The human soul with its powers of intellect and will is created by God at the moment of conception, and is the source of human life on the natural level. But man, with his natural powers alone, could never attain the supernatural goal for which he was created. For that, there are needed other gifts of God, those of sanctifying grace with its accompanying infused virtues and gifts which elevate and perfect the soul and its natural powers, enabling man to live his human life on a supernatural level. These infused powers, all of which come with sanctifying grace, are the following:
All of the above infused virtues and gifts together with sanctifying grace constitute the supernatural organism, which perfects and elevates the soul and its natural powers, and enables us to grow in the divine life of grace and to attain our supernatural goal, provided we do not reject God’s graces and inspirations by choosing what is contrary to His commands.
The synopsis above helps one to see how the moral virtues fit in the overall scheme of the Christian life. While the three theological virtues put us directly in contact with the goal or end of our life, the four moral virtues have to do with the means that must be used to attain that end; or looked at it in a negative way, they remove the obstacles that stand in the way of attaining that end. In this issue we will look briefly at the first of the moral virtues, prudence.
Prudence is a virtue that directs reason to choose rightly the proper means to attain the end in view. It is the most important of all the moral virtues, for it directs all the other virtues in choosing the proper means in attaining their respective goals. Without this virtue one will not choose well nor live rightly as regards the final goal of his life. It is not enough to want to do good, one must know the means he must choose to achieve that good.
Prudence, says St. Thomas, is “right reason applied to action.” (II II, 47. 8) In applying it to action the exercise of the virtue of prudence involves three steps: 1) deliberating as to the various means of attaining the desired end; 2) judging or deciding on the means or action to be taken or not taken; 3) commanding that the means decided upon be put into action. This last step is the principal act of this virtue, the first two only prepare the way. True prudence commands that the decision be put into effect with courage and without needless delays, and without being discouraged by any difficulties encountered.
On the purely natural plane, prudence is acquired by repeated acts, as are all acquired virtues. Natural prudence dictates the means to be used to attain man’s end as known by the light of reason. It does not take into consideration any of the revealed truths known by faith. This virtue is not characteristic of the young, for they have not had time to acquire it. It is the fruit of a certain number of years and experience. Even though the very young (baptized) have sanctifying grace and the infused virtues, they have not attained the use of reason, nor advanced in the acquired virtues.
On the supernatural level prudence is infused at baptism with the other infused virtues, and dictates the means to be used to attain man’s end known by the light of reason enlightened by faith, the eternal possession of God through the beatific vision. It is supernatural prudence (Christian prudence) that we are mainly concerned about here. The characteristics of this important virtue will become more clear by contrasting it with natural acquired prudence, and with false notions of this virtue.
The difference between acquired and infused prudence is not simply a matter of degree, but of nature, just as the supernatural order (which brings a share in the very life of God) is infinitely superior to the natural order. Because of this, at times supernatural prudence will dictate a course of action that would not be recommended by natural prudence, e.g. to forego marriage for the sake of the priesthood or the religious life, or to fast in reparation for sin, or to give one’s life in defense of one’s faith in Christ.
Christian prudence is ever at odds with the wisdom of the world. It does not judge things solely by the satisfactions or pleasures they afford, nor the material gains they bring (though these can be good in themselves), but seeing them in the light of faith it makes sure they do not obscure or lead away from our eternal goal. It is ever mindful of the question asked by St. Bernard: “Quid hoc ad aeternitatem?” What is the value of this for eternity?
Both the acquired and the infused virtue of prudence perfect the intellect, but in different ways. Each one needs the other in bringing man to his final end. Just as the acquired virtue of prudence needs the infused virtue of prudence to elevate its action to the supernatural plane, so the infused virtue needs the acquired virtue to facilitate its exercise of the choice of means in attaining one’s final end.
An example will help to clarify the relationship between the acquired and infused virtues. The virtue of temperance affords a clear picture: A man who is habitually inebriated and away from the practice of his faith, may in answer to prayer, receive the grace to repent and determine to change his ways. With his return to the sacraments he has sanctifying grace and the infused virtue of temperance, but not the acquired virtue. The infused virtue at this point meets much resistance, because of the total lack of the acquired virtue. He finds it very hard to give up his usual drink, very hard to stay away from the tavern. But somehow he manages. Each time he resists the temptation he little by little builds up the acquired virtue, and each such victory merits an increase of grace, with a corresponding strengthening of the infused virtue of temperance. In time he is able to pass by the tavern without difficulty. We see, then, how the infused virtues need and presuppose the good habits of the acquired virtues, for the acquired virtues provide a channel, or cut a path, along which the infused virtues operate with ease or at least with less resistance.
The infused virtues, therefore, do not free the Christian from the necessity of acquiring the natural virtue by means of hard work, but they give him a higher motive for striving, and a guarantee of unfailing divine assistance if he does what he can. Consequently, while the natural acquired virtue removes the obstacles that stand in the way of the exercise of the infused virtue, through the help of the infused virtue the converted individual is now moved and inspired by a higher and stronger motive toward his final goal.
True Christian prudence which directs the various virtues in choosing the means to attain man’s final end, requires that both the means and the end are good. This would exclude those who convince themselves that the use of contraceptives is the prudent thing to do in this situation, and those who think it is better not to bring to birth the unborn child known to be deformed. St. Paul referred to such as these in his epistle to the Romans: “The wisdom of the flesh is hostile to God, for it is not subject to the law of God, nor can it be.” (8:7)
Too, merely human prudence is not Christian prudence: for example, the one who seeks out the best means to attain a purely natural end (good in itself) without referring it to his final end. Such is the prudence of the masters of industry, of the arts, of politics, etc. who gain renown, but are unconcerned about God’s laws and eternity. These people pay no heed to the Lord’s words: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Mk. 8:36)
Christian prudence is not to be identified with excessive solicitude for temporal goods or future events, which designates a lack of confidence in divine providence. Also lacking in this Christian virtue is the one who, while keeping in mind the final goal of his life, deliberates carefully and makes a judgment as to the best means to use, but because of hesitancy or timidity or excessive worry, fails to carry that judgment into action. Such a one has omitted the most import part of prudence - the command to act.
Then, there are those who dissent from the official teaching of the Church, following the recommendation, “Let your conscience be your guide,” as if the Holy Spirit would enlighten one interiorly in a way that contradicts the same Holy Spirit guiding the authoritative teaching of the Church. Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P. speaking of ways to foster the growth of Christian prudence, states: “There is nothing that so prevents the Holy Spirit from operating in us as does an independent and insubordinate spirit.” (Spiritual Theology, P. 280)
Again, if prudence, while guiding the virtue of temperance, allows the use of the good things of this world (the use of which temperance should moderate) in an excessive way, such is not Christian prudence. Likewise, if prudence, in guiding the virtue of justice (which is concerned about rights), is concerned only about the rights of man not the rights of God, or only the rights of the individual and not the rights of society, or vice versa, such are not true Christian prudence.
It is part of the function of prudence to judge and choose among the various means available the one best suited for the end in view. But in the measure that our heart is overly attached to the world, the flesh, or the ego, our judgment is obscured and slanted by those attachments in a way that impedes the proper function of prudence. Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D. speaks of this:
“In order that our judgments and choices be prudent, we must know how to free them from elements which are too subjective, such as our personal attractions and interests, our natural likes and dislikes. Sometimes we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are judging situations or deciding to do something solely for the glory of God or for the good of our neighbor, when, in fact, if we examined ourselves thoroughly, we would perhaps see that the motives that prevailed in our judgment or in our deliberations were egotistic and dictated by our own personal interests. Hence, even, prudence requires that we cleanse our heart from all these human motives, and that we practice detachment and renunciation.” (Divine Intimacy, n. 274)
St. Thomas Aquinas explains how these attachments affect our judgments, thus interfering with the function of prudence, making discipline of these attachments essential for progress in Christian living. “Inordinate self-love is the source of all sin, and darkens the intellect, for when will and sensibility are ill-disposed (i.e. when they tend to pride and sensuality) everything that is in conformity with these inclinations appears to be good.” (I II, 77,4; Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, Three Ways of the Sp. Life, p. 41)
In reading about the virtue of prudence, one might find it difficult to distinguish it from conscience. The two are inter-twined but not the same. Conscience is not the intellect, it is not a virtue, it is a practical judgment of the intellect; and prudence is the virtue (a permanent disposition of the soul) that guides that practical judgment. We see, then, how important is the virtue of prudence in the Christian life. It affects all the other virtues in that it guides them in the choice of means to their proper ends. And in turn, it is affected by them, each in its own way. The perfect act of Christian prudence needs the help of each of the theological and moral virtues. For example: Prudence needs the light of FAITH, the confidence of HOPE, and the urging of CHARITY to direct one to his final endmeans to attain that end.
We see, then, how universal is this virtue in its function, for it touches the whole of our Christian life. Either right reason is ruling us, or our attachments to the world, the flesh, or the ego are ruling us. In the measure that any of these last three monarchs rule us, it is going to affect the performance of prudence, and indirectly affect the performance of the other virtues that prudence assists.
All of these virtues are united in charity which is “the bond of perfection” (Col. 3:14) giving the motivation that makes the acts of every virtue meritorious. But in another way all virtues are united in prudence, since all of them contribute to perfect prudence, and all of them depend on prudence in choosing the proper means that lead to God.
When one considers the weaknesses of the acquired virtues, he should not be discouraged, for the virtue of prudence has a powerful aid in the Gift of Counsel, the Gift of the Holy Spirit that perfects that virtue. If there is good will, in spite of the various weaknesses, the Holy Spirit does at times (in answer to prayer) make us understand in an instant the proper course of action. However, the Holy Spirit will not do it all. His grace can work miracles in human hearts, but it depends on our cooperation with His grace. The more one tries through prayer and mortification to remedy the weak areas, the more this Gift develops making us more responsive to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.
However, so often we are unaware of His indwelling presence and His quiet reminders. Reasons for this can be: 1) we are so distracted and deafened by the noises and attractions of the world, and 2) we are so attached to our own judgment, which can be a source of self-deception, being convinced that we are moved by supernatural motives, when in reality it could be personal interest.
If one feels stalled at a mediocre level, prayer is needed to see the obstacles that stand in the way, and for courage to apply discipline where it is needed. True progress does not mean that one feels he is captain of the ship - in full control; but rather it brings a greater realization of how utterly dependent on God one is, and needful of His help to continue the uphill battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. We must never forget we are not fighting this battle alone. The Holy Spirit is always ready to help with His actual graces and Gifts that perfect the infused virtues. But frequent prayer is necessary to keep one mindful of this and to persevere in one’s efforts. “I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the Spirit of Wisdom came to me.” (Wis. 7:7)
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