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July 28, 2000 Issue
Foundations of Faith

When we need a firm hand on the reins

Prudence: the skill to know what to do

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

(Second in a series)

Remember the chariot race in Ben Hur? No matter the version of this movie classic, there's always that hair-raising race. Chariots careening, drivers making split second decisions in order to win -- or more importantly -- stay alive. Such driving required skill, training, trigger reflexes, right judgment and an eye for detail.

The same requirements go for the cardinal virtue of prudence. As we learned earlier, the virtues "are powers rooted in the presence of God, in grace, that enable us to establish and nurture healthy and life-giving relationships with God, the neighbor, the world, and the self" (Catholicism, pp. 926-7).

The grace of all virtues comes from God. But the cardinal, or hinge, virtues are those that we have to work at developing in order to fully receive their graces. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the cardinal (also called moral) virtues "grow through education, deliberate acts and perseverance in struggle" (no. 1839). The virtues take practice.

Just like learning to drive a chariot takes practice.

Prudence has been called the charioteer of the virtues (auriga virtutum), because it directs the other virtues. Joseph Delaney says that the function of prudence is "to point out which course of action is to be taken in any round of concrete circumstances. ... It lights the way and measures the arena for their exercise." (There's that chariot venue again.)

Prudence demonstrates what we call common sense. St. Thomas Aquinas calls its "right reason applied to action." It has nothing to do with being a straight-laced fussbudget. Nor does prudence have anything to do with being a prude (even though the two words share a common root).

Having prudence means possessing the skill to look at all the details in a particular situation, sift through them to make the proper judgment and arrive at the decision of what needs to be done. And a skill is not something you're born with; you have to develop it.

"Prudence is essentially the capacity for discernment," says Fr. Richard McBrien. "It is not to be equated with an attitude of caution, restraint, timidity or conservatism. Rather, the prudent person is one who can make decisions."

Prudence is about making decisions: good, practical, moral decisions. However, there's nothing impetuous about those decisions. Prudence doesn't make snap decisions. No, there's a distinct process used. Aquinas broke the process down into three parts (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 47, a. 8):

  1. Seek counsel. This is the information-gathering stage. Here, one looks at details, asks opinions and seeks information.
  2. Judge. This is the sorting-out stage. Here, the prudent person weighs all the information and decides what is the good, moral and true thing to do.
  3. Command. This is the action stage. It's not good enough to seek and find the right answer. You have to act on that answer -- you have to drive the chariot.

Sr. Brid Long, SSL, describes these stages as "related to prayerful reflection and discernment and involves bringing God's word to bear on our life decisions."

Life decisions are definitely not something to be made quickly -- or without some skill. However, that doesn't mean one can't make prudent decisions quickly -- once you have that skill.

We see many examples of prudence in the Scriptures -- from Solomon's prayer for wisdom (1Kg 3:4-15) to Bartimaeus asking for sight and then using it to follow Jesus (Mk 10:46-52).

A prime example of prudence can be seen at the wedding in Cana (Jn 2:1-11). Here we have a party, lots of celebrating and revelry and then they run out of wine. Now, in a traditional Jewish wedding, running out of wine was a matter of personal shame. Wine, in that culture, was considered a blessing from God. Running out of it could be seen as a sign of God's displeasure, especially at the start of a marriage.

And all of this happened in front of the entire town -- since that culture mandated inviting everyone to a wedding, an event that lasted well over a week.

Not exactly the place you'd expect to find a prude. But a prudent person was there. Mary, the mother of Jesus. Referring to Aquinas' three stages above, we can see how Mary acts prudently.

Gathering information. Mary realized they had no more wine -- and well before anyone else, since the party was still going on. So Mary had an eye for detail.

Making a decision. Mary knew the right thing to do: ask Jesus' help. How did she know he could help? Through experience. Remember, at this point in John's Gospel, Jesus had performed no miracles. Yet, Mary's experience of her son told her that he could -- and would -- help. Remember, she had gathered information about him over a lifetime.

Action. Mary went to Jesus, asked for help, and then told the servants to do whatever he told them.

And Mary's actions show us one last important detail about prudence -- in fact, about all the virtues: Human interaction with God. The virtues are always built on God's love, which we call grace. We do our part to cooperate with that grace.

Mary did her part.

The Catechism tells us that "the moral (cardinal) virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love" (no. 1804).

Mary's communion with divine love -- from the time of the Annunciation -- developed her skills at prudence. So, at Cana, she knew what to do and she did it.

Look what happened. Nothing as adrenaline-pumping as a chariot race, perhaps. But water into wine was just the beginning.

Next: Truth, justice and God's way

(Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; Summa Theologica; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; Catholicism; and The Catholic Encyclopedia)

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