National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Charioteer of the Virtues

Prudence Blazes a Trail for Temperance, Courage and Justice to Follow

BY Joseph Pronechen

January 21-27, 2007 Issue | Posted 1/17/07 at 11:00 AM


Want to raise a few eyebrows and launch a load of snickers? Use the word “virtuous” near the company water cooler or at the next meeting of the PTA.

Better yet, say you want to teach your children the seven major virtues — faith, hope, love, prudence, temperance, courage and justice — so they can grow up to be, well, virtuous. Now that’s counter-cultural.

(The first three in the list above, of course, are the theological virtues; the last four are the cardinal virtues.)

But the simple fact is, you’ll make little headway practically or spiritually unless you strive to live the virtues.

How to start living them in a more deliberate way, and passing them on more effectively? Make the prudent decision to desire those ends. Then strive to be more prudent in all your thoughts and actions.

“Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it,” notes the Catechism (No. 1806), adding that it is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues) because it guides them by setting rule and measure.

“It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience,” adds the Catechism. “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.”

Can children, with their short attention spans and developing character traits, sit still long enough to practice prudence? Yes they can, if what’s happening in a new virtues program with sixth-grade students and their families at St. Gertrude School in Cincinnati is any indication.

“Our children learn that prudence is so essential, it affects every decision we make,” says Dominican Sister Bernadette, the school’s principal. She finds it rewarding to see the young students grasp the concept of prudence and understand the difference between it and basic common sense. Prudence led the class’ list of virtues in the school’s new virtues program, which parents also helped develop. They learn in detail what the virtue is, see examples of how one saint practiced it and get practical tips on growing themselves in this virtue — in school and at home. Parents receive a supplement suggesting ways to reinforce the virtue in family life.

Already 11-year-old Camilla MacKenzie is learning to act with prudence. “When I was studying for a test and my friends came to the door, my parents said make the prudent decision,” she says. “So I went back to studying for the test.”

Paul Mittermeier, 12, was able to share an example from Pope John Paul II with fellow students when his teacher gave him an assignment on prudence and asked him to read it to the school.

“When that assassin shot him, Pope John Paul made a prudent decision to forgive the assassin,” says Paul. “It not only helped shape his own life, but he changed the assassin’s life too.”

His classmate Maggie Winstel, 11, agrees acting prudently in everyday small decisions can change the way you turn out and change the people around you. Asked for an example, she recalls one time when her younger brother was playing carelessly with popsicle sticks, breaking them.

“I told him not to be so crazy with them because he could get splinters in his eye,” she says. “He listened and that kept him from getting hurt.”

Choosing Good

Father Andrew Apostoli of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal recently released a new book, Walk Humbly With Your God: Simple Steps to a Virtuous Life (Servant, 2006; see “Stepping Into Virtue” in the Jan. 7 Register).

“Prudence,” he says, “is a virtue that God gives to help us choose the right things in our lives that are going to help us achieve the purpose for which God created us — above all, to make sure we get to heaven.

“No one wants to act in a foolish way that they’d regret later on,” he explains. “That happens when we make bad choices, choosing things that appeal to us in a selfish way or in a way contrary to what God asks us not to do.

“Look what happened to Adam and Eve when they chose to disobey God’s law,” adds the popular friar. “They lost all the blessings God gave them. So prudence is a virtue that will assist us in choosing the right ways.”

From this, children and also adults can see that prudence goes beyond mere carefulness and has a deeply spiritual dimension. Young Mittermeier learned and recently applied that lesson in church.

“This little kid in front of me was squirming, playing with toys and making noise trying to get people to laugh,” says the 12-year-old. “I was going to laugh but told myself it wouldn’t be a good idea. It would distract people trying to focus on Mass, so I was trying to hold my laughter.”

Classmate Winstel got the chance to be spiritually prudent, too. “I altar-serve, and my mom dropped me off early one day,” she says. “I was going to sit back in the sacristy and do nothing, but I thought and then decided to go out into the church and say some prayers instead of wasting my time.”

Examples like these make Sister Bernadette pleased that the children are applying prudence to real-life situations. This will help them make prudent decisions later on in life, when much larger challenges come their way.

“They’re aware that prudence calls for an act of reflection,” says the nun, “that it’s good to stop and think and make a decision in the light of Christ, not necessarily in light of their own ends.”

Prepared for ‘Aha!’

To help them along this road, Father Apostoli gives some good pointers and suggestions for children, teens and parents.

“Prudence helps us to avoid bad companions and choose companions who will help us to be better,” he says. “Prudence can help us to be more respectful to our parents as well as being more concerned to fulfill our responsibilities. Prudence can help us in choosing good programs for the things we watch on TV or read.

“Most of all,” concludes Father Apostoli, “prudence helps us to avoid sin and those things that are sinful, like lying or stealing or involvement in non-marital relationships that can lead us away from God and put our salvation in danger.”

Maggie Winstel’s mother, Carol, has seen how practicing prudence regularly at home helps make the virtue a habit in children’s lives.

“When faced with an ‘Aha!’ moment,” she says, “they’re disposed to make the right decision.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.