The gifts of the Holy Ghost resemble the infused virtues in a number of ways. Both are operative habits which have God as their efficient cause and the perfection of man as their final cause. Both reside in the human faculties and have right behavior as their material object.

Where they differ is in their motor cause, their mode of action, and their exercise. The virtues are put in motion by natural reason aided by faith and grace, thus making the resulting act “my act.” The gifts, on the other hand, are put in motion directly by the Holy Ghost and will only operate if He so deigns. They are more “His act,” although, by our cooperation with Him, they are truly free and meritorious acts. The mode of the virtues is a human mode of action, whereas the gifts operate in a divine mode. Finally, the virtues are actively exercised by the soul, whereas, the soul is passive under the influence of the gifts, albeit with the necessary conscious assent of the intellect and free cooperation of the will. “Such are the principal differences between the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The first one establishes the radical and specific differences between the virtues and the gifts; the others are logical consequences of the first one.”[1]

The virtues and the gifts are both necessary elements of the supernatural life (necessary, in fact, for salvation), the former perfecting the faculties of man so that we may live rightly as sons of God, the latter perfecting the virtues themselves so that we may perform their corresponding acts with ease and facility. Each gift perfects one (or more) infused virtue, either because they reside in the same faculty (as faith and knowledge in the intellect) or because, while residing in different faculties, they regulate the acts of those virtues (as temperance and fear).

Father Aumann organizes his subject matter as St. Thomas does, by treating the gifts in connection with the virtues to which they are allied. I shall approach it from the opposite direction, summarizing the gifts in the traditional order and connecting the virtues with them. And since the divine Artist made icons of these virtues and gifts in the saints, I will assign to each gift a saint who exemplifies it.

Wisdom: “The gift of wisdom is a supernatural habit, inseparable from charity, by which we judge rightly concerning God and divine things through their ultimate and highest causes under a special instinct and movement of the Holy Spirit, who makes us taste these things by a certain connaturality.”[2] Wisdom perfects charity, a faculty of the will, but wisdom itself resides in the intellect. St. Thomas explains that this is because wisdom judges rightly concerning the Eternal Law, but does so by a connaturality with the divine Legislator, a connaturality that is based on the union of charity. He continues: “wisdom which is a gift, has its cause in the will, which cause is charity, but it has its essence in the intellect, whose act is to judge aright.”[3]

Wisdom being an ordered knowledge of things in their first causes and last ends, its activities can be seen in one whose charity makes him see everything in relation to God. St. Aloysius Gonzaga’s “What will it be worth for eternity” is an utterance of such wisdom. It made him, a young man, wise beyond his years, giving him title to say “I have understood more than all my teachers: because thy testimonies are my meditation.”[4]

Understanding: “The gift of understanding is a supernatural habit… by which the human intellect, under the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit, is made apt for a penetrating intuition of revealed truths, and even for natural truths, so far as they are related to the supernatural end.”[5] This gift resides in the speculative intellect, perfecting the virtue of faith which also resides there. The difference in the operation between virtue and gift is noteworthy. Operating in a human mode, faith gives an imperfect knowledge of divine truths. But in its divine mode of operation, understanding gives a deep penetration, a profound insight into divine truths. Thus St. Anthony Maria Claret believed in the immortality of the soul and the truth of the last things by faith, but, by the gift of understanding, he would ecstatically repeat over and over “siempre, siempre …” as if seized by the article of faith.

Counsel: “The gift of counsel is a supernaturally infused habit by which the Holy Spirit enables one to judge rightly in particular events what ought to be done in view of the supernatural ultimate end and personal sanctification.”[6] It corresponds to the virtue of prudence because both are “about what has to be done for the sake of the end.”[7]

By prudence, which resides in the practical intellect as judging and the will as commanding, we reason from point to point, trying to take all the various sides of a complex matter into account before acting. With habitual exercise, this virtue will gain facility, but it will not match the operation of the gift of counsel, whereby the practical intellect overcomes difficult matters with alacrity because of a divine impulse guiding the soul to “do this” rather than be caught in indecision. The speed and decisiveness of the gift differentiate it from its related virtue.

As the virtue of prudence is especially needed by those in authority, so too will the gift, since difficult decisions must often be made which will affect the lives (or eternity) of men or even nations. A great pope like St. Gregory the Great comes to mind, who, in a time of general disarray, organized and administrated in matters affecting the entire church and even civil society.

Fortitude: “The gift of fortitude is a supernatural habit through which the Holy Spirit strengthens the soul for the practice of virtue, with invincible confidence of overcoming any dangers or difficulties that may arise.”[8] Not surprisingly, this gift perfects the cardinal virtue of the same name. However, fortitude is unique inasmuch as it perfects all the virtues. The reason for this is that fortitude pertains to the arduous and difficult. While not every virtue will be arduous or difficult for each person to practice, there are times in each of our lives when any number of virtues will be thus tested.

Because its characteristic quality is courage, it is most clearly seen in the perfecting of its namesake virtue. Thus, the martyrs are those in whom we see this gift most excellently, especially the women and children whose heroic constancy was so striking. The martyr, St. Felicitas, moaned under the pains of childbirth while awaiting her appointment in the Coliseum, but her words to the taunting guards showed that she was relying on the gift of fortitude come time for her martyrdom: “ ‘What I am suffering now’, she replied, ‘I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him.’ ”[9]

Knowledge: “The gift of knowledge is a supernatural habit through which the human intellect, under the action of the Holy Spirit, judges rightly concerning created things as related to eternal life and Christian perfection.”[10] While some authors think knowledge perfects hope, St. Thomas connects it with faith. This is easy to see, as they both reside in the intellect.

The subject matter for the gift is created things seen in light of our supernatural end (thus differentiating it from understanding, which penetrates supernatural truths). It is a divine instinct which is primarily speculative and secondarily practical. St. John of the Cross is the exemplar cited by Father Aumann. This is easy to see, since the Doctor of Mystical Theology saw everything but God as a nada , but used the world “as if he used it not”[11] in order to gain the crown. Another mark of St. John’s fittingness as an example for this gift is that knowledge perfects faith. The great faith of this Doctor, who frequently walked in “the darkness of faith” and counseled others do to so, shows the perfection of that faculty by the gift.

Piety: “The gift of piety is a supernatural habit infused with sanctifying grace, which arouses in the will, through the motion of the Holy Spirit, a filial love for God as Father, and a sentiment of universal love for all men and women as our brothers and sisters and as children of the same heavenly Father.”[12]

Like infused justice which is perfects, piety is rooted in the will. While its namesake virtue is one of the parts of justice, this virtue particularly perfects the virtue of religion. This special virtue, also part of justice, inclines us to render to God the homage that is his due. While religion disposes the creature to adore his Creator as his first cause and final end, the gift of piety inclines us to be loving children of our good Father who has supernaturally adopted us into his own Trinitarian life. For this reason, our worship becomes more perfect under the influence of the gift than when it is merely a grace-aided exercise of religion.

Secondarily, piety disposes us to regard the faithful as our brothers, sons of the same Father whom we so love. For both the primary and secondary effects of this gift, my chosen exemplar of it is Blessed Charled de Foucauld, who saw all men as his brothers (even Moslems, as potential members of the Mystical Body) based upon his intense mystical awareness of his own divine adoption. He loved to think of Jesus as his Brother spoke frequently and familiarly with the First Person as his Father. Even though he had the dignity of the priesthood, this deeply-rooted sense of divinely-adopted family life led him to sign his name “Brother Charles of Jesus.”

Fear of the Lord: “The gift of fear is a supernatural habit by which the just soul, under the instinct of the Holy Spirit, acquires a special docility for subjecting itself completely to the divine will out of reverence for the excellency and majesty of God.”[13]

This gift primarily perfects the theological virtue of hope and secondarily the cardinal virtue of temperance. It perfects hope because reverential fear of God (filial fear) motivates us to avoid sin, while it perfects temperance by making us fear offending God by our excesses of sense pleasure.

St. Louis the King manifested this gift. He needed a profound hope in his life, as, unlike his cousin, St. Ferdinand III of Spain, St. Louis’ enterprises often resulted in failure (witness his being captured as a Crusader). This saint also had what the French call “a good fork” — a tendency to eat to excess — and his great penances by way of fasting for his excesses were probably prompted by the Holy Ghost’s gift of fear.


[1] Aumann, Jordan, O.P., Spiritual Theology (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1980). Online; available at: http://www.op.org/domcentral/study/aumann/st/st04.htm .

[2] Aumann, chapter 10, Online; available at: http://www.op.org/domcentral/study/aumann/st/st10.htm .

[4] Ps. 118:99.

[5] Aumann, Chapter 10.

[6] Aumann, Chapter 11, Online; available at: http://www.op.org/domcentral/study/aumann/st/st11.htm .

[7] Aquinas, Thomas, St., Summa Theologiae , IIa IIae Q. 52, A. 2, Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (Online Edition: Kevin Knight, 2003), http://www.newadvent.org/summa/305202.htm .

[8] Aumann, Chapter 11.

[9] From The Acts of the Christian Marytrs , texts and translation by Herbert Musurillo, Online; available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/perpetua.html

[10] Aumann, Chapter 10.

[11] I Cor. 7:31.

[12] Aumann, Chapter 11.

[13] Aumann, Chapter 10.

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