The Exercise of Prudence
Just as the phrase “primacy of conscience” is easily politicized into a meaningless slogan, so also the concept of “prudential judgement” is often thrown about in such a way that becomes nothing more than an excuse used to justify any type of action or ideology that an individual prefers. But prudence, like conscience, requires progressive formation, and the individual who neglects this preliminary step is not justified in defending his decisions by saying he is acting according to prudence. To understand what is meant by “preliminary formation,” we can refer once more to St. Thomas, who considered the virtue of prudence to have eight parts: memory, understanding, docility, diligence, reason, foresight, circumspection, and caution. However, after the fashion of the Compendium and for the sake of clarity, we will describe the five most prominent parts here. The interested reader can refer to the relevant articles of the Summa for an elaboration of all eight.
Memory is the first of three “cognitive dispositions” which permit the development of the necessary conditions for the actual exercise of prudence, and without which the exercise of prudential judgment is only an illusion. The healthy disposition of memory is bound to assist in the effective exercise of prudence because it gives he who develops it the capacity to recall and reflect upon past experiences in an objective fashion, and without falsification.
Second of the cognitive dispositions is docility, which allows one to learn from others and to profit from their experience on the basis of an authentic love for truth. It is therefore closely linked with humility, and is a mode of its expression. Christ told his apostles that “He who hears you, hears me.” Without a carefully developed sense of docility, we run the risk of remaining deaf to the apostles’ exhortations, preferring instead our own opinions and prejudices.
Diligence is the third of the cognitive dispositions. Diligence concerns the ability to face the unexpected with objectivity in order to turn every situation to the service of good, overcoming the temptation of intemperance, injustice, and cowardice.
The three dispositions just mentioned prepare the way for prudence to be exercised effectively in the concrete moment of decision. Within the moment of decision itself—which has been called prudence as commanding—there are two we must consider, which concern the future and the past in relation to the present. Foresight is the first of these, and is the capacity to weigh the efficacy of a given conduct for the attainment of a moral end.
Second, concerning the past, we come to circumspection, which is the capacity to weigh the circumstances that contributed to the creation of the situation in which a given action will be carried out.
f. Participation and Obedience
Having examined some of the parts of prudence, we must now consider prudence in the social context. Here the exercise of prudence appears in two forms—active prudence and passive prudence. The first is an expression of our responsibility to participate in the ordering of society toward the good, and the second involves the obedience and submission each of us owes to the social authority, so long as this submission does not compromise human dignity. It should not come as a surprise to us that in individualistic and rationalistic ages the second form—obedience—is often ignored or rejected outright, but both kinds of prudence are necessary in order to achieve a complete picture of our subject. The man who knows how to act but not how to listen, learn, and obey, is at best half prudent.
g. The problem with ‘prudential judgment’
Now we may refer again to what was said at the beginning of this section. It should be clear now that there is more to the exercise of prudence than the simple claim that “I have considered the matter and I am doing what I think is best.” Quite often we hear sincere believers adopting this stance in order to disregard or oppose the teachings of a pope, taking refuge in this supposed “prudential judgment,” believing that by doing so they escape any sort of guilt for their departure from the Magisterium. But if such a person has not been carefully cultivating and forming the virtue of prudence, then it should be clear that prudential judgment is a simple impossibility. Far from being a “privilege” that one is born with and which one may invoke at any time, prudential judgment is rather a weighty undertaking that we find before us. Few ever become adequate to the task.
Now, as was the case with “primacy of conscience,” we do not mean to disregard the possibility of prudential judgment as a valid concept: it is certainly possible that a particular papal suggestion or idea is not binding, or that a principle of CST is up for various forms of application depending on the situation. Applications do indeed call for prudential judgment. But, in actual experience, we find that the invocation of the phrase in question is rarely used within this legitimate context, and is more often a cop-out used to keep the Church from interfering with our political agendas.
 Lk 10:16.