Tag Archives: prudence

On the Virtue of Prudence

Author’s Note: This is a revision of the final lecture I gave to my Senior Catholic Social Teaching course.

Tomorrow I’ll be passing out a review sheet and taking questions, but today I wanted to, for better or worse, actually give a lecture. I would ask, then, that you clear your desks, put away your pens, resist the temptation to use your phones, and just listen. A seeming lifetime ago, I made a fateful decision to stay with the Capuchins, rather than join another order. By doing so, I committed to a lifetime of ministry in a parish setting and gave up, most likely, what had been a dream of mine for quite some time: to go back to school to get my doctorate. I did – and still do, I must admit – dream of writing books, giving lectures, and researching. I still dream of the quest for knowledge as my life’s profession. Here I am, then, seeking knowledge in the B Wing of Sacred Heart High School. I sort of feel as if there is a conversation repeated inside my brain from Lord of the Rings, as if I were both characters. It goes something like this:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The decision to be a Capuchin – to wear brown and not do one of the many other things I could have otherwise is one that I regret less than half the time, and so, in the eyes of the world, I likely made the correct choice. At the same time, I wanted to make the attempt to give a lecture like many of you will be hearing in the near future, so I beg your pardon.

I wanted to lecture today on the virtue of Prudenc: what Thomas Aquinas calls “Wisdom concerning human affairs” (STIIaIIae 47.2 ad 1) or “right reason with respect to action”

The great Isidore, quoted by Aquinas, wrote, “A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.”

We might ask, why is Father Matt boring us on a sunny day, taking about a virtue that we’ve hardly ever thought about, while quoting two men who are long dead. I’m doing so, I would respond, because without prudence, without the virtue of being able to step back and consider the consequences of our decisions, we simply become savage beasts who actually believe “You Only Live Once” will make us happy – or leave the world a better place.

Prudence is the quality that allows us to review our situations, be aware of the situations of others, and understand that our actions have real consequences, not only for ourselves, but also for those around us.

Indeed, prudence is the virtue that allows us to act rightly and justly – but also the virtue that allows us to act effectively.

Prudence is the virtue that prevents us from charging headlong as an army of one against a force arrayed against us in the thousands. Prudence prevents virtues from becoming vices: as the army of one’s bravery is transformed into foolhardiness and even, some might say, stupidity.

Prudence, put in another way, keeps us on the straight and narrow, moving us toward our final end.

Our final end: our destiny – that sounds scary doesn’t it?

But in actuality, our final destiny has been the goal of this course: we have attempted to view the world in a such a way that takes into account the paradox that, on the one hand, heaven and earth are not the same place. At the same time, we have (I hope) come to realize that it is the mission of every Christian to proclaim that heaven is indeed attempting to break into earth and, in the meantime, to we are called to do everything possible to make it a reality.

I had very much looked forward to the opportunity to preach your baccalaureate mass, for this is the first class that has made me its own, and you were – and are – and always will be – my kids. I’ve had the opportunity to be your teacher, your coach, your (possibly) biggest fan on the court, your campus minister, and someone with whom you’ve been able to laugh and cry. Alas, that won’t be happening, so I’m here now attempting to lecture, three days before you’re out of here, on the virtue of prudence.

Prudence is the virtue that I have tried to make a part of each decision in this classroom, each decision that I make with respect to my interactions with you: I’ve always attempted to consider how my response to your requests, or my reaction to whatever it is the seniors were doing today balanced care and concern, a sense of fun, while not sacrificing the reality that all actions have consequences, and, quite plainly, the reality that many of the consequences of our actions cannot nearly be foreseen in the moment or even a few weeks later.

To speak about prudence in this way brings up major decisions: where to go to college, who to marry, or whether to buy a new home. At the same time, prudence in the moment has equally important, though less flashy consequences: knowing that one has had one too many drinks to get behind the wheel, taking a step back from a passionate moment with a significant other, telling the truth at the risk of getting someone in trouble, or even apologizing for something absolutely stupid we’ve done: these are the marks of a prudent person and prudence is, in fact, my deepest wish and prayer for you.

More than learning about solidarity or subsidiarity, deeper than the Just War Theory or solutions for the destruction of our earth’s resources, more complicated than the outline of Natural Law, or more hair splitting than what made me give you a 9.25 on a primary source document rather than a 10, this class was supposed to be about illuminating for you just how complicated our world is. It’s not nearly as easy as liberal or conservative, gay or straight, Democratic or Republic, male or female, black or white. This course cannot be summarized in a 160-character tweet and I have attempted to attend to questions that last longer than a post on Snap Chat. The questions that I attempted to ask, with varying degrees of success, is how do we respond to a world that is at once more beautiful and breathtaking than we dared dream, but at the same time, more devastatingly cruel than any situation cooked up on Grey’s Anatomy or the Walking Dead.

I can, then, in the final account, hope that you know less about the world than when you walked into the classroom. And I can also hope – perhaps more importantly – that you know that you know less. To know that there are things we don’t know is perhaps the greatest talent a person can have.

And so, before you fall asleep, I return to the virtue of prudence: it is not a virtue that tells us what to do, nor is it the virtue that tells us how to do it. Rather, prudence is the virtue that teaches us when we are to do what it is that we know how to do.

In other words, prudence is about knowing what to do with the time that we have been given. May you, my students, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my ones about whom I worried, panicked, cried, raged, and concerned myself, always know what and how to do what it is that you must do. But as for my wish and prayer, may you always know the right time to do it. Amen.