realise their controlling position, and their corresponding responsibility? Do women realise that in matters sexual man is weaker than woman? His weakness is sensuality or lust. Of course woman also has her weakness in relation to man; but it more often takes the form of vanity rather than compelling lust. Today woman's vanity is often directed at exploiting men's lust. And that is a weakness, a very degrading weakness. And it has to be combatted with fortitude.

Precisely there is where many women seem to lack fortitude, to lack strength and independence. They are not strong enough to be independent when it comes to matters of how they dress, of how they behave, of where they go, of with whom they are and when. And in all of that they are inviting men to treat them as objects, not as persons. Objects can be used. Persons are not to be used but to be respected.

Women used to have a natural modesty,8 which in itself already made them attractive to men. Few women today seem to retain that natural modesty. I wonder if they did not have to force themselves to overcome it. Forcing oneself or letting oneself be forced that way shows anything but strength and fortitude. It rather shows weakness and a lack of independence. A return to that modesty is one of the first tasks of feminine fortitude.

Is it possible that so many young girls today entering adolescence do not realise the difference between wanting to be attractive to boys, and letting themselves be provocative?

The difference is immense; and if not understood and lived, it affects the whole of a girl's subsequent life. Fifty years ago girls understood this (indeed it seems unnatural not to understand it), and dressed and acted accordingly. Then there was only one female pursuit which was characteristically provocative, and the vast majority of women would have been deeply ashamed to give the impression they had the least affinity with that occupation. In a large public meeting in the early 1970s, I heard St Josemaria Escriva commenting on the trend that was then quickly developing: "Today it is becoming hard to distinguish a Christian woman from a prostitute." He wasn't afraid to speak clearly. Think it over. The heart of the matter is that a prostitute turns herself into a desirable object anda pitiful person.

Women have the power to remake society, to pull it back together again. Benedict XVI, speaking to a group of French intellectuals, insisted on the fortitude that this will require: "We must have the courage to remind our contemporaries what the person is and what humanity is."9 How are we going to remind the world of the respect due to each person, boy and girl, man and woman; the respect due in courtship, the respect due in marriage...? There will be different ways; but each way will demand courage, the virtue of fortitude. And, I repeat, it is women's fortitude that is decisive.

The Family

Strong, independent, generous, decisive women are needed today as never before. Now let us take our theme right into the family, because today the health and strength of the family are being undermined from all sides, and on that health and strength depends the future of humanity. No one has expressed it so dramatically as Pope John Paul II: "The family is placed at the centre of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love. To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good, the source of which is found in Christ the Redeemer of man. Every family unit needs to make these forces their own so that... 'the family be strong with the strength of God'" (Letter toFamilies, 1994, no 23).

Each family can unleash the force of good, can be strong with God's strength, if it is inserted fully into the plan of God. Lots of families today lack the strength they should have because the parents, the husband and wife, did not insert themselves fully into God's plan for marriage. They were too calculating in their approach and kept God, and children, in the margin of those calculations. "Two to get married" - and maybe a couple of children later on just to round off a comfortable number. That is not God's plan. His plan is that marriage should be a family project: a man and woman loving each other, and persevering in that love because they learn to be dedicated to the children that are the natural fruit of their love and union.

Parents, if they are to keep maturing in life, need the dedication involved in loving their children. And children, if they are to mature and become as God wants them, need the dedicated love of their parents. This, indeed, demands fortitude and generosity! And especially of the mother; of course! It is hard to build a family in all its humanising force without the presence of the father. But it is impossible without the presence of the mother. No true feminism can be developed which does not give a central position to motherhood. Woman's nature is much more essentially geared to motherhood (conceiving, bearing, nurturing) than man's. This is true biologically; and therefore, given the harmony of human nature, also psychologically. That explains the unique bond which arises between thechild and the dedicated mother. It also explains the special gratitude that an adolescent boy feels towards his mother; and the veneration that men feel towards motherhood. Always provided that women are not afraid to merit that gratitude and veneration.

The longing for motherhood goes deeper in a woman, and is more essential to her fulfilment and happiness, than any desire for a business or professional career. Can the two be combined? Yes, that is possible, provided one keeps one's priorities right. If enough strong women emerge to give priority to family and motherhood, they will help their colleagues and friends to re-examine their own priorities, and perhaps to see that they have been choosing a soft, apparently easier, but more frustrating way of life than that of the woman who has had the fortitude, the strength of mind and will, to follow a much more natural way and one more blessed by God.

1A point developed at length in the author's Man and Values, Scepter Press, chapter 9.
2cf. White, Lynn, Educating our Daughters, 1950, p. 18. More than sixty years ago, some 'not too many) were aware of the danger of radical feminism. In another book of that same period we read: "The rage for equality has so blinded the last hundred years that every effort has been made to obliterate the divergence in role, in conduct, and in dress. It has been assumed, clearly out of this same impiety, that because the mission of woman is biological in a broader way, it is less to be admired. Therefore the attempt has been to masculinise women. (Has anyone heard arguments that the male should strive to imitate the female in anything?) A social subversion of the most spectacular kind has resulted. Today, in addition to lostgenerations, we have a self-pitying, lost sex... The anomalous phase of the situation is that the women themselves have not been more concerned to retrieve the mistake" Richard M. Weaver: Ideas have Consequences, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1948, p. 179.
3Also because man feels morally weaker and wants the inspiration woman can give him. George Eliot, in a 19th-century setting, presents us with a man explaining his regret to the woman he loves when he finds her doing something "bad" (in this case, gambling). She objects: "But why should you regret it more because I am a woman?"; and he replies, "Perhaps because we need that you should be better than we are..." Daniel Deronda, Ch. 29.
4Speaking of how wrongly oriented feminism tends to have a masculinising effect on women, a psychologist writes: "When women, entering professional life in a masculinised world, adopt masculine 'defects', they become hard and violent (instead of strong), independent and uprooted (instead of sociable and linked to personal values), technical (instead of practical and concerned with what is concrete)" B. Castilla, La Complementariedad Varon-Mujer, Madrid, 1993, p. 48.
5"The active or "dominating" approach to things we customarily call "manly", refers to many more situations than the sexual one, and though it would not be tenable to state that a woman could not display great courage and activity, the role of leading and mastering the world is nevertheless not as congenial to her as to the man. In contrast with the masculine, the innate feminine approach to the world is more in the direction of caring for, devoting herself to, thus more person-directed": van den Aardweg, Gerard J.M.: On the Origins and Treatment of Homosexuality, Praeger, New York, 1986, p. 259.                     6Davidson, N: The Failure of Feminism, N.Y 1988, p. 271.                                                                                                           7Charles Dickens' Mr. Pickwick (caught in an electioneering meeting in a strange town) expresses his political correctness: '"It's always best on these occasion to do what the mob do' 'But suppose there are two mobs?' suggested Mr. Snodgrass. 'Shout with the largest,' replied Mr. Pickwick" Pickwick Papers, Ch. 13.

8Mode, in the sense of fashion, and modesty derive from the same root, modus, which denotes a right measure between extremes. Modesty is the best fashion, because it marks the measure by which a woman becomes more attractive, as the feminine
person she is, without letting herself be turned into an object.
9https://wwwvatican.va/holy\_father/benedict\_xvi/speeches/2007/february/ documents /hf\_ben-xvi\_spe\_20070210\_academy-paris\_en.html.
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