(From a 2012 Lent and Easter series of sermons on the Catholic Virtues.)
After John had been arrested, Jesus began to proclaim the gospel of God:
To repent is to be sorry for what one has done, and to turn away from it. Repentance looks at the past, but for the sake of the future – the time of fulfillment, the kingdom of God, a new way of life. And when I think of a new way of life, I think of virtues.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a virtue as a disposition to do the good, a disposition which is firm and habitual. I also consulted Webster’s for the etymology of the word. It derives from the Latin “virtus”, based on the word “vir” meaning “a man”, the idea being that a virtuous person is like a man rather than a child. The etymology went on to say “see werewolf”. I thought that was kind of weird, so I looked up werewolf. It’s an old English compound word, combining “wer” meaning “man”, very similar to the Latin “vir”, and “wulf” meaning “wolf”. A werewolf, in folklore, being a creature that flips between being human and wolf.
To put these thoughts together, you might say that a virtuous person rises above the immature self-indulgence of the childish, and above the drives and appetites of the animal instincts which can be so savage. In fact, the childish easily becomes savage, as I learned in my first year teaching, even without reading “Lord of the Flies”.
So to be virtuous is to be mature, fully human, and since the Bible describes the human as created in the image of God, virtuous living develops that God-like character planted within us by the Creator.
Christian thinkers have traditionally spoken of different types of virtues, the human and the theological. Human virtues, sometimes called moral virtues, can be acquired through human effort. They order our passions and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faith. Among these human virtues are four that are pivotal, known as cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
The theological virtues are so-called because they pertain directly to God and are considered gifts of God: faith, hope, and charity. We will start with the human virtues, and first in the list, because it is considered the charioteer of the other virtues, guiding their use, is prudence.
To quote again the Catechism:
It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience.
We may think of prudence as a kind of caution that borders on timidity, not rushing in where angels fear to tread. And while it is true that many mistakes are made by rushing in without thinking, there may be times when taking quick and decisive action is the prudent thing to do. Whether we go slow or sush in, “the prudent one looks where his is going”, and the Book of Proverbs says (Prv. 14:15). And as Thomas Aquinas said, prudence is “right reason in action”.
As long as we are discerning our true good and choosing the right means to achieve it in the concrete circumstances of the situation, we are being prudent. And how important that can be.
I read about a young woman named Beth who went to medical school because, when she was a young child, her grandmother saw her tending an injured robin and remarked, “you’d make a good doctor”. But into her second year of medical studies, all of which she aced, she realized that she herself didn’t really want to be a doctor. But what, then? She fell into a deep funk, slept all the time, was snippy with her friends. She had hardly rushed into medical school from the age of eight, but she had never discerned her own true good.
Ever have buyer’s remorse? You fell in love with the house, or with the person. In your passionate desire you overlooked certain critical features, like adjustability of the mortgage, or the radical difference in lifestyle expectations. You saw what you wanted to see and imagined you could make it all work. Love conquers all! Together forever! Inspired feelings when young, but not necessarily prudent.
Ever get into an argument and persist so long in proving your point, or trying to explain yourself, that it became counterproductive? The harder you tried, the worse it got. Counterproductive means that you did not discern the true good, or choose the right means.
Go to war, or give diplomacy more time to work? That’s a question for our times – think Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran. Obviously the true good is justice, and the preferred means are peaceful, but the concrete circumstances have a lot to do with a prudent decision. Our thinking about war or diplomacy continues to be influenced by Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who returned from his Munich conference with Adolph Hitler and announced that they had reached a diplomatic resolution. There would be “peace in our time”, and everyone cheered. Chamberlain so dreaded another war that he imagined Hitler didn’t want war either, and was telling the truth when he said that slice of Czechoslovakia was the last of his territorial demands.
Ever since, hawks have said it is not prudent to appease power-hungry dictators, and doves have said “this time is different”, and which one is right depends. Not every world situation is like Hitler pushing around the western democracies in 1938, but sometimes that’s exactly what’s going on. Sometimes it is foolish to rush in where angels fear to tread, but sometimes he who hesitates is lost. Prudence figures out what time it is.
Perhaps a good way of wrapping up our consideration of prudence is with a saying of Jesus Christ that connects this virtue to the whole project of growing up in the image of God and achieving our ultimate true good.
Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his soul?” That’s a saying about prudence.
Next time, Justice, fortitude and temperance.
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