By Father Jacob Dankasa
Special to The Texas Catholic
In my last column I discussed the cardinal virtue of temperance and how it assists us in regulating our desires for pleasure. In this column I want to continue with the conversation about the cardinal virtues because of their essential value in our moral lives. Prudence is one of the cardinal virtues and a very important one to practice and to acquire both as humans and as people of faith.
Prudence is a virtue that enables us to do the right thing at the right time. Prudence helps us in making an appropriate judgment, in distinguishing between a right action and a bad action. We exercise prudence when we correctly choose good and avoid evil. When we are prudent, we deliberate before we take action, we judge the situation rightly, and we decide what we should or should not do. The final action we take in a particular situation determines how prudent or imprudent we are. Prudence can be exercised both in our actions and in our words. It is prudence that enables us to speak the right words at the right time. It is prudence that helps us to judge a situation and know the appropriate words to use in that situation—to address a problem in the family, to console a bereaved person, to talk with older or younger people, in all situations. We lack prudence when our words are vulgar, insulting, demeaning or insensitive.
As human beings we are susceptible to making mistakes in many ways, and sometimes the mistakes we make are unintended. The virtue of prudence helps us to think deeply and to seek counsel before making decisions or before acting in a specific way, especially when we are uncertain of the best course of action. Seeking counsel is an important element of prudence, since making a judgment on a moral or life issue can sometimes be complicated; without rational thinking and proper counsel we may make wrong judgments.
The virtue of prudence is a very necessary virtue for both families and individuals in our spiritual journey, and it is even more necessary for parents, on whom the final responsibility for the family rests. In both nuclear and extended families, for example, the wrong judgment of one person, especially a parent, can affect the entire family — and even generations to come. An intentional practice of prudence will help sustain the family’s joy and peace. In a family where the father is always using insulting and vulgar words in addressing the mother, for example, the children may learn that kind of negative behavior, and other members of the family will either imitate the father’s behavior or detest him because of it. One episode in which the mother acts in an immoral way can model inappropriate behavior and lead to more bad judgments in the family, especially in the lives of her daughters.
We should practice good judgment in action and words, especially when dealing with each other. Catch yourself when you are about to say words that are not pleasant; practice restraint in expressing yourself. One good thing about the cardinal virtues is that they can be acquired by practice. Prudence can be practiced and learned. Let us live in such a way that our children — or others who look up to us — believe in us and trust us in such a way that they feel they can rely on us for good counsel. Self-restraint is an element of prudence that can assist us on our spiritual journey. We must practice self-restraint in both our speech and our actions. We must learn to know what to say, and when and how and whether to say it; this is equally true of our actions.
In exercising prudence, reason should reign supreme over our emotions. St. Thomas Aquinas placed prudence at the forefront of the cardinal virtues because it involves the use of the intellect; it involves thinking — sincere meditation and reflection before acting. It is the deliberate practice of applying reason to our human actions. As human beings we are emotional by nature—we have feelings that are sometimes expressed instinctively. But through prudence we allow our intellect to act, to reason out the possible consequences of a decision before we implement it. Aristotle described the reason needed in prudence as the right reason, which means that the appropriate rational reason leads you to act correctly in accordance with the moral principles of our faith as Christians.
For us Christians, prudence is not just some applied rationale for acting that allows wrong actions to be carried out. It is not the application of secular reasoning that justifies evil or that goes against the teaching of the faith. Prudence is a reasoning that places faith at the center of our human judgment. To this end, we think and act – whether it is as a mother, father, child, or simply as a human being — in a way that leads us to make judgments that are not against the moral principles of our Christian faith.
Father Jacob Dankasa is the pastor of Holy Family of Nazareth Catholic Church in Irving.