Cultivating the virtue of prudence

Since 27 December 2023, Pope Francis has been teaching a Cycle of Catechesis on “The vices and virtues.”

After working systematically through the various vices, on 13 March 2024, he moved towards a consideration of the virtues, beginning with a reflection on the cultivation of “virtuous action.”

Recalling the definition adopted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church §1803, he noted that “a virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.”

For the Romans, he added, the term virtus emphasised that “the virtuous person is strong, courageous, capable of discipline and ascesis.” Hence, “the practice of virtues is the fruit of long germination, requiring effort and even suffering.

For the Greeks, on the other hand, their term aretè implied “something that excels, something that emerges, that elicits admiration.” Hence, the virtuous person “does not become warped by distortion,” but “remains faithful to his own vocation,” “fully realising” him or herself.

With this background, Francis moved on 24 March 2024 to a consideration of the virtue of prudence, one of the classical “cardinal virtues,” which, drawing on the Aristotelian-Thomist philosophical tradition, he characterised as “the coachman of the virtues,” or as we might also describe it in a more modern terms, the “driver” of the virtues.

Here it’s important to note that Pope Francis was speaking of “prudence” in its classical meaning, rather than in the more recent sense of caution, an understanding he expressly rejects:

It is not the virtue of the timorous person, always hesitant about what action to take. No, this is a mistaken interpretation. It is not even merely caution.

On the contrary:

Granting primacy to prudence means that the action of man is in the hands of his intelligence and freedom. Thus, the prudent person is creative: he or she reasons, evaluates, tries to understand the complexity of reality and does not allow him or herself to be overwhelmed by emotions, idleness, pressures and illusions.

For this reason, “in a world dominated by appearances, by superficial thoughts, by the triviality of both good and bad, the ancient lesson of prudence deserves to be revived,” Pope Francis suggested.

How then do we develop prudential action? he asks. Prudence “is the capacity to govern actions in order to direct them towards good,” he answers.

“Prudent are those who are able to choose,” he adds, but they do not choose at random. Rather they know what they want, Pope Francis says.

This may sound easy on paper, he admits, “but in the midst of the wind and waves of daily life it is another matter and “often we are uncertain and do not know which way to go.”

Seeing, judging and acting prudently

What to do then? In terms that will sound familiar to anyone from the Cardijn tradition, he answers:

(The prudent) weigh the situation, seek advice, and with a broad outlook and inner freedom, they choose upon which path to embark.

In other words, as the French philosopher, Léon Ollé-Laprune, expressed it in 1896, the prudent need to learn to “see clearly, judge well and decide.”

Or, to put it in jocist terms, the prudent must learn to see, judge and act well.

Guides to prudential action

This does not mean that people will not make mistakes,” Pope Francis agrees, “after all, we are all human; but at least they avoid major setbacks.”

Here, he offers several further suggestions as a guide to developing prudential action.

Since, prudence is also “the quality of those who are called to govern,” and since administration is difficult, the prudent leader must learn to harmonise the various points of view and above all “must do not the good of some but of all.”

Secondly, “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” Pope Francis warns. Over-zealousness can in fact sometimes “cause disasters” or ruin a project that “needed gradualness.” It can also “give rise to conflicts and misunderstandings” and “even trigger violence.”

Thirdly, the prudent person “knows how to safeguard the memory of the past, not out of fear for the future, but because he or she knows that tradition is a patrimony of wisdom.” The world does not begin with us and life is made up of the “constant overlapping of old and new things.”

Finally, the prudent person “is also far-sighted.” Once someone has decided on the goal to strive for, “it is necessary to obtain all the means to reach it,” Pope Francis concludes.

Prudential formation

None of the above is new, of course. On the contrary, as he says, it’s classical and even an almost perfect example of that need to safeguard the memory of the past that Pope Francis insists on.

And while he offers pointers on how to act prudently or to avoid acting imprudently, in this short lesson he does not directly explain HOW to develop this virtue.

This, of course, is where Cardijn’s contribution comes in.

Drawing on Ollé-Laprune and the experience of the French democratic movement, Le Sillon, Cardijn and the JOC transformed an Aristotelian analysis of the virtue of prudence into a method of formation through progressive practice of the virtue via the see-judge-act.

It was this method of virtue ethics formation that Pope John XXIII recognised in §236-237 of his 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra, and that Vatican II recognised in §29 of Decree on Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem:

Since formation for the apostolate cannot consist in merely theoretical instruction, from the beginning of their formation the laity should gradually and prudently learn how to view, judge and do all things in the light of faith as well as to develop and improve themselves along with others through doing, thereby entering into active service to the Church.

Thus, although he makes no mention of Cardijn’s method in his catechesis, Pope Francis’ teaching once again points to its importance.

Stefan Gigacz

References

Léon Ollé-Laprune, Preface to the Third Edition of Le prix de la vie, 1896 (Olle-laprune.net)

Stefan Gigacz, The Sillon and the YCW (Sillon.net)

Image

Vincentian Family


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