Woman and the Cardinal Virtue of Temperance
Woman and the Cardinal Virtue of Temperance

Woman and the Cardinal Virtue of Temperance

Mgr Cormac Burke FAITH MAGAZINE November-December 2013

In the final part of his series on woman and the cardinal virtues Mgr Burke examines the virtue of temperance and its specific calls upon women, especially with regard to sexuality. What is Temperance?

Temperance or moderation implies self-control. We might compare temperance to driving a car. An untrained or unpractised driver, lacking control of his car, ends up by crashing, perhaps killing himself or others. And so with people who lack self-control; they are heading for a crashed and self-destructive life.

In a car engine there is a lot of power and energy. But the different sources of energy have been co-ordinated so as to work together for one purpose: to make the car travel well. Inside each one of us there are many energies, but they are by no means naturally co-ordinated. In fact we often note how these tendencies seem to work at cross-purposes. On the intellectual level we have a natural yearning for truth. And yet, when it comes the truth about ourselves – and that truth always has some negative aspects – our pride (which is a tendency of the intellect) makes it hard to face up to those negative aspects. Then, unless we combat our pride, we know the truth about ourselves only in part, which means we don’t really know ourselves.

But temperance is usually related to bodily tendencies or impulses, which are called passions: hunger, thirst, sexual desire, anger, etc. These are not bad in themselves. They are bad when they are not under our control. Then they get out of their place, grow beyond their proper function and can become a force dominating and controlling the whole direction of our lives.

Temperance, then, is the virtue by which we keep each of these passions in its proper place, so that it works for our overall human growth and leads to our fulfilment. Our mind needs to understand the positive function of this virtue, just as our will has to be or become strong enough to live it habitually.

''That our sexual instinct is human as well as animal simply means that sexual union between man and woman has a much deeper meaning than the simple satisfaction of a physical appetite.'' 

Still on the level of theoretical considerations, we can add that temperance will not make sense to the person who has no idea of what makes for human fulfilment, or to one who thinks that fulfilment lies in following the instinct of the moment. The trouble with the latter position is that if you follow any instinct or passion too much, you eventually cannot stop following. It has taken over your life; you are out of your own control.

The Practice of Temperance

Now let us turn to some practical areas where temperance or control is necessary, but often lacking. Since there is not space to consider temperance in using money or in speech (many people, men and women, are spendthrifts, or chatterboxes and gossip-mongers), we will focus on drink and drugs, and in particular on sexuality.

Drink and Drugs

To begin with, I would emphasise that there is no natural or inbuilt attraction towards alcohol (or to drugs). For many people, the first taste of beer is not pleasing – just as happens with the first cigarette. Knowing that it can lead on to an addiction, in other words to a loss of self-control, why do many people take up drinking? Usually, because of a lack of independence. They want to be part of the crowd or the party. But why not be so on your own conditions? Why let the crowd dictate your choices? A first teenage decision to try drink is almost always due to a lack of independence or character (much more so in the case of drugs); and hence it shows a lack of fortitude.

According to the Roman philosopher Seneca, “drunkenness is nothing else than voluntary insanity”.[1] Insanity, when a person has no grasp on reality, is a misfortune. But voluntary insanity is a high point of immaturity – because a person deliberately loses control of himself or herself. It is also pitiful; a drunk person is always pitiful. But here a distinction – fair or unfair – should be made. Such are the expectations of our society that for some reason a drunken man, though laughed at, is tolerated, but a drunken woman is not only laughed at but also despised. “Passing out” may be considered the ultimate “coming of age” for a teenage girl. It is anything but that; it is mindless immaturity, no more.

Young partygoers often ask me about drinking. I see only two sensible policies in the matter, each of which demands a certain independence and fortitude. One is to be a “soft drink” person; the other is to be a “one drink” person. And then one must stick to one’s decision. “Oh come on, have another.” “No thanks, I’m OK.” “Come on, join us all, don’t spoil the party.”… But a party where everyone is expected to do exactly the same, must be a dumb party of spineless people!

Regarding drugs, the issue is clear. No drugs! Neither out of conformism nor out of curiosity. It’s too much like Russian roulette; and I want to keep a sane head on my shoulders. The issue of drink or drugs is simply a matter of character and independence. In fact, unless one is content to let others control one’s life, not much fortitude is really required. Because, I repeat, there is no natural attraction or appetite towards either – there is nothing to be gained. And there should be a natural repulsion towards both – because, as any thinking person realises, there is everything to be lost.

Sexual Appetite

Temperance in regard to sexuality is not so simple. Because there is a natural sexual attraction between man and woman. Natural, but often dangerous, because as well as being powerful it is disordered. Whoever denies that there is a disordered element in the sexual instinct – which therefore calls for control – is either insincere or ignorant. It would seem they have never heard of rape, or else consider that it falls within normal sexual behaviour.

It may help if we consider the sexual instinct on two levels: the animal and the properly human. As an animal phenomenon, the sexual instinct is indiscriminate. It has the potential to attract any male and any female animal to each other. Since we are part animal, that aspect of sex is present in us too and, if not controlled, can lead a person to be as promiscuous as any animal. To propose or defend human sexual promiscuity, as some do today, is to say that we are animals, with an animal sexual instinct, no more. But we are more than animals and we have a human as well as an animal sexual instinct.

That our sexual instinct is human as well as animal simply means that sexual union between man and woman has a much deeper meaning than the simple satisfaction of a physical appetite. Human sexual intercourse, the sharing of the female and male elements of reproduction, is of itself, unless frustrated, designed to give rise to a new human being – fruit, and in some way image, of the union of the father and the mother. That is why the only human setting for intercourse is marriage, for it is only if they are married that a man and a woman should engage in an act that of its nature tends to start or increase a family.

Animals cannot understand this, and that is why they are naturally promiscuous. But human beings can understand it, and that is why they naturally tend to be monogamous. Further, they should be able to understand the loving and unique significance of conjugal intercourse, which lies not mainly in the pleasure it may give the spouses, but in the unparalleled way by which it expresses the total and exclusive self-gift they made to one another in marrying.

People can of course frustrate the natural purpose of conjugal intercourse. Then it is no longer a conjugal act, nor is it in fact a sexual union in any proper sense at all. It is simply two people using each other for sexual satisfaction together, no more.

In Courtship

Let us try to pin down the practical function of temperance in all of this. First of all, it enters as an absolutely necessary virtue into premarital relations. From the very start of a relationship between a boy and a girl, each should realise (and, if they are sincere, this is not difficult) that between them there is an animal sexual instinct drawing each one to take physical pleasure from contact with the other. But at the same time there is a human sexual instinct drawing them to respect each other, to realise that human persons are not meant to be used but to be respected; and that this desire to respect and not to use for self-satisfaction will grow in the measure in which love is present. Further, that love itself only grows in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Given the strength of the physical attraction, it can only be controlled by a stronger power; and that is precisely the virtue of temperance, which in this context is properly called the virtue of chastity.

In passing we could note the opinion at times expressed that the most fulfilled life is one “where most things have been experienced”. This is simply not true. Not all experiences are enriching; some are impoverishing. Some are mutually incompatible. For example, the person who wants to experience sex before marriage can no longer experience the joy of a real marital donation in its fullness: giving oneself totally and for the first time – that is, in a true virginal gift – and receiving the same gift from one’s spouse.[2]

In Marriage

“It is not true that love make all things easy; it makes us choose what is difficult.”[3] People today are afraid of what is difficult, and hence afraid of the commitment involved in marriage. That way they can never be happy. If love between a man and a woman is sincere and grows in a courtship where there is mutual respect, they will naturally want to marry. And they will face up to the difficult task of keeping married love pure and making it grow. That is the purpose of married chastity.

But is there then need for temperance in marriage itself? Indeed there is! More concretely, is there need for chastity in conjugal intercourse? Of course! The difference we have been making between the desire to respect and the desire to use is basically the difference between love and lust. And lust, it must be understood, is not resolved simply by marrying. In marriage the challenge remains to ensure that the conjugal act is one of generous giving in love, and not one of selfish taking in lust. Marital chastity is called for here. Chastity in marriage does not mean abstinence (although abstinence is at times called for), but rather purification: seeking to ensure that what is sought above all is to show love for one’s spouse and not mainly to satisfy one’s own appetite for pleasure –even if that pleasure remains legitimate. In that way true married love can gradually purify lust.

Karol Wojtyla, later on Pope John Paul II, put it delicately in the context of marital tenderness: “Love makes it possible in married life for husband and wife to educate each other. The man must reckon with the fact that the woman is in a sense in another world, unlike himself not only in the physiological but also in the psychological sense. Since he has to play the active role in the marital relationship, he must get to know that other world, and indeed as far as possible project himself into it emotionally. This indeed is the positive function of tenderness. Without it the man will only attempt to subject the woman to the demands of his own body, and his own psyche, frequently harming her in the process. Of course, the woman too must try to understand the man, and simultaneously toeducate him to understand her. Each of those things is equally important. Neglect of education and the failure to understand may both be the result of egoism.”[4]

Modesty – Temperance in Dress, Behaviour…

Now let us turn to the broader topic of temperance and modesty in dress and in general behaviour.
Our starting point could be the simple anthropological fact that woman easily arouses sensuality in man; man less easily in woman. Perhaps it is for the protection of both that woman is endowed with a natural sense of modesty. Modesty is an expression of temperance. In a woman’s case, it should arise from an elementary level of sexual psychology by which she is aware that part of a man’s weakness is to be attracted more immediately to a woman’s body than to her person, to her physicality than to her femininity. A woman can capitalise on this weakness; but in doing so she invites men to treat her as an object rather than as a person. And here one has to remember that objects can be admired or desired or despised, but only persons can be loved.
A woman who emphasises the merely physical aspects of her sexuality brings out the worst in man. It is when she develops and shows true femininity that she inspires him. The same applies vice versa, but not so powerfully. And that’s another reason why woman has such humanising and salvific power – or the opposite.
Men find self-control in sexuality very hard. They need the strength of a woman to protect them from their own weakness, the strength that a woman shows in her reserve and modesty.

Modesty in dress and behaviour tempers a woman’s natural desire to be attractive with her even more natural determination not to be provocative. She should have enough self-respect and should know enough about life to realise that only a certain class of women set out to be sexually provocative.

Men can easily be led to give way to a purely physical attraction towards women, or to an exclusively physical desire for the possession of a woman. Immodesty on the part of the woman will intensify these attractions. In contrast, modesty can awaken an instinct of respect, and so prepare the way for a truly loving relationship between a man and a woman. If that respect is not cared for, growth in desire is likely. Only with respect is growth in love possible. In short, modesty is a feminine virtue that can stir a man to grow powerfully in admiration for a woman.

Modesty also springs naturally from the realisation that only a woman who has little regard for herself offers herself indiscriminately. Easy giving shows that a woman places little value on her self. She can hardly expect men to value her more. They will realise that, if not money, then perhaps a good dinner is enough to get her to give what they want.

If modesty is thrown away, then the sensual woman emerges. Having lost what makes her most femininely attractive to man, she is left with her ability to be physically attractive, and no more. Now she has to rely on her body to attract men, not on her character or her spirit. She should consider what sort of men she will be able to relate to, and what sort of relationships she will establish.


A word on shame, something closely connected with modesty. “Shame” is commonly held to derive from an older word meaning “to cover”. In this sense, covering oneself, literally or figuratively, is a natural expression of shame.

Parts of our being are naturally hidden from others’ view. Our thoughts, for instance. This can be for the good, since our thoughts might be lacking in respect for others and, if uncovered, could stir them to strong or even violent reaction.

Women need to keep this in mind regarding the revelation of certain body parts. The normal woman should have little difficulty in knowing which bodily revelations can provoke men and stir up lust in them. Her sense of modesty, and her sense of shame, will keep her on the right side of what is decent. But the woman who is lacking in modesty and shame will be indecent and provocative, whether she realises it or not. She, along with others, will suffer as a result.

Intemperance Can Lead to Self-Contempt, and Even to a Total Loss of Self

Certain radical feminists think it unfair that, in the past, a higher standard of morality has been expected of woman than of man. If their judgement of the past is true, why take it as discriminatory or offensive to women? Surely one could see it rather as a compliment. One modern psychologist takes it that way, and ventures an explanation for why woman has traditionally had greater goodness and observed a higher degree of morality than man. The reason in his view is that she “needs to be happy with herself, to feel all right when she meets herself”.[5] Allowing that this view could be further qualified, I think it is nevertheless true that an intemperate and immoral woman is likely to be threatened by greater self-contempt than an immoralman. Self-esteem is the sterile goal proposed by modern popular psychology. But in an intemperate and immoral woman, self-esteem can never be more than a posture or an illusory construction that eventually crumbles and collapses into self-contempt; self-contempt which, if it does not find redemption, can lead to despair.

A main character in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is Cathy, the brothel-keeper mother. She had read Alice in Wonderland in her childhood. Now, just in case life were to become too much to cope with, she keeps in reserve a bottle labelled “Drink me”. By drinking a little, she could become small and so escape from all her enemies. And if the worst came to the worst, she could drink the lot, and so would shrink into nothingness. “She would dwindle and disappear and cease to exist. And better than all, when she stopped being, she never would have been. This was her darling safety. Sometimes in her bed she would drink enough of ‘Drink me’ so that she was a dot as small as the littlest gnat. But she had never gone clear out – never had to. That was her reserve – guarded fromeveryone”. In the end she couldn’t stand it, and drank the lot. But was she reduced to “nothingness” – or rather to a tiny and intolerable but enduring self?

To die, to sleep… But perchance to dream – eternally. Ay, there’s the rub; so Hamlet felt. The danger of remaining forever like one of Tolstoy’s characters as he slipped into madness: “Why have I come here? Where am I taking myself?… I am running away from something dreadful and cannot escape it. I am always with myself, and it is I who am my tormentor… Neither the Pensa [an estate he was on his way to buy] nor any other property will add anything or take anything from me: and it is myself I am weary of and find intolerable and a torment. I want to fall asleep and forget myself and cannot. I cannot get away from myself” (Memoirs of a Madman).

Self-contempt is not redeemed by self-esteem, but only by mercy and love, which give us the “courage to make definitive decisions indispensable for growth, and in order to achieve something great in life, in particular, to cause love to mature in all its beauty”[6], in a truly feminine woman.

In a homily in Nazareth on 14 May 2009 Pope Benedict dwelt on “the sacredness of the family, which in God’s plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God’s gift of new life. How much the men and women of our time need to reappropriate this fundamental truth, which stands at the foundation of society, and how important is the witness of married couples for the formation of sound consciences and the building of a civilisation of love!” And, citing the book of Sirach (3:3-7, 14-17), he added: “The word of God presents the family as the first school of wisdom, a school which trains its members in the practice of those virtues which make for authentic happiness and lasting fulfilment.”[7] The cardinal virtues, aspects of which we have briefly considered, are prime among those that lead to authentic and lasting happiness and fulfilment.



[1]cf. Shakespeare: “O, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!” (Othello, Act II, Sc. 3).
[2]Love needs to have a waiting period before possession; otherwise respect does not develop, or is undermined. St Augustine’s Confessions expresses the maxim: “affianced girls should not give themselves at once, lest the husband hold her cheap whom, as his betrothed, he had not to sigh after” (Ch. VIII, iii, 7).
[3]G. Eliot: Felix Holt: the Radical, Ch. 9.
[4]Love and Responsibility, 275-276.
[5]Julián Marías: La Felicità Umana, Milan, 1990, p. 333.
[6]Benedict XVI: Address, 19 October 2006: https://www.vatican.va/holy\_father/benedict\_xvi/speeches/2006/october/documents/hf\_ben-xvi\_spe\_20061019\_convegno-verona\_en.html.


Faith Magazine