The Cardinal Virtues: The Queenship of Prudence

The moral life has been hampered greatly by the prevalence of both nominalism (a system based on opposition) and a system of morality based on obligation over charity. For the first 1500 years of the Church, the moral life was seen as the movement of grace within the individual who then strives to live the virtues both supernatural and human. The supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity drive the individual to conform their lives to the good who is God. The human virtues, or cardinal virtues, are those lived daily through habitual action and choices. Thus morality is seen as a movement towards love and the New Law of Christ rather than a system of external obligation. The Decalogue and other moral teachings are inherent parts of the Christian life, but they are lived more fruitfully through charity and a life of virtue, rather than as an external force dictating each of our actions. The first cardinal virtue we will examine is prudence.

The foundation and highest of the cardinal virtues is prudence.[1] Joseph Pieper begins his chapter on prudence in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues by pointing out the strangeness most people experience in learning that prudence must come before the other virtues.

No dictum in traditional Christian doctrine strikes such a note of strangeness to the ears of contemporaries, even contemporary Christians, as this one: that the virtue of prudence is the mold and “mother” of all the other cardinal virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance. In other words, none but the prudent man can be just, brave, and temperate, and the good man is good in so far as he is prudent.[2]

Most people assume the cardinal virtues are separate and belong to no set order, which is why the idea of prudence being primary is so foreign to most people, including many moral theologians.

Prudence in its contemporary usage has become confused from its original meaning and understanding. In the contemporary psyche it is confused with a form of utilitarianism rather than as a grounding force to the other virtues. Pieper points out that most people think of prudence as that which “always carries the connotation of timorous, self-minded preservation, of a rather selfish concern about oneself.”[3] This idea of prudence forgets the human drive for goodness, truth, and nobility. One who is selfish is not concerned with virtue, rather they have turned inward away from truth. The prudent person desires to live according to truth.

Prudence is inextricably linked with choices. It is to choose the good in each moment of the day. One cannot be just, courageous, or temperate if their choices are not ordered to the good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines prudence as: “…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”…Prudence is “right reason in action”, writes Saint Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle (CCC 1806).” This means “prudence is the “measure” of justice, of fortitude, of temperance.”[4] It is through prudence where emotions and passions are tempered by reason in order for good decisions to be made. A person who is not ruled by reason easily falls into error and sin. Prudence’s primary concern is truth and how best to achieve and conform to that truth. This conformity to the truth propels the man or woman into action.

All of the virtues have at their heart an action in response to truth. The intellect processes the information presented to examine whether or not it conforms to the ontological need for goodness and the will chooses an action in conformity to this truth.[5] The truth can be blocked by the individual’s will, but in the formation of prudence the individual comes to choose the good more and more frequently. The Catechism explains, “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 (CCC 1806).” In a proper examination of prudence, it is clear why the other cardinal virtues rest on this virtue. A man cannot be just if he is not conformed to the truth, nor can a person be willing to die a martyr’s death through fortitude without the aspiration to live truth, or temper bodily desires if the need for balance is not rightly understood.

[1] Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Kindle Edition (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1965), 88.

[2] Ibid, 88.

[3] Ibid, 108.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, On Human Nature, ed. Thomas S. Hibbs, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), 133-34.

The Cardinal Virtues: Introduction

It has been a very stressful week for my family and me with multiple health scares and the ever present agony of waiting for news. I did want to start a brief series on the cardinal virtues based on a term paper I wrote for grad school. This first part is from that paper. We will consider this the introduction and next week I will begin on prudence. I hope you are having a very blessed Lent.

The cardinal virtues are essential to the moral life. Each human being is made for happiness and truth, which can only be found in God. In order to discover and live this happiness each individual must foster proper habits through the cardinal virtues. In the Christian life the assumption is that the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the movement of grace, are all at work within the individual as he or she works towards the ultimate truth of God. While the focus here is on the cardinal virtues, the supernatural virtues are always at work in each Christian’s life. Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are virtues which order behavior to the pursuit and habitual response to goodness and truth. An individual cannot hope to live a moral life fixed on objective truth without the constant pursuit of these virtues in daily living. It is within the seemingly mundane tasks of daily living where the bigger moral questions are grounded. If an individual lives their private life virtuously, then those habits will spill over into public life and the moral orders of family, community, and country.

In examining virtue and calling others to its pursuit there is often a stumbling block tied to freedom. Individuals may see the virtues as a limitation of freedom and an imposition from external forces against the desires of that particular person; therefore, freedom must be rightly understood first in order to prevent this impediment. Since human beings are spiritual and bodily creatures, there is a natural order within each person at the ontological level. At the very level of being human beings are made for goodness and truth. This goodness cannot be completely blotted out by sin and concupiscence.[1] Far from limiting personal freedom, the virtues order and give direction to life. Servais Pinckaers states, “Far from lessening our freedom, such dispositions are its foundation. We are free, not in spite of them, but because of them.”[2] This means human beings are free when they conform their lives to their natural inclinations for goodness and truth. Freedom is grounded in the human desire for good, “The natural root of freedom develops in us principally through a sense of the true and the good, of uprightness and love, and through a desire for knowledge and happiness.”[3] Freedom itself must not be seen as the ability to do whatever one wants, but as the perfection and pursuit of goodness so that each person may be fully alive.

Since freedom is grounded in goodness, there must be an examination of how best to achieve this goodness. As stated before, the supernatural virtues play their essential role, but the cardinal virtues are the habits needed in daily living. The process of acquiring virtue is life-long and a slow process requiring discipline. It is to make small choices in conformity to truth each day, so that truth is the ever present reality for the individual. Pinckaers uses the virtue of courage to explain this process, “The development of courage is progressive. It is acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions. It grows with the dogged effort to study, to finish a task, render a service, or overcome laziness or some other fault.”[4] This development of habit applies to all of the cardinal virtues, but there is a hierarchical nature to the cardinal virtues. They develop, deepen, and are grounded in one another.

[1] Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, Third Edition, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 358.

[2] Ibid, 358.

[3] Ibid, 357.

[4] Ibid, 356.

Catholic Exchange: Learning Prudence from Miscarriage, Post-Partum Depression, and NaPro

Two and a half years ago after my last miscarriage, I decided to stop and visit a priest friend of mine who had recently been re-located from our parish. During our visit, he told me something that I had not even considered, nor wanted to consider. It was simply: “Constance, God may only want you to have one child.” He had been our parish priest through two of my miscarriages and he had been the priest to come see me when, unbeknownst to a great many people, I wound up an in-patient at a psychiatric hospital just weeks after having my daughter because I had severe post-partum depression and anxiety. My anxiety was crippling and I could barely function. My priest friend was seeing something that I just didn’t want to see at the time and that is, God has given me a Cross and I need to decide how to live with it and that means making prudent decisions while also trusting in His love and plan for my life.

A couple of months after that visit, a Natural Procreative Technologies (NaPro) physician introduced herself to me. She had heard through the grapevine that I had experienced repeated miscarriage and she was confident that she could help me. I was stunned and had a bit of hope after 2.5 years of devastating losses. She ran an extensive battery of blood tests on me and discovered that I have very low estrogen and progesterone levels. In fact, she told me she was shocked that I had even gotten pregnant to begin with. She prescribed me HCG shots to give myself four times a month in the second half of my cycle. The progesterone corrected immediately, but the estrogen did not and she wanted me to go on estrogen. I wasn’t comfortable with that at the time. We were not actively trying to get pregnant because I was battling post-partum from my recent miscarriage in which I had hemorrhaged and required emergency surgery. Estrogen comes with a one page warning of cancer risks. While that may mainly mean women in menopausal years, it gave me serious pause. My doctor and I decided to wait to use it until we were looking to get pregnant.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange…

Down Shifting: Properly Ordering Family and Study

This semester has been a bit of a challenge for me. The challenge is balancing family and full-time studies. Being a full-time graduate student is a lot like working full-time. Not to mention that my entire program is online. I seldom interact with my professors. I am essentially teaching myself theology and philosophy with the school keeping track of my progress. I get feedback on papers, but none on tests. Our online discussions are not live and many professors are very hands off. That means the only piece I get from them is their lecture, which I read each week. This is not an attack on the school or my professors. That is the idea behind online studies. We are to be largely independent and it takes a certain type of student who can learn this way. I enjoy it and it gives me the freedom that I need for my vocation in life.

What started to get to me this semester is that my family is suffering by the rate at which I am doing the program. My goal was to finish all studies in 2 years and then the comprehensive exams and thesis within 6 months. I feel like I barely see my husband right now. He works 11 hours a day and then takes over for me so that I can study until bed time. Our weekends are based on my workload.  For instance, I have a term paper to write tomorrow and an essay on Sunday.  All due by Monday. I have to do it this way because we schedule my big projects and tests for the weekend. I am not a night owl and I stop retaining information if I try to study too late.

I really dislike missing out on family activities on Saturday. My husband has taken our daughter to the museum, park, library, on errands and I miss them. I love my studies and I knew they would come with sacrifice for all of us. I just started to wonder if my breakneck pace is necessary. It is through the summer. I go full-time to make the most use out of my VA benefits. They expire in September, but the whole program will be paid for with all of the benefits I receive by August. The VA has a set amount based on my enlistment contract that they pay me. All the extra money is going to a savings account for use on future tuition bills.

I sat down with my husband last night and asked him what he thought about the pace. I had seen a mother from my church at the store and she mentioned her surprise that I was full-time with a 3 year old. She didn’t know how I was doing it. And I started to think, neither do I. Is this necessary? I can have both worlds, but it doesn’t have to be in such a hurry. I am studying for the pure enjoyment of studying, not because I need my Master’s degree in two years. It loses its enjoyment when it turns into superficial memorization for tests and papers. I know how to play the game and get good grades, but that isn’t the goal. I want to learn this material.  Some of it is extremely complex. I am still wrapping my head around the Thomistic idea of required perfect contrition in the Sacrament of Penance or the theology of sin. It’s amazing to study and I really enjoy it, but in my rush, I don’t have the time to truly understand it in the depth that I desire.

My husband said I should go part-time starting in the fall. We can sacrifice 1/2 of my last VA check so that we can balance things better. He is exhausted. I am exhausted and our daughter is struggling with me being so busy. Reading Chesterton last night really helped me too. He pointed out how the culture does not order things properly. I am not a utilitarian means to an end. I am a unique human being with dignity and my daughter is the most important job God has given me. That does not mean that God doesn’t want me to study. He gave me these intellectual gifts for a reason. It just means that He wants me to slow down and so does my husband.

I have a tendency to race forward with things. This is one of those areas where I am still learning prudence. When I was in high school, I took Geometry freshman year even though my parents encouraged me to take Algebra again. I didn’t want to be “behind” in the Math requirements. But, I am not good at Geometry or Trigonometry. It was a miserable battle that stemmed from my own pride. I honestly didn’t start understanding Math until I was in undergrad in my mid-Twenties.

The point is that I don’t want to take something that I love, namely, theological studies and turn it into a rushed torment. I don’t want my family to become a burden to me as I poorly balance everything. Regardless of what our culture tells us, sacrifices occur when a mom divides her attention. This is not a judgment on people’s choices. It is a reality that we need to be aware of. Once we are aware, then we can make educated decisions that are best for our family and our goals. But, our family comes first. My husband and daughter are more important than my Master’s degree. I am going to say it again: My husband and daughter are more important than my Master’s degree. That is not what our culture tells us, but we need to be strong and ignore the lies. It doesn’t mean that my studies are unimportant, it just means that they are lower on the list. They are rightly ordered, but below my family.

Summer will be busy with my final full-time semester, but at least we will all know that things will slow down in the fall. I am looking forward to it. I can spend time with my family and enjoy my theological studies. That’s the whole point. I am the one who decides whether or not to stress out my family and myself in this whole process. I can rush, or I can down shift and take it slow. I can walk out of my MA having mastered the material, or I can walk out having passed a bunch of tests and papers. The choice is mine and I choose my family and my love of study. My daughter turns 4 this year and I will blink and she will be 18. These years are a gift and I need to be present during them and not focused elsewhere all of the time. So my choice is merely one of balance and proper ordering and in doing so, I get to enjoy all of the gifts that God has given me. Have a blessed weekend! It’s Laetare Sunday this weekend. Easter is so near!

Recommended Reading:
The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism by David Fagerberg (if you are new to Chesterton this is a great place to start)
Orthodoxy-GK Chesterton
The Everlasting Man-GK Chesterton