Prudence sometimes demands speaking up

Confrontational events can force us to ask the question: Do I put supernatural prudence before the natural? Do I put my eternal salvation and that of others first? 

I have to say that many times in my life I have not. I put other things first: convenience, comfort, pleasantness, acceptance, human respect, ambition, what people thought of me. 

Maybe you have never been in a situation where people were openly hostile to your religious values. Maybe you’ve never been called names in public by unknown strangers. Maybe you’ve never been spit at, vilified. I suggest that it would not be bad to have such an experience. It does marvels for your soul. 

Let people curse or swear at you. After a couple of times, you don’t even give a hoot. But we’re so afraid of any kind of confrontation that natural prudence calls us to silence when we should speak up. 

Prudent ‘imprudence’ 

In the 20th century, Christians unfortunately failed to speak up a number of times. Perhaps this is not surprising, because they were not used to being attacked. The Church celebrates the martyrs so that we will recognize the need to suffer for the truth. 

Yes, let’s be really prudent. Let’s have some common sense. Let’s not expend our energy on useless activities. Let’s not offend anyone unnecessarily. Let’s get everything perfectly organized toward our eternal goal. I do not suggest that anyone be imprudent. I encourage everyone to be truly prudent, to seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you. 

Our Lord said to the apostles: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:16-20). 

Pontius Pilate was trying to be prudent. He prudently avoided a riot and became the only canonized sinner in the history of the world. His name is mentioned at every Sunday Mass and in every Rosary as the one who killed Christ. 

My commitment to earthly imprudence began this way: I remember walking home one Christmas Eve from where I used to work for the Sisters of St. Dominic, in the little town where I lived, Caldwell, N.J. And I said to myself, “If Jesus Christ had been born in Caldwell, where would he have been born?” There was a small black area with a little storefront church on Francisco Street. And I said, “If Jesus Christ were to be born in this town, he’d be born on that street.” 

I decided then and there that I would do what I could to witness against racism. I did not know the word, but I could see that African-American people were being maltreated. Many people did not understand my convictions that segregation was a sin against God and terribly hurtful to human beings. Its effects go back to the days of slavery and are still with us in the hopelessness, self-hatred and lack of self-respect leading to crime, which has its source in anger and resentment and derails the lives of many young African-Americans. 

Navigating muddy waters 

All these thoughts on different kinds of behavior may be confusing. Let me simply outline that there is prudence and there is foolishness. Within prudence there is supernatural prudence related to God’s will and natural prudence related to the things we need in life. There is also false prudence, like those who go along with evil because they do not know what to do or because they are afraid of the consequences of opposition to the prevailing point of view. 

How does a good Christian navigate through these muddy waters? 

The first step is to resolve to be prudent by following the Gospel teachings and the example of Christ. 

Second, the Christian must clearly distinguish between natural prudence, which seeks natural goodness, and supernatural goodness, which seeks the kingdom of God. They often fit together nicely, but sometimes they do not. Supernatural prudence may require a certain degree of discomfort or even risk of the things we cherish. 

Third, when we decide that we must remain silent out of prudence, because we cannot do anything in the face of a great evil, we must at least recall that our silence is not the best response. It is not wise according to the kingdom of God. It may be excusable, and it may be the only thing we can do at a given time, but it is a position we should try to avoid, if possible. 

Because of guilt about being foolishly prudent in the face of evil, we come to defend our imprudence as a virtue. This gets us trapped. 

There is nothing wiser than to follow Christ. There is no surer way of happiness in this world than following the Gospel. The person who has sacrificed much in order to follow the supernatural goals set by our Lord Jesus Christ may look unfortunate in the eyes of the world, but he or she will have great interior peace. That alone makes supernatural prudence the wisest and most acceptable way to walk in this confusing world. 

Excerpted from “The Virtue Driven Life” (OSV, $12.95)

Imprudence in Real Life (sidebar)

Instances of imprudence abound, in real life as well as in literature. Here, of course, it’s important to bear in mind that we are speaking not of virtue but of its absence.

On the stage of world history, for example, Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia in 1812 with an army unequipped for a winter campaign was a supremely imprudent act.

So, too, on a much smaller scale, were the decisions of the thousands of people who in recent years applied for home mortgages without having the wherewithal to keep up the payments, as well as all those supposedly shrewd lenders who rushed to make the loans. There may have been good intentions on both sides, but the behavior was notably imprudent all the same.

The result: Foreclosures at an unprecedented rate and widespread economic distress.