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The Difficulty of Prudence

y Matt Abbott

One of the virtues I seem to have great difficulty with is prudence. Let me explain. Prudence, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "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.' [Prov 14:15.] 'Keep sane and sober for your prayers.' [1 Pet 4:7 .] Prudence is 'right reason in action,' writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle.[St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 47, 2.]

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" (no. 1806).

An example of my lack of prudential behavior in recent times: I worked in an environment in which most of the people I come in contact with on a daily basis were seemingly indifferent to religion in general and to the moral law in particular. While it is difficult to witness to the truth in such an environment, one can evangelize in subtle ways, i.e. wearing a small cross or a Blessed Mother pin on an article of clothing - something I have done more than once. The real difficulty arises when the subject of conversation turns, as it inevitably does at times, to something controversial - sexuality, abortion, contraception, life issues. And that is precisely what happened to me.

One former associate of mine, who knew my staunchly Catholic views on the aforementioned subjects (and who himself was pro-life, albeit not unconditionally so), thought he would "bait" me and another former associate - a young, liberal female - into talking about the subject of contraception. Naturally, the conversation quickly turned from contraception to abortion. The young woman stated that she can understand someone being against abortion (not "birth control," though), but she herself was "for it" because she has had friends who have "been through it."

Having worked in the pro-life movement for a time, I have acquired a few small photos of aborted babies, which I keep in my wallet in case the "need" arises. My former associate pleaded with me not to take them out (I showed him one in a previous conversation, and he didn't like it). But, alas, my emotions took over and I promptly did just that - took the most graphic picture I have and stuck it in the young woman's face. Not surprisingly, she turned away in disgust, saying "That's disgusting - get that way from me!!" and promptly walked back into her office, not speaking to me for the next couple of days. She was upset. I was upset. I later apologized via e-mail. Not for my convictions, mind you, but for my lack of charity and prudence in the situation.

Then there is my quasi-investigation into the unsolved homicide case of canon lawyer Fr. Alfred J. Kunz, who in 1998 was found with his throat cut in his Dane, Wisconsin parish, St. Michael's. I must fight a temptation to let curiosity lure me and incite me to go about things in a less than prudent manner, especially when it comes to gathering and disseminating sensitive information. This has prompted a good friend of mine to say to me on more than one occasion, "Matt, you have to go about [investigating] very discreetly; you can't go forward blowing Gabriel's trumpet." But, of course, that is exactly what I do. Imprudent? I suppose so - at least, in certain respects.

And who among the well-informed can forget the public statements made by the Rev. Jerry Falwell shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (on the "700 Club" television program):

"The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked... When we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. Throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America - I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen."

Was Falwell entirely wrong in his assessment? I don't think so. But his public statements certainly were not prudent, especially at that point in time. And as a result, he was (in most cases, unfairly) ridiculed by the media and various liberal activist groups.

I guess the virtue of prudence, like the other virtues, is something we always have to pray for. Consistently. From the heart. To Jesus, through Mary, the well-beloved spouse of the Holy Spirit. "Come Holy Spirit; come by means of the powerful intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, your well-beloved Spouse." Amen.

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