Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The Role of Prudence in Fighting the Culture of Death

by Donald DeMarco, PhD


Donald DeMarco demonstrates how to balance the equation that equals prudence. This article discusses the components of prudence and how imperative it is to have an equal balance of these components. DeMarco says, "Prudence is the mold of all virtues."

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, October 1999

A married couple, weary of another cold and all-too-long Canadian winter, decided to find refuge and comfort in the tropical climes of southern Florida. After registering at a posh Miami hotel, the first thing the husband wanted to do was to e-mail his wife, who, after completing some business, planned to join her husband the following day. Unfortunately, he lost the scrap of paper on which he had jotted down his wife's business address. He thought he could trust his memory, but missed one letter and inadvertently sent his message to a widow whose husband, a pious preacher, had passed away just the previous day. Upon reading the message on her computer monitor, she let out an unearthly scream and fainted dead away. Hearing the scream, relatives rushed into the room and read the alarming document: "Dearest wife: I have just checked in. Everything is prepared for your arrival tomorrow. It sure is hot down here."

Although this joke is obviously contemporary, it is one that Plato would have greatly enjoyed. In the beginning of Book VII of his Republic, Plato presents us with his famous image of a cave and how it represents three different levels of reality. These levels bear a striking correspondence with three levels that are included within our humorous story. For Plato, there are the people who pass through the cave and cast shadows on the cave's wall, those who are beguiled by the shadows, and those who are outside of the cave and experience a much fuller reality. The first group is unaware of what it sets in motion, the second is misled, and the third is enlightened. In our story, the husband is completely unaware of what he sets in motion, the widow is grievously misled; while the reader, being in the unique position of understanding the dynamics of the situation, knows exactly what has transpired. The husband reacts with indifference, the widow with terror, and the reader with laughter. The analogy with life in the contemporary world is also striking: there are those who cause great problems without realizing it, those who are grossly deceived, and those who understand what is happening but are hard pressed to begin to rectify the situation.

The philosophical point that Plato makes, which our story reinforces, is that a broader perspective provides us with a better opportunity for appreciating reality. The whole moral enterprise of Socrates was to lead the benighted Sophist, whom he engaged in philosophical dialogue, from the narrow perspective of egocentrism to the fuller and more revealing perspective of ontocentrism, from self-centeredness to being-centeredness (which implies God-centeredness).

Prudence is the virtue we need in order to be realistic. It is the virtue that has its beginning outside the cave of deception. It is what allows us to find our way through the tangle of human life, the light that shows us our meaning, our vocation, and our destiny. The prudent person is distinguished from those curious tenants in Plato's cave: the apathetic and the ignorant. To the question, "what is the difference between ignorance and apathy?" a pundit once replied, "I don't know and I don't care!" Prudence requires perspective and realism, logical antidotes for ignorance and apathy. But it needs much more.

In spelling out PRUDENCE in a way that captures all of its vital elements, we might call out Perspective, Realism, Understanding, Divergence, Eternal Values, Neighborliness, Character, and Experience.

Perspective gives us enough information about a situation so that we can be realistic in our appraisal of it. Perspective is to realism as a large picture window is to a panoramic view. It is this perspective, in the above story, that allows the reader to know something that the widow did not, namely, that the message was not an e-mail from Hell, but a message from a Miami hotel (though this difference could be moot under slightly altered circumstances). In life, perspective allows us to see more of reality, a vital advantage for the person who wants to be prudent.

Perspective gives us breadth; understanding gives us depth. The former supplies the big picture; the latter allows us to plumb the details, even, when persons are involved, to look into hearts. Understanding need not interfere with perspective, but it often does. And when it does, prudence becomes a casualty.

The legal response to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal involves a clash between breadth and depth. The Senate, during the impeachment trial, was concerned about the far-reaching implications the affair represented: for the country, its citizens, and the world. At the same time, Clinton's defenders were trying to make people understand that the affair was private and took place between two consenting adults. They pointed out how Clinton was able to "compartmentalize" his private life and that the more we were able to understand Clinton and Lewinsky, all in all, the more we might be inclined to accept, if not forgive, their seemingly reckless ways. Was the Oval Office a zone of privacy? Or was it a stage that invites the attention of the world? In gaining perspective, must we sacrifice compassion? In having perspective, do we become cold-blooded?

We find the same conflict operative in moral issues that play a fundamental role in the "culture of death." Too sympathetic an understanding of the plight of the pregnant woman, the pain of the elderly patient, or the deformity of the neonate may obscure a broader perspective that has familial, societal, and religious implications. In this narrow context, compassion can be truly deadly.

On the other hand, a broad perspective with little depth of understanding can be equally unsatisfactory. Perspective and understanding must be integrated with each other in the interest of realism. A prudent approach to abortion does not center on the rights of the fetus or the rights of the pregnant woman but on the broader and more integrating concept of motherhood.

Because perspective and understanding often move in opposite directions, or diverge, means that their integration must be accomplished through a higher wisdom. Problems involving divergence must be solved in relationship with eternal values, particularly the value of wisdom. "Prudence is wisdom in everyday life," as one writer attests.

We need wisdom in order to know how much depth of understanding and how much breadth of perspective we need in order to honor them properly and bring them into harmony with each other. We need both the justice that perspective brings as well as the mercy that is born of understanding. "Justice without mercy," writes St. Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (5:2), "is cruelty: mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution." In the context of the eternal value of wisdom, the divergent elements of perspective and understanding meet. When the British novelist Henry Fielding remarked that, "The prudence of the best heads is often defeated by the tenderness of the best hearts," he was detaching prudence from wisdom and demoting it to a mere attribute of the head.

The same may be said of the divergent forces of freedom and order. It is simplistic for "liberals" to identify themselves with freedom and "conservatives" to be identified with order. Freedom and order are co-relative terms that are united in wisdom. Freedom without order leads to anarchy and death; order without freedom is a kind of arteriosclerosis, or a living death. A "culture of life" demands perspective, understanding, and realism. But it also demands wisdom in order to balance divergent forces: the dignity of the unborn child and the rights of the pregnant woman; the dignity of the elderly who are gravely ill and compassion for their situation: the right people have for adequate health care and the responsible allocation of funds.

Prudence honors reality. In this regard it should be distinguished from a false prudence which is based on self-interest. It is said in one of the wisest books of the East that true prudence is denied to every person who "looks at himself." Prudence must be reality-centered (ontocentric) rather than self-centered (egocentric). By self-centered we refer not only to the interests of the isolated individual but also to the narrow interests of a group. In 1993, the Associated Press reported that the defective rate for condoms dispensed in Arkansas state health clinics and schools was more than ten times higher than what the Federal Drug Administration tolerates. The United States Surgeon General at that time, Joycelyn Elders, was determined to keep this alarming statistic a secret since, in her view, it was more important that the public not lose confidence in condoms. Clearly, it is not prudent to rely on something that it unreliable. Nor is it prudent to withhold information from people that is needed for their own prudent decisions. Other members of the medical profession have advised a "prudent use of language" so that the public does not come to realize that the "morning-after pill" is actually an abortifacient and not a form of "emergency contraception." Needless to say, willfully misleading the public about how the "morning-after pill" really works in the interest of protecting an ideology is not prudent. A "culture of death" cannot be sustained without a "culture of lies." The initial act of prudence is precisely to oppose lies.

True prudence is faithful to reality, not to individual or group interests. We need prudence in order to live well. Imprudence, because it counters realism, prevents people from living well. Prudence, therefore, relies on truth and realism, rather than cunning, deception, and exploitation. Individuals can be highly skilled in the art of manipulating truth and other people, but their art does not represent real prudence. Often it is rooted in covetousness, taken in the broad sense that includes an intemperate striving for all those possessions and honors that one might think one needs to assure himself of his own importance and status in society. "Insidiousness," "guile," "craftiness," and "concupiscence," all refer to the small-souled person who practices false prudence. They represent desperate forms of self-preservation.

True prudence requires shrewdness, circumspection, caution, docility, and an accurate memory. Foresight is also a part of prudence. According to Aquinas, it is its most important component. The Latin word for "prudence" (prudens), in fact, is a shortened form of the word for "providence" (providens). In this sense, prudence, a virtue of the present, bears upon a condition of the future. However, since it is more or less contained within the present, it is, to a certain degree, blind (or without a vision -vide) to the future.

Actions of genuine prudence, then, may not bring about the good that is intended. There is always the possibility that a prudent act may not bear fruit. One may be perfectly prudent in his actions and still experience the uncertainty or anxiety that his best efforts will be utterly futile. Prudence, therefore, acts with faith and hope. But it also performs above a safety net of humility and determination.

Prudence is the mold of all virtues. It is the auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues). It directs all other virtues to the realization of good. But prudence would not commence if it were not for love which itself molds prudence.

A person would not be moved to exercise the virtue of prudence, which can be extremely demanding, if he did not have love. Love is the form of all virtues and the force that animates prudence. This is where the notion of neighborliness comes into focus. It is not enough to love our neighbor if love means nothing more than a positive disposition that wishes him well. We must act in such a way that our actions produce good things for the people we love. And we cannot act realistically and effectively if we do not have prudence. If love is the disposition, then prudence is the delivery system. Prudence directs our actions so that we are likely to realize the good we want those whom we love to enjoy.

G. K. Chesterton has reminded us that, "The Bible tells us to love our neighbors and also our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people." It is true, to a certain extent, that those who are on the side of the "culture of death," are enemies of those who are laboring for the "culture of life." But it is not imprudent to love one's enemies since tomorrow they may be our friends. In this life, friends and enemies are constantly swapping hats. Prudence, because of its intimate alliance with faith and hope, is eager to work toward the conversion of enemies into friends. Without hope, our enemies are likely to remain our enemies; without faith, our friends are likely to become our enemies.

Love moves prudence and prudence moves all the other virtues. Prudence does not eliminate the need for courage, for example, it commands one to be courageous. We may identify the sum total of all the moral virtues a person possesses with his character. Character, then, presupposes virtue; the more virtues, the stronger the character.

A person of character has the strength and the decency to do the right thing even though he gains nothing for himself by his action or, indeed, exposes himself to danger. The man of character lives not as a mere self-seeking individual but as a person who is deeply concerned about other people, his family, his community, and the moral state of his culture. Just as philosophy begins with the recognition of the supremacy of fact over thought, character is formed in the recognition of the superiority of reality overprivate convenience.

Prudence plays an immense and fundamental role in fighting the "culture of death" and implementing the "culture of life." It draws upon love and expresses that love realistically. It operates with faith and hope, but is not immune to failure. It demands character and the willingness to operate in a hostile environment. Its perspective is broad and its understanding is deep. It takes counsel, listens to the prudent friend, learns new things, imagines a better world, and acts with decisiveness. Yet, there is one more ingredient in the formula for prudence—experience.

Wisdom, as Aquinas notes, is about necessary things; prudence is about contingent matters. We learn about contingent matters not so much through philosophy as through day-to-day experience. Sometimes the experience is most painful. On April 19, 1942, the Catholic bishops of Holland published a letter that was read in every Catholic Church in the country. The letter denounced "the unmerciful and unjust treatment meted out to Jews by those in power in our country." In response to this letter, the Nazis retaliated with typical injustice and mercilessness. They rounded up as many Catholic religious of Jewish ancestry that they could find and deported them to Auschwitz. Some 300 of these religious were then sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. Among them was Saint Edith Stein. When Pius XII learned about the Dutch tragedy, he wrote a letter to Konrad von Preysing, Bishop of Berlin, advising prudence: "We leave it to the [local] bishops to weigh the circumstances in deciding whether or not to exercise restraint ad majora mala vitanda [to avoid greater evil]. This would be advisable if the danger of retaliatory and coercive measures would be imminent in cases of public statements of the bishop." Prudence dictates caution, never inaction, but sometimes silence.

One can easily defend a certain qualified and temporary silence of Pope Pius XII as prudent. Can one honestly defend the National Organization of Women's "appalling silence" (to quote attorney Marcia Clark) in the face of President Clinton's sexual mistreatments of a seemingly endless string of women? Can one defend Christian politicians who avoid the whole enterprise of the "culture of death" by conveniently labeling all moral matters as "private"?

Pope John Paul II at the present moment has no reason to be silent. Nonetheless, he is widely rebuked for speaking out as forcefully as he does against the current anti-life mentality. He is, in fact, tireless in his denunciation of the "culture of death" and in his encouragement for building up the "culture of life." In October of 1998, he addressed United States Bishops from California, Nevada, and Hawaii who were making their ad limina visit to Rome. "Society must learn to embrace once more the great gift of life," he told them, "to protect it and to defend it against the culture of death, itself an expression of the great fear that stalks our time." He went on to say, "One of your most noble tasks as Bishops is to stand firmly on the side of life, encouraging those who defend it and building with them a genuine culture of life." The Holy Father reminded these bishops of the truths about the human person on which the Founding Fathers of the United States of America made their claim to independence. This Polish pope, speaking in Rome, was adjuring his American bishops to take inspiration from the founders of their country! He could not have asked them to take similar moral inspiration from their contemporary political leaders. "A nation needs a 'soul,'" he went on to say. "It needs the wisdom and courage to overcome the moral ills and spiritual temptations inherent in its march through history. In union with all those who favor a 'culture of life' over a 'culture of death,' Catholics . . . must continue to make their voices heard . . . [in order to] contribute to the building of a society in which the dignity of each person is recognized and the lives of all are defended and enhanced."

The distinguished Thomistic philosopher, Josef Pieper, has written that "modern man cannot conceive of a good act which might not be imprudent, nor of a bad act which might be prudent. He will often call lies and cowardice prudent, truthfulness and courageous sacrifice imprudent." For many, indeed, perhaps even for some Catholic bishops, the temptation to regard any public identification with a right-to-life organization as "imprudent" can be very powerful. On the other hand, the temptation to consider it "prudent" to be identified with powerful secular agencies can be equally powerful. Prudence, however, must serve life, rather than self. Yet in serving life, one comes to a deeper realization of the dignity inherent in one's self. By losing ourselves we find ourselves: by clinging tenaciously to ourselves, we perish.

Some of us may be imprudent. Perhaps a more common problem is not so much out and out imprudence, but faulty or imperfect prudence. Here we find people whose hearts may be in the right place, but they lack decisiveness, are negligent, or are not sufficiently thoughtful. We should want to inspire the imprudent to be prudent, and we should also want to energize the imperfectly prudent so that they can become truly prudent.

Love of neighbor animates prudence. As a specific virtue, prudence begins with a clear knowledge of reality. In the war against the "culture of death," prudence recognizes the dignity of the child in the womb, as well as the elderly on a deathbed, the poor in undeveloped countries, those who are politically ostracized, and those who are culturally oppressed. Prudence then commands a battery of virtues to go into action: courage, patience, generosity, determination, faith, hope, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. Prudence, in a sense, is all-encompassing, and that is why it is so difficult. But the struggle against the "culture of death" will be won or lost precisely on the basis of how faithful life advocates are to the essence of prudence, not fearing the cost, but anticipating its fruits.


Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Professor of Philosophy at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario. He studied theology at the Gregorian University' in Rome and earned his Ph.D. at St. John's University in New York. His two most recent books are Character in a Time of Crisis and New Perspectives on Contraception. Dr. DeMarco resides in Kitchener, Ontario, with his family and is a frequent contributor to HPR.

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