In The Four Cardinal Virtues, the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper begins his chapter on prudence in this way:
No dictum in traditional Christian doctrine strikes such a note of strangeness to the ears of contemporaries, even contemporary Christians, as this one: that the virtue of prudence is the mold and “mother” of all the other cardinal virtues, of justice, fortitude, and temperance. In other words, none but the prudent man can be just, brave, and temperate, and the good man is good in so far as he is prudent.— Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Kindle Edition, pp. 88.
Most of modern society upholds justice and fortitude, while temperance and prudence have been swallowed up in relativism. We as Christians also focus a great deal on the needs for justice and courage, but largely ignore the necessity of prudence in forming our actions. It is time to recapture this cardinal virtue in our spiritual lives because it is essential in order for all of us to progress in holiness.
The crux of Pieper’s thesis—which is heavily influenced by Thomistic thought— is that for an action to be good, it must be prudent. If we do not rightly discern the prudent or right course of action—even for a perceived good—then the action loses some or all of its goodness. This is because “prudence is the measure of justice, fortitude, of temperance.” It purifies our intentions and impulses through the use of reason.
Without this purification through prudence, it is impossible to be just, temperate, or courageous because our actions end up being marred by the passions, instinct, or other impulses. Prudence helps us maintain objectivity. It is through prudence that we come to see what is true and good and then act rightly.
The Christian tradition also holds that this virtue is informed by the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Our actions must be united to God’s will and our call to love others and God above all else. Through prudence, we act in union with charity and truth, so that we can then seek justice, fortitude, and temperance.
Where do we most readily learn the virtue of prudence? We, of course, learn it through properly formed consciences that are guided by the teachings of the Church. It is learned through habitually acting in accordance with reason, as opposed to our emotions and the influence of the passions; something that can only be learned through habitual action, and even then is difficult to master. The most important place that we learn the virtue of prudence is in prayer.
The world is filled with battles, temptations, and decisions that we must choose from on a daily basis. With the advent of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, we are constantly inundated with information and we are expected to choose sides. Our daily lives are filled with decisions that require action or inaction on our part. We struggle to decide the best course of action, but more often than not, we tend to appeal to justice first and ignore prudence. This is to our detriment and it hampers our development spiritually.
The entire meaning of our lives is to become a saint, which means to live in full union with God and in union with others in charity. We cannot live in union with God if we do not first seek His will in our decisions through prayer and conform our lives to His will over our own.
If we wish to attain union with God, our whole life should be directed toward Him; and as our life is made up of many acts, we should see that each one is a step forward on the way that leads to Him. Supernatural prudence is that virtue which suggests to us what we should do and what we should avoid in order to reach the goal we have set for ourselves. If we wish to reach union with God, prudence tells us to conform ourself in everything, to His will, to detach ourself from all things, even the least, if it be contrary to His divine will. If we wish to become a saint, we must perform these acts of charity and generosity without recoiling from the sacrifice.— Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, Divine Intimacy, #272.
Oftentimes, disagreements or conflicts arise and we automatically seek to choose a side based on what we think. We make two mistakes when we do this in our decision making. First, we assume that the basis of a choice in a matter is solely dependent upon us, rather than God. Second, we do not stop to consider if it is a conflict we need to be involved in ourselves or if God is simply asking us to pray because our involvement may have unintended harmful consequences or impede how God is working through others.
We tend to assume that we must enter into the fray whenever an injustice arises This belief is nourished through the constant stream of information that we are given each day. Social media enables this kind of thinking as it does not encourage right discernment as to whether or not a fight is ours or not. Social media encourages us to make immediate and rash judgments which then spill over into our regular lives. This leaves us jumping from one band-wagon to the next, rather than considering where God is calling us to fight injustice in the world or in the Church. We are not called to every single battle. In fact, we aren’t called to most of them.
Just because a friend, family member, or priest invites us to the latest skirmish or disagreement does not mean that we ourselves are meant to engage in that battle. True, we will often be criticized or ostracized for our inaction, but the reality is, when we engage in battles God does not want us involved in, we can cause greater damage and destruction in the process because we are not living in accordance with His will and He is not supplying the graces we need to be successful. We are following our own ego, the Enemy, or the world. It is in these instances that we are simply called to pray, which is a fight of its own in the supernatural order on behalf of those He has called to that particular mission.
There is much that is wrong in the Church at present, and yes, it is very similar to other times in Church history when corruption, indifference, and betrayal of Our Lord have been prevalent, but we must go where Christ is calling each one of us to serve and renew His Church and the world. We must seek God’s will, not our own will.
This can only be accomplished through frequent and fervent prayer coupled with reliable spiritual counsel from the holy people in our lives. Without prayer, we expend far too much energy on battles that were never ours to begin with and we cause more harm than good in the process. In these instances, we allow the Enemy to pull us away from the path God actually wants us on in order to build up the Mystical Body. Yes, he will use apparent goods to pull us away from where Christ is actually using us.
The virtue of prudence is our guide. We must grow in prudence through prayer and the use of reason in order to make decisions in our daily lives and to help us discern rightly the battles God is calling us to fight for His Kingdom. We cannot be just, courageous, and temperate if we are not first prudent and seeking to align our will to God’s will. This necessarily means walking away from battles that are not our own. Prudence truly is the “mother” of all other cardinal virtues and essential for our sanctification and the world’s.