When speaking at marriage retreats, I like asking the married couples two questions: “How many of you value your spouse?” At this, all of them raise their hands. Then I ask a second question: “How many of you do things that hurt your spouse?” Most laugh, and then all the hands go up again.

It’s one thing to say that I value my spouse, children, friends, and God. And I may genuinely intend to love them all. But it’s another thing to be a good husband, father, friend, and Christian. If I want to give the best of myself in all these relationships, I must have virtue.

Virtues are so much more than values. We can have the noblest of ideals and most sincere of intentions but still fall short of who we’d like to be. We can say, for example, that we value prayer but fail to take time consistently, every day, for it. We can say we value our children but still get grumpy and lose our temper with them when they have a meltdown.

We may truly value purity and chastity but still struggle to guard our eyes and thoughts. We might say we entrust our lives to God’s providential care but still find ourselves struggling with fear, anxiety, or discouragement when things get hard in life. Having good values or noble aspirations for living a good life is not enough. We need virtue.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (1803). Think of virtue as a certain excellence or disposition that equips us to love God and neighbor easily, as if it were second nature. Just as various sports, arts, and trades require certain habits, abilities, and skills, so the art of living requires virtue. The virtues are the fundamental dispositions we need to live our relationships with God and neighbor with excellence. As the Catechism explains, the virtues enable us to “give the best of” ourselves to the people in our lives and to all that we do (1803).

The Question of Virtue

I’ve always been fascinated by flying. As a child, I loved going to the airport and seeing planes take off and come in for landing. And when onboard, I always wanted to sit by the window so that I could be enthralled by the fact that the clouds in the sky were now below me. To this day, while most frequent flyers prefer the aisle seat, I still sometimes choose the window because of how in awe I am about being in flight.

Now, let me ask you this question: Even though I have a passion for flying, would you ever want to get into an airplane with me at the controls? No way! I do not have the skills of a pilot. No matter how much I value flying, if I don’t have the skills to fly a plane, you don’t want to get onboard with me in the cockpit!

Similarly, in my childhood, I was fascinated by the idea of doctors performing surgery. My father was a surgeon, and I grew up watching him take care of his patients and looking at anatomy books and photos of surgical procedures. I admired my dad’s work and continue to place such doctors in high esteem. However, would you want to get on the operating table with me as your surgeon just because I value surgery so much? Hardly. People may call me Dr. Sri, but I’m not that kind of doctor! Since I never went to medical school and do not possess the skills of a surgeon, you don’t want me performing your operation.

This is all common sense. No one would ever get into an airplane with someone who didn’t have the skills of flying. And no one would ever hop on the operating table with someone who didn’t possess the skills of surgery. Yet many people today jump into friendships, business partnerships, dating relationships, and even marriages without ever asking the fundamental questions of virtue!

Does this person have the virtue necessary to live this relationship well? Does this person possess patience, generosity, humility, courage, and self-control? Do I possess those virtues? Am I ready for this relationship? In what areas am I personally falling short? If I want to be a man who is a reliable, good friend, colleague, husband, and father, I need virtue to enable me to love the people in my life the way God intends me to love them.

Anyone can say, “I love you.” Some people might sincerely mean it. But only a few actually have the character—t he virtue— to be a reliable friend and love the people in their lives. If we want to be the kind of people who truly love, who give the best of ourselves to others, then we must be constantly seeking to grow in virtue.

The Freedom to Love

This is an important point. When I was younger and heard people at church talk about the virtues, I had an individualistic view of the virtuous life. I had the mistaken impression that virtue was something good for merely my own soul: for my moral development or my spiritual life. Humility, piety, kindness, prudence, temperance—t hese and other virtues seemed to be simply good qualities every Catholic was supposed to have in order to be a good Christian. Virtues were like badges that made you a good “Boy Scout” for God.

Virtue, however, should be understood relationally. The virtues are not important for merely one’s own life; they are the habitual dispositions we need to love God and the people God has placed in our lives. Virtue gives us the freedom to love. When we possess virtue, we have the ability to give the best of ourselves to God and others. And our lack of virtue in certain areas doesn’t harm just us; it negatively affects the people close to us. They will suffer the consequences of our lack of virtue.

If I lack in generosity, for example, I will do selfish things that hurt my spouse. If I easily get frustrated and angry and lose my temper, the people around me will suffer. If I lack prudence and don’t think things through, other people will be affected by my lack of foresight.

If I don’t have self-control and constantly look at my phone at every beep, buzz, and notification, I am unable to look my children in the eyes and give them the love and attention they need from me. If I am prone to being discouraged, overwhelmed, or anxious, I will tend to be focused on myself—m y troubles, my fears, my decisions— and likely transfer my stress to others and be unable to give the best of myself to the people around me.

This is the most tragic thing about my deficiency in virtue: to the extent that I lack in virtue, I am not free to love. No matter how much I may desire to be a good son of God, a good husband to my wife, and a good father to my children, without virtue— the fundamental dispositions that enable me to love— I will not consistently give the best of myself to them.