A term first used by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics where he spoke of "superhuman virtue," or moral virtue on a heroic or godlike scale (1145a 15–30). Through St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, who borrowed it from Aristotle, the term found its way into scholastic and later ascetico-mystical use. In its adoption by Christianity the term became rich with Christian meaning. It was applied to Christian perfection, the concept of which, drawn from the Scriptures, had been elaborately developed in the writings of the Fathers, in monastic literature, spiritual biographies, and treatises on the spiritual life.
The martyr was the first to be venerated as a "saint," but Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, and others likened the intense effort to grow in virtue to martyrdom. Thus the type of the holy "confessor" came to be recognized, for which a basis of extraordinary virtue was understood to be requisite. [See L. V. Hertling, "Der mittelalterliche Heiligentypus nach den Tugendkatalogen," Zeitschrift für Aszese und Mystik (Würzburg 1933) 8, 260–268.] The strict inquiry into the holiness of a servant of God, according to the scheme of the three theological and the four cardinal virtues, was first made in the process of canonization for St. Bonaventure in 1482. By the time of the Renaissance, heroic virtue had become a technical term for the holiness necessary for beatification or canonization.
In Beatification and Canonization. Prospero Lambertini (later benedict xiv) was the first to organize and evaluate the theological and juridical thought of his own and earlier times upon the subject in his five-volume work De beatificatione Servorum Dei et de Beatorum canonizatione (Bologna 1734–38). This became and remained the classical study of the subject. The norms it laid down have been applied consistently by the Congregation of Rites in passing judgment upon heroic virtue. According to Lambertini, the attainment of a heroic degree of natural virtue of one kind or another was theoretically possible to nature unaided by grace, though it was rarely, if ever, actually so attained. This was an achievement reserved to the people of God under the Old Law and to the Church under the law of grace. Moreover, with the aid of grace, a heroic degree of the supernatural or infused virtues, theological and moral, was attainable.
They are called heroic when their exercise exceeds what is ordinary even among those who live virtuously. The heroic degree is, in fact, simply the perfection of virtue. It does not differ in kind from ordinary virtue, but only in the excellence of its act and the intensity of the habit from which it comes. Heroic virtue is based upon the intensity of charity. Although the counsels are ordered to charity, perfection does not consist in these, but primarily and per se in the fulfillment of the precepts of the law, and particularly of the precept of charity. Hence it is not necessary to heroic virtue that its act should be of counsel rather than of precept. Moreover, a few heroic acts do not suffice as evidence of heroic virtue. They must be numerous in proportion to the opportunities for action, and examples of heroism must be shown in the exercise of the different virtues. Perfect virtues are interconnected, so that a person who has one will also have the others. Still, their perfection is manifest through their interconnection, and consequently proof is necessary that a servant of God possessed them all. The existence of venial sin, even if committed deliberately and after a person has attained the level of heroic virtue, does not exclude him from beatification, provided satisfaction was made for the sin and precautions taken against its recurrence. One must have lived for a certain extended period of time in the state of heroic virtue, but the length of this time cannot be precisely determined, for in some cases a person can be raised to a height of holiness that will compensate for the relative shortness of its duration. No proof of infused contemplation is necessary for beatification. charisms, such as the gift of prophecy, ecstasy, or visions, by themselves are not satisfactory evidence of the heroic virtue necessary for beatification (see mystical phenomena). Neither are miracles wrought during a servant of God's lifetime.
Modern Emphasis. In later times, Benedict XV insisted upon the connection between heroic virtue and the duties of a person's state of life: heroicity consists in the faithful and constant fulfillment of the duties and obligations of one's state [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 14 (Rome 1922) 23; ibid., 12 (Rome 1920) 170–174]. So also Pius XI declared that heroic virtue was to be sought in the ordinary things of daily life [Discorsi di Pio XI (Turin 1960) 1:73–74, 759–760]. The Church's judgment upon a person's heroic virtue involves no judgment upon the supernatural character of the extraordinary phenomena, such as visions or stigmata, that may have marked his life.
Reasons for Caution. One of the reasons for the care taken by the Church in passing formal judgment upon a person's holiness is that a psychopathological counterfeit of heroic virtue is possible. The Christian ought indeed to strive for perfection and thus give glory to God. But this striving can, in subtle and almost unconscious ways, be perverted by egoistic ambition. Such a distortion can have its roots in a person's neurotic need for prestige and admiration, or in an unwillingness to accept gracefully limitations or a want of success in other aspects of life. In such circumstances an individual can be drawn to externalize the idea that he has of holiness, and may want to appear conspicuously humble, charitable, and zealous. He acts the part of a "saint," and may permit himself to be treated as a "saint." Unfortunately, this kind of veneration may be readily forthcoming, for there is often no dearth of misguided souls who seek miracles and other wonders by associating themselves with such a "saint" and by propagating his reputation for holiness.
See Also: virtue; perfection, spiritual; canonization of saints.
Bibliography: a. rademacher, Das Seelenleben der Heiligen, 4 v. (4th and 5th ed. Paderborn 1923). h. delehaye, Sanctus: Essai sur le culte des saints dans l'antiquité (Subsida hagiographica 17; Brussels 1927). gabriel de ste. marie-madeleinÉ, "Normes actuelles de la sainteté," Études Carmélitaines 28 (1949) 175–188. k. rahner, "Die Kirche der Heiligen." Schriften zur Theologie, 3 v. (Einsiedeln 1954–56) 3:111–126, English tr. v.1, 1962. r. hofmann, Die heroische Tugend: Geschichte und Inhalt eines theologischen Begriffes (Munich 1933).
[k. v. truhlar]