Thursday, October 20, 2011

Heavenly Habits: Prudence

Now for a closer look at the cardinal or moral virtues. I  originally wrote this as a bulletin insert for our church our church but I think it works here just as well.
Heavenly Habits: Prudence
1805 Four virtues play a pivotal role and accordingly are called “cardinal”; all the others are grouped around them. They are: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. “If anyone loves righteousness, [Wisdom’s] labors are virtues; for she teaches temperance and prudence, justice, and courage.”64 These virtues are praised under other names in many passages of Scripture.

1806 Prudence 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.”65 “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.”66 Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle.67 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.
Catechism of the Catholic Church

As mentioned previously, a virtue is a good habit that helps us to behave rightly and not to give in to our own contrary impulses. The Church teaches that the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and charity are given to us by God as gifts. We cannot acquire them by effort. He fills us with them to help us participate in the spiritual life.

On the other hand, the “cardinal” virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude are those which we can achieve through both God’s grace and our efforts. They are known as the “cardinal” virtues because the Latin root cardo means “hinge.” Prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude are the “hinges” on which other human virtues depend. All human virtues are in some way an extension of a cardinal virtue.

If God is giving us the grace already, why would we care about “practicing” virtue? Obviously, we receive God’s grace regardless but certainly it is easier to recognize and take full advantage of it if we’ve been practicing these virtues to get our souls “in shape,” so to speak. Living virtuously also gives us the daily blessings of living a joyful moral life because we are able to exert self-control more easily.

Prudence, the first of the cardinal virtues, is called the “charioteer” of the other virtues because it drives or guides them. The Catechism definition above states that prudence “disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” Another way of saying this is that prudence allows us to use solid common sense in everyday life. A prudent person has the ability to judge when to kindly temper a potentially harsh comment, how best to avoid a volatile situation, or when it is necessary to take action to resolve a conflict. In short, prudence allows us to judge best how to act decisively but charitably.

Practicing prudence means that we must consider situations carefully before acting. We may need to consult authorities such as trusted advisers, the Catechism, or the Bible. Sometimes, we may need to take extra time to determine the right course of action. It doesn’t mean that we avoid acting, merely that the course is considered sensibly first.

Practicing prudence also helps us to overcome the modern tendencies to sit back and do nothing for fear of offending or to jump in with both feet and trample everyone with brash action. We can steer the right course both for ourselves and in influencing others’ right actions and attitudes. For some of us, acquiring the habit of prudence will seem like a super-human feat, and of course it is. We need God’s grace to perfect this virtue in ourselves. However, if we give it a helping hand by trying to acquire it through regular repetition, it will come all the easier when we need it in a pinch.

64 Wis 8:7.
65 Prov 14:15.
66 1 Pet 4:7.
67 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 47, 2.

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church. This may be found online
  • Catholicism for Dummies by Revs. Trigilio and Brighenti
  • The Virtues by Fr. John Hardon. This may be read online.
Next up: the virtue of Justice.

1 comment:

  1. Julie,
    Boy, the people who read your parish bulletin really get some good stuff! If you want to read an excellent book on the virtues, I can't recommend Josef Pieper's "The Four Cardinal Virtues" highly enough. Of course, anything by Josef Pieper is worth reading and re-reading