St. Francis of Assisi forged one primary mission: “to wake people up to the reality of God.” (Bishop Barron, The Pivotal Players) This ought to be our mission as well and for many different reasons including each other’s welfare — physical, mental, and spiritual. When we are fully awake to the reality of God, we will be able to care for our families, neighbors, and the world much more readily and prudently than when we help others through our own designs.
What is Prudence? Many of us assume that prudence means simply having the uncanny ability to make good decisions with good outcomes — given the right amount of information. But what determines if a decision is good in the first place? Many Americans consider that the following decisions — having an abortion for an unexpected or compromised pregnancy, undergoing in-vitro fertilization when facing infertility; assisting in the suicide of a terminally ill patient; or helping young people find medical resources that permit transgender surgeries during puberty, to be prudent decisions and choices with good outcomes if the person(s) involved have first reviewed all the facts. On the other hand, given the same facts, choices and outcomes, many people of faith consider the above decisions and choices to be imprudent and the outcomes immoral or bad.
Why do good people come to such different conclusions? Is it simply because we hold clashing world views, experience life differently, or have different personalities or personal makeups? The author believes that our differences are directly dependent on the degree to which we have been awakened to the reality of God and His moral code. Even though all of us are created to know, love and serve Him; it is our free choice to decide how freely we unwrap the law that has been laid on our hearts. “This is the covenant that I will make with them says the Lord. I will put my laws upon their heart and upon their mind I will write them.” [Hebrews 10:16] Also recall the famous exchange between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate recorded in John 18: 37 - 38: “'Then You are a king?” Pilate said. “You say that I am a king,” Jesus answered. “For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked.” Rather than answering his own question, Pilate drops the opportunity to go deep and soon thereafter washes his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus. How often do we follow this same course of action even though the opportunity to drill deeper emerges?
The ultimate question is who decides if a decision and its outcome is good? Does having knowledge of the facts ensure that the decision and outcome will be good — or good enough? Fr. John A. Hardon, [1914-2000; author, theologian, and close associate and adviser of Blessed Pope Paul VI, Pope St. John Paul II, and Saint Teresa of Calcutta and the Missionaries of Charity] explained “that many of us have a fundamental misunderstanding of prudence because prudence is not about securing sufficient or correct knowledge. He went on to explain that having correct knowledge about things to be done or, more broadly, the knowledge of things that ought to be done and of things that ought to be avoided varies among even reasonable people. They can even disagree about how to apply moral principles, therefore, such judgements can be questioned but are never absolute… Aristotle defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium, right reason applied to practice. We cannot simply make a decision and then describe it as a prudential judgment unless we have first distinguished between what is right and what is wrong. Prudence is the intellectual virtue whereby a human being recognizes in any matter at hand what is good and what is evil. If we mistake the evil for the good, we are not exercising prudence—in fact, we are showing our lack of it.” [Catholic Encyclopedia]
And so we have to turn to the Church and her spiritual giants and our friends who are awake to the Lord and therefore well grounded in matters of faith and morals to help us discern good and bad choices and decisions. All too often, the questions or dilemmas we face are too personal or close to home to make good decisions all by ourselves. The solutions proffered by our culture-at-large may seem reasonable and even good; yet, have these solutions been thoroughly vetted for their moral or immoral underpinnings? If not, we have to try to discover the morality of the doing before doing. Getting to the heart of the matter involves soul searching and asking hard questions with sometimes difficult follow-through, patience, prudence, faith and prayer. It requires that we listen to our moral consciences.
When we fail to pursue the truth we imitate Pilate. We may even ask the right questions sincerely — like Pilate - but then let the truth slip away. “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their tickling ears want to hear.” [2Timothy 4:3]
Let’s consider some personal conversations with friends struggling with different issues — their choices and the outcomes.
Story 1: A friend of ours, struggling with infertility, arrived at the conclusion that IVF (in-vitro fertilization) was not the route to take for many reasons — the process of discernment was fairly long and emotionally difficult. They asked the right questions from all the right resources [medical, spiritual, social, and moral]; discussed the issues with those from both sides of the argument; prayed; and gained knowledge about the procedure and its outcomes. This postponed their decision for months until their hearts were settled; they decided to avoid the solutions proffered by the medical community. Eventually, they were able to achieve natural pregnancies. This outcome was unexpected but joy filled occasions especially because they had prepared themselves for the long journey of infertility.
Story 2: A second couple that we know was also experiencing infertility. They sought advice and also became convinced that IVF was not something they wanted to pursue. Eventually they were able to adopt an infant. Almost immediately after receiving their adopted newborn son into their home, they discovered they were pregnant. They were shocked by the news and not thrilled with having almost twins. We lost touch with them after they moved out of state; but, about two years later, we received a letter from them apologizing for not staying in touch. They explained that having two babies so close together, along with the move, was too overwhelming and decided on permanent sterilization following the birth of their first natural born child. While their circumstances were understandably difficult, the choice of permanent sterility still seemed rash.
Story 3: A woman introduced herself at our daughters’s speech therapist’s office. She had three young children with her who were obviously celebrating birthdays. The mother said they were three years old. I was confused by that claim because one child was obviously much younger; he seemed about 12 months old. The mother soon cleared up my confusion — which was probably obvious — by explaining that the boys shared the same IVF age; but the twins were born more than a year and a half before the youngest brother. The mother stated that she was overwhelmed by her over-active boys and didn’t want to think about having to undergo future embryo transplants and pregnancies. Besides, she had a bad back (her words not mine). But she also voiced her concern about leaving a dozen or so embryos stranded in a permanent cryogenic suspension. She was clearly conflicted — and deeply — by the outcomes of her choices.
Story 4: Surrogate mothers argued before a group of us that they are doing great good for infertile couples while admitting they charged enormous amounts of money for the service. The women speaking on behalf of surrogacy justified their fees by claiming their jobs were akin to full time employment plus. They reiterated the enormous physical sacrifice they underwent for the sake of giving birth to a healthy baby for a couple. For example, they could not drink alcohol for the duration of the IVF treatments and pregnancy, putting up with the normal discomforts of pregnancy was tough for many of them, undergoing regular ultrasound testing which included amniocentesis was also a trail for them; and delivering a healthy baby for someone else was considered to be a great sacrifice for all of them. The women each agreed with the provision that they would undergo an abortion as directed by their employers if the pregnancy became compromised. The choice and outcome of surrogacy have many moral implications that seemed to have been washed aside in the minds of the surrogates and their lawyers as they worked together to create just laws that took into account the needs of the surrogates and their employers (the future parents).
Story 5: Let’s talk about sex education. Studies show that upwards of 90% of all parents think its good practice — not me — but that’s a topic for another article. Teens are taught correctly [in sex education programs] that sexual activity leads to pregnancies and STI’s. And so they are given facts and information about how to avoid both — even though nothing is 100% effective. Missing from this education is any discussion and education about sexual decoys — recognizing them, avoiding them, battling them. Neither are they encouraged to consider, think about, or have meaningful discussions about the explicit and implicit meaning of sex and the circumstances, conditions, intentions and expressions necessary for moral decision making as prescribed by Saint Pope John Paul ll. And yet, given facts and knowledge — albeit limited — adults assume young people are prepared to make their own decisions in this area. These choices are protected by minor consent laws; therefore this means that teens can secure abortions, contraception, STI treatment without parental permission. The results are staggering. These choices have turned young people into serial adulterers even while they expect to practice monogamy sometime down the road. Yet, is it realistic that the majority will be equipped for that? The practice of vice known as lust cannot cultivate the virtue of chastity. These real life situations help prove the case made earlier that all of us need to be awake and stay awake to the reality of God in order to make prudent, good decisions with good outcomes.
How do we wake up to the reality of God? We all must strive to “keep our consciences fine-tuned and in sync with discerning good v. evil. Everyone is obliged to follow this law, “Which makes itself heard in the conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor.”[CCC 1706]. And so, we must acknowledge that the moral framework of life comes from God. When generating our own frameworks for moral living we drift toward isms thatdownplay the reality of God. They include relativism, subjectivism, humanism, and individualism because “our wounded natures are subject to error and inclined to evil.” [CCC 1714] We wake up to the reality of God when we approach the Sacraments of the Church and the Church herself with love and dedication. This includes listening to Her teachings. We can better understand the underpinnings of morality when we read great books bearing the stamp of approval of the Church, study, pray, hold conversation about these matters, and attend prayer groups. In many cases, we are further ‘evangelized’ by those who know, love and serve God in ways that we have yet to understand. And this is why parents have to be in the business of being their children’s first heralds. Parents must position themselves to willingly pass on the faith to their children. That means talking about it! We don’t pass on our deeply held beliefs through silence. And there is no adequate substitute for you! Our primary job is to awaken — and keep awake — our children to the reality of God. Lastly, we are our brothers’ keepers. This means we have the duty of watching over people who are not part of our immediate families; we also have the duty to try and awaken them to the reality of a loving God!
Prudence, the cardinal virtue, drives all other natural virtues by setting forth rule and measure. [CCC 1806] Prudence allows us to put “right reason into action” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas. “Prudence immediately guides the judgement of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we can apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.”[CCC1806]
So, how do we apply this in the home? We have to talk to our children about God and our faith. We have to teach them that prudence comes about by discerning truth. We have to discuss decision making in the context of faith and God’s moral laws — even when making big and little decisions every day of our lives. We have to instruct our children that, regardless of size, decisions impact our life for better or worse. We should hope that their decisions are rational, moral, common sensical and PRUDENT; however, we have to teach them that the process of good decision making is deliberate. We have to teach our children to STOP, LOOK and THINK about choices, possible decisions and the various consequences — positive or negative. And we have to help them recognize and avoid the decoys that try and convince them to sleep through matters pertaining to God.
What are the basic steps to making good decisions? As alluded to in the previous paragraph, they are unbelievably simple but profound: Stop, Look and Think before deciding and doing. We stop to think. We look to consider the options and choices. We think in order to weigh facts, consider the situation, and evaluate the morality of an action. Finally, we prepare the plan — which is often a battle plan — as we choose an action. We have been promised: “The one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts such a one shall be blessed doing what he does.” [James 1: 25]
How do we engage our neighbors and co-workers in discussions about faith and morals? First, the good news. Christianity Today suggests “many Americans are open to hearing what other people think about faith. About half feel they have as much to find out during a spiritual conversation as they do to share during one (52%). A quarter say they have more to find out (26%), while a similar number (22%) think they have more to share. Evangelicals are more likely to believe they have more to share (32%) and less likely to think they have something to find out (17%) in a spiritual conversation. Frequent churchgoers also believe they have more to share (33%).” [http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/august/dinner-table-taboo-americans-break-politics-vs-religion.html]
But what about the social custom warning us to not talk about certain subjects in public lest we upset someone at work, in the market place, while attending family reunions, etc. The four principle subjects that are considered taboo (prohibited or restricted by social custom) include talking about faith and religion; politics; money; and sexual issues. And so for the most part, co-workers, friends, and even families are uncomfortable introducing or participating in such topics for discussion because the notion of taboo has been drilled in our heads. And so, it can be concluded from surveys, that the majority of people have made it their mission to not talk about God, morality, and religion and other subjects publicly. This restriction about matters pertaining to God, in my opinion, dampens the reality of God in all of our lives. This silence makes it difficult to cultivate Prudence. All in all, it is very near impossible to be fully awake to the reality of God when we relegate the Almighty to only certain times and places where it is ok to talk religion — church. Think of how distant we feel from friends and family who we rarely think about compared to how we feel about friends and family members who we are in regular contact with. The same goes with God.
What is it that we can do immediately to arm ourselves with Prudence? Suggestions include:
Pray daily for prudence and other virtues. Thank God for all of your blessings. Think about his moral order.
- We react to, think, see, do, and plan things differently when awake v. asleep. We can’t be held responsible for things we do in our sleep — obviously. However, when we are asleep to God while being fully awake, we are reneging on our responsibility to know, love and serve God. Social mores encourage us to turn our backs to God when they suggest that we ought not to talk about religion, moral life, values, and faith for fear of upsetting others, appearing rude or ignorant. And yet, we should be encouraged to talk about faith and religion in part because people are curious to know who we are and what we believe.
- Wake yourself up to God through increased attention to your prayer time and study of God, faith and the moral life; reception of the sacraments; giving thanks for your blessings and talking about faith with your children.
- Write down any moral dilemmas or questions you wonder about. Who are you going to turn to for advice? Who are you going to avoid? Why?
- Yes, talk about subjects that reveal your thoughts and beliefs. According to SHRM(Society of Human Resource Management), “Religion and spirituality, for many employees, are no longer a part of their lives that they leave at home. Spirituality for these employees is a way of life—their religion and spirituality define who they are.” In fact, Christianity Today reporting on the results of the Workplace Options Survey which analyzed the source of workplace stress and/or conflict, published this: “While there is an idea that politics and religion are best kept out of the workplace … according to Dean Debnam, CEO of Workplace Options, “poll results show that while these topics may not be politically correct, it’s important that companies don’t lose sight of the main cause of conflict starts with work-related issues: personality clashes (65%) and poor communication (84%).” [http://www.workplaceoptions.com/polls/office-taboos-four-out-of-ten-americans-talk-about-politics-and-religion-at-work/] Workplace Options Survey also reported that “four out of ten Americans discuss politics and religion with co-workers. Just 17 percent of respondents ranked politics as the leading cause of workplace conflict, followed by religion (9 percent) and race (7 percent). Work problems ranked highest: 52 percent of those surveyed said job-related issues cause the most conflict in the office.” [http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/august/dinner-table-taboo-americans-break-politics-vs-religion.html]
- The author has published two booklets entitled: Decision Making and Preparing Battle Plans. They are intended to use with your adolescents to help them consider consequences, outcomes, etc., before doing. Decision Making develops the STOP, LOOK and THINK principles before acting. Battle plans helps teens consider how to avoid Decoys. Order the booklets today by calling 651-699-0492. Each booklet is only $5.
- Explain what you understand about prudence based on this article. How prudent do you think you are? List past decisions that were imprudent and why; list decisions that seemed prudent at the time but turned out to be imprudent later; and list your prudent decisions. Why the differences?
- Do a few random acts of kindness throughout this month. “Whatever we do for the least of our brothers, we do it for the Lord.”