David Cloutier, Ph.D. is an associate professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America. He is also the Moral Theology/Ethics Area Director. Recently he penned an article that appeared in the “North Texas Catholic” entitled COVID-19 and the Virtue of Prudence.
Prudence is one of the four “Cardinal Virtues” named in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. [Article 7, The Virtues; I, The Human Virtues]. The others are justice, fortitude, and temperance. If you want to read a relatively short but excellent book on the four Cardinal Virtues, get a copy of the 1966 book, The Cardinal Virtues by Josef Pieper. Pieper was a German Catholic philosopher and an important figure in the resurgence of interest in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas in the mid 1900s. Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was a big fan).
Cloutier’s integration of prudence and the pandemic offers wisdom. We’ll look at his thoughts about prudence this week. Cloutier’s words follow below (Fr. Zlock).
As countries face the prospect of “reopening” life after COVID-19, many decisions about the “new normal” must be taken. Everyone recognizes that we can’t simply go back to living exactly as we did before. How should Catholics think about the choices we face?
Above all, we need to develop the virtue of prudence. Prudence is one of the four traditional cardinal (“hinge”) virtues. But it is often neglected or misunderstood.
We often think about being prudent as being careful, and that’s certainly part of it. But like the other virtues, prudence is a mean between two extremes. Acting with prudence avoids recklessness, but also avoids being overly careful, paralyzed by inaction.
Thomas Aquinas defines prudence as “applying right reason to action,” and he particularly emphasizes that prudent action involves seeing clearly. He quotes St. Isidore, for whom the prudent person is “one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen.” The prudent person acts well because she sees more.”
Prudence, like all virtues, is acquired by experience, by habitual action. We become better (or worse) over time. For example, many people are experts in their work simply because they have “seen it all.”
Doctors can better diagnose patients; experienced teachers know how to handle classroom problems. A grocery store manager said to me that, after decades in the business, when he walked into a store, the things that were wrong stood out to him like color amid a black and white film. That’s prudence.
Most of us have become experts at “seeing” over the past few months — seeing the distance between people or seeing surfaces we are touching, more alert to possible contagion. But prudence is about “seeing” rightly so that we can act rightly.
Our first COVID-19 experience was about what to avoid doing, but prudence is also a matter of developing new ways to act virtuously under difficult circumstances. As we reopen, we need creative ideas about how to do things differently, ones that go beyond shutting down.
Next week, we’ll look at three points on how prudence is relevant in the midst of the current pandemic (Fr. Zlock).