The Difficulty of Prudence

One of the virtues I seem to have great difficulty with is prudence. Let me explain. Prudence, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,

is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” [Prv 14:15.] “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.” [1 Pt 4:7 .] Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. [St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 47, 2.]It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid. (no. 1806)

The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia defines prudence in this (lengthy) manner:

One of the four cardinal virtues. Definitions of it are plentiful from Aristotle down. His “recta ratio agibilium” has the merits of brevity and inclusiveness. Father Rickaby aptly renders it as “right reason applied to practice.” A fuller description and one more serviceable is this: an intellectual habit enabling us to see in any given juncture of human affairs what is virtuous and what is not, and how to come at the one and avoid the other. It is to be observed that prudence, whilst possessing in some sort an empire over all the moral virtues, itself aims to perfect not the will but the intellect in its practical decisions. Its function is to point out which course of action is to be taken in any round of concrete circumstances. It indicates which, here and now, is the golden mean wherein the essence of all virtue lies. It has nothing to do with directly willing the good it discerns. That is done by the particular moral virtue within whose province it falls. Prudence, therefore, has a directive capacity with regard to the other virtues. It lights the way and measures the arena for their exercise. The insight it confers makes one distinguish successfully between their mere semblance and their reality. It must preside over the eliciting of all acts proper to any one of them at least if they be taken in their formal sense. Thus, without prudence bravery becomes foolhardiness; mercy sinks into weakness, and temperance into fanaticism. But it must not be forgotten that prudence is a virtue adequately distinct from the others, and not simply a condition attendant upon their operation. Its office is to determine for each in practice those circumstances of time, place, manner, etc. which should be observed, and which the Scholastics comprise under the term medium rationis. So it is that whilst it qualifies immediately the intellect and not the will, it is nevertheless rightly styled a moral virtue.

This is because the moral agent finds in it, if not the eliciting, at any rate the directive principle of virtuous actions. According to St. Thomas (II-II, Q. xlvii, a. 8) it is its function to do three things: to take counsel, i.e. to cast about for the means suited in the particular case under consideration to reach the end of any one moral virtue; to judge soundly of the fitness of the means suggested; and, finally, to command their employment. If these are to be done well they necessarily exclude remissness and lack of concern; they demand the use of such diligence and care that the resultant act can be described as prudent, in spite of whatever speculative error may have been at the bottom of the process. Readiness in finding out and ability in adapting means to an end does not always imply prudence. If the end happens to be a vicious one, a certain adroitness or sagacity may be exhibited in its pursuit. This, however, according to St. Thomas, will only deserve to be called false prudence and is identical with that referred to in Rom., viii, 6, “the wisdom of the flesh is death.” Besides the prudence which is the fruit of training and experience, and is developed into a stable habit by repeated acts, there is another sort termed “infused.” This is directly bestowed by God's bounty. It is inseparable from the condition of supernatural charity and so is to be found only in those who are in the state of grace. Its scope of course is to make provision of what is necessary for eternal salvation. Although acquired prudence considered as a principle of operation is quite compatible with sin in the agent, still it is well to note that vice obscures or at times utterly beclouds its judgment. Thus it is true that prudence and the other moral virtues are mutually interdependent. Imprudence in so far as it implies a want of obligatory prudence and not a mere gap in practical mentality is a sin, not however always necessarily distinct from the special wicked indulgence which it happens to accompany. If it proceeds to the length of formal scorn of the Divine utterances on the point, it will be a mortal sin.

But back to yours truly. One example of my — how shall we say — lack of prudential behavior in very recent times is this: I work in a secular environment, an environment in which most of the people I come in contact with on a daily basis are, at the very least, indifferent to religion in general and to the moral law in particular. In fact, they make the Call to Actionites seem “devout.” Anyway… While it is difficult to witness to the truth in such an environment, one can evangelize in subtle ways, i.e. wearing a small cross or a Blessed Mother pin on an article of clothing — something I have done more than once. The real difficulty arises when the subject of conversation turns, as it inevitably does at times, to something controversial — sexuality, abortion, contraception, life issues. And that is precisely what happened to me.

One associate of mine, who knows my staunchly Catholic views on the aforementioned subjects (and who himself is pro-life, albeit not unconditionally so), thought he would “bait” me and another associate — a young female who appears to be misguided — into talking about the subject of contraception. Naturally, the conversation quickly turned from contraception to abortion. The young woman stated that she can understand someone being against abortion (not “birth control,” though), but she herself was “for it” because (and this is no surprise) she has had friends who have “been through it.”

Having worked in the pro-life movement for a time, I have acquired a few small photos of aborted babies, which I keep in my wallet in case the “need” arises. My associate pleaded with me not to take them out (I showed him one in a previous conversation; he didn’t like it). But, alas, my emotions took over and I promptly did just that — took the most graphic picture I have and stuck it in the face of my pro-abortion female associate. Not surprisingly, she turned away in disgust, saying “That’s disgusting — get that way from me!” and promptly walked back into her office, not speaking to me for the next couple of days. She was upset. I was upset. I later apologized via e-mail. Not for my convictions, mind you, but for my lack of charity and prudence in the situation.

Then there is my quasi-investigation of the still-unsolved homicide case of canon lawyer Fr. Alfred J. Kunz, who was found with his throat cut in his Dane, Wisconsin parish, St. Michael’s, in 1998. I must fight a temptation to let curiosity lure me and incite me to go about things in a less than prudent manner, especially when it comes to gathering and disseminating sensitive information (not an easy task, mind you). This has prompted a good friend of mine to say to me on more than one occasion, “Matt, you have to go about investigating very discreetly; you can’t go forward blowing Gabriel’s trumpet.” But, of course, that's exactly what I do. Imprudent? I suppose so — at least, in certain respects.

Now that I have thrown a couple of stones at myself, I can turn my attention (briefly) to examples from current events.

Take Mel Gibson and his film The Passion of The Christ. The anti-Christian bigots have been out in full force, hurling unjust accusations of anti-Semitism on Gibson and the movie (which, by the way, most had not even seen before rushing to judgment about it). New York Times columnist Frank Rich, one of the numerous biased journalists who have infested the so-called mainstream press, took a few of his own pot-shots at Gibson. Gibson’s response to Rich? “I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog.”

An understandable reaction? Yes. The most prudent choice of words? Well…probably not.

And who among the well-informed can forget the public statements made by the Rev. Jerry Falwell right after the September 11 terrorist attacks (on the 700 Club television program):

The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked…. When we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. Throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”

Was Falwell entirely wrong in his assessment? I don’t think so. But his public statements certainly were not prudent, especially at that point in time. And as a result, he was (in most cases, unfairly) ridiculed by the media and various liberal activist groups.

I guess the virtue of prudence, like the other virtues, is something we always have to pray for. Consistently. From the heart.

To Jesus, through Mary, the well-beloved spouse of the Holy Spirit: Come Holy Spirit; come by means of the powerful intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, your well-beloved spouse. Amen.

Matt C. Abbott is the former executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee and the former director of public affairs for the Chicago-based Pro-life Action League, respectively. He is also a contributor to The Wanderer Catholic newspaper

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