Prudence and wisdom

Thirty-second week of ordinary time.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

The first reading this week which is taken from the book of Wisdom ties together wisdom and prudence. Prudence and wisdom appear frequently in our ordinary speech, however, the way in which they are used in common parlance is not exactly how they ought to be understood. Usually, when people speak of prudence, they mean caution. Wisdom is usually related to the level of instruction. A person is considered wise is he or she has many academic degrees or if she or he has excelled in a trade or a skill. These are very superficial ways of understanding both prudence and wisdom.

The ancient Greek philosophers considered prudence, which they called phronesis, the virtue that was the foundation of all other human virtues, because it enables the human person to do what is right, at the right moment for the right reason.

Virtue in general is the foundation of moral life and, of course, of Christian morality. One become virtuous by living out the virtues daily to the point where they become second nature. Many people in our times, for many reasons, mistakenly think that love is a feeling, but in fact it is a virtue.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the following definition: “Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good. The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love.”

Indeed, one becomes an honest person by practicing honesty, a chaste person by living chastely, a just person by being fair and just in one´s actions, a temperate person by practicing moderation. Every single human virtue is meant to be practiced, cultivated, so that it grows in us and becomes second nature. Of course, they all require effort, we are all wounded by sin and mastering the virtues is something difficult. We need a clear conscience and the strength needed to do what is right even when our appetites, passions or blind spots may sway us in the other direction. That is why the virtue of prudence is so important and so critical.

For us, Christians, prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues, together with justice, fortitude and temperance.

The Catechism explains that “four virtues play a pivotal role and accordingly are called “cardinal”; all the others are grouped around them. They are: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. “If anyone loves righteousness, [Wisdom’s] labors are virtues; for she teaches temperance and prudence, justice, and courage.” These virtues are praised under other names in many passages of Scripture.

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; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.” Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. 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.”

Wisdom is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit together with understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The Catechism explains that “they belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them.”

In the first reading the link that exists between prudence and wisdom is highlighted. Indeed, the person who is prudent is definitely wise. She or he is able to discern good from evil, recognizes what is right and wrong. The saints are clearly the most prudent and wisest persons on earth, even though some of them did not have many academic accomplishments. St. John Vianney, for example, was certainly not the valedictorian of his seminary class, yet he is the patron saint of parish priests and was a man of great wisdom, so much so that his writings continue to inspire many persons to this day. St. Therese, the Little Flower, is another example, she is even a Doctor of the Church, yet she died at a very young age.

King Solomon is hailed as a model of wisdom. It all started when he asked the Lord for a simple thing, that He may give him a listening heart. Seeking the wisdom that comes from God by listening to his words and to the teachings of his spotless bride, the Church, enables us to grow in prudence and grow in all human virtues, which are perfected by the gift of grace, so that we can soar to communion with the living God and enjoy the fullness of life!


Fr. Roberto M. Cid