On Prudence – An excerpt from the thesis: “Applying the Cardinal Virtues in Motherhood”

NadineYear of the Pilgrim

By Jacquelyn Barten

St. Thomas Aquinas defined prudence as “right reason applied to action.” (55.3). The Catechism of the Catholic Church further states that prudence guides the judgement of conscience (1806). It perfects the mind so that it can discern the true good in all circumstances and choose the right means of achieving it. Prudence is also called practical wisdom, and because it is practical it must be carried out and lived (Kaczor & Sherman 16). Prudence is the first and most important of the cardinal virtues. It is what causes the other virtues to be virtues, because it is right reason in regards to the moral life. Prudence measures and informs the other virtues (Pieper). Mother Teresa summed up prudence when she said, “Thoughtfulness is the beginning of great sanctity.”

Modern parent educators often use the buzz phrase parenting-in-the-moment in order to pinpoint and develop how caregivers parent on the spot – in the heat of the moment when they are at their wits end. Mothers everywhere are faced with this scenario countless times a week, a day, or even and hour. Although missing from the secular vantage point, a key factor in succeeding at this parental transformation is by acquiring the cardinal virtue of prudence not only through natural means but also supernatural means. Josef Pieper, author of The Four Cardinal Virtues, stated that prudence entails acting in the moment, and being conscience of the situation (solertia); like a mother who quickly wraps her mind around an unexpected situation and makes the right choice with quick-wittedness and clear-eyed objectivity (9-13). Prudence is infused for the purpose of eternal salvation at baptism, but this prudence is limited; there is a fuller prudence that when acquired will guide one in all matters related to human life (14). Pieper stated that prudence’s special nature is concerned with the realm of ways, means, and down-to-earth realities (11). This can be particularly helpful for mothers who are disciplining the same mischievous behavior under the pressure of a host of household tasks. Prudence as cognition most importantly includes the ability to have contemplation in order to attain an objective perception of reality and in addition, the patient effort of experience (13). Beyond having a significant amount of practice, how do mothers gain this virtue? Where do they start?

St. Thomas Aquinas lists eight quasi-integral parts of prudence. The first five: memory, understanding or intelligence, docility, shrewdness (quickly finding the middle term), and reason all fall under prudence as cognitive virtues. The last three: foresight, circumspection, and caution, command and apply knowledge to action (48.1). In summarizing Aquinas, Pieper stated:

The attitude of ‘silent’ contemplation of reality: this is the key prerequisite for the perfection of prudence as cognition, which perfection in turn involves three elements, namely: memoria [memory], docilitas [the ability to take good advice], solertia [composed readiness for the unexpected]. (14-17 & 22).

The first Christian is a perfect guide. Did not the Mother of God exemplify the attitude of silent contemplation? Mary’s countenance was contemplative although the events in her life were chaotic as she traveled nine months pregnant to Bethlehem, searched the crowds for her twelve-year-old Son, and knelt at the foot of the cross. St. Thomas Aquinas stated:

Man has a natural aptitude for docility [ability to be taught] even as for other things connected with prudence. Yet his own efforts count for much towards the attainment of perfect docility: and he must carefully, frequently and reverently apply his mind to the teachings of the learned, neither neglecting them through laziness, nor despising them through pride. (49.3)

Mary is the perfect example and in the words of Blessed Mother Teresa, she will help to “make your house – our family – another Nazareth where love, peace, joy and unity reign, for love begins at home.”

However, God also places countless others in a mother’s life in order to prepare and inform her to practice prudence. The Gospel message preaches for virtuous living in the actions of holy mothers, but often motherhood counsel is also needed. This is a significant reason why there is a proliferation of mothers sharing their advice and experiences in groups. Especially because, in the modern world, it is not the norm to house extended family under one roof where another mother figure is just down the hall. St. Thomas Aquinas stated:

Those who need to be guided by the counsel of others, are able if they have grace, to take counsel for themselves in this point at least, that they require the counsel of others and can distinguish good from evil counsel. (47.14:2)

This perhaps explains why St. John Paul II implored all of the faithful to pray for the Holy Spirit to give us the gift of good counsel. Josef Pieper further developed Aquinas’ words:

There is no way of grasping the concreteness of man’s ethical decisions from outside. But no, there is a certain way, a single way: that is through the love of friendship. A friend, and a prudent friend, can help to shape a friend’s decision. He does so by virtue of that love which makes the friends’ problem his own, the friend’s ego his own (so that after all it is not entirely ‘from outside’). For by virtue of that oneness which love can establish he is able to visualize the concrete situation calling for decision, visualize it from, as it were, the actual center of responsibility. Therefore it is possible for a friend – only for a friend and only for a prudent friend – to help with counsel and direction to shape a friend’s decision or, somewhat in the manner of a judge, help to reshape it. (29)

For this reason, the counsel of a prudent friend of the faith undertaking the same vocation of motherhood whether one hundred feet or one thousand miles away is priceless.

In order to cultivate the cardinal virtue of prudence it is indispensable to have a true friendship with God through prayer, to practice one’s modeling of Mary, to listen to the prudent advice of mothers, to turn to the grace of the sacraments, and to have an on-going education of the conscience. Therefore the cultivation of prudence requires applying it to one’s personal living experience. Pieper stated, “Desiring the good does not make a decision prudent; but real understanding and proper evaluation of the concrete situation of the concrete act does” (35). Mothers also need to know what prudence is not. To be imprudent is to be thoughtless, indecisive, negligent, blind, remiss in decisions, and disobedient towards the commandments (8-9). Imprudence is to be overly anxious about temporal things over spiritual matters.

Finally, there are multiple ways to help people know whether or not they are on the right path to acquiring the virtue of prudence. Josef Pieper listed characteristics synonymous with prudence: the filter of deliberation, purity, straightforwardness, candor, simplicity of character, and standing superior to the utilitarian complexities of mere tactics (10). These mere tactics amount to the secular approaches of parent educators: to teach parents how to parent-in-the-moment without the virtue of prudence and without faith. Josef Pieper also wrote that humans:

Receive ‘practical assurance and reinforcement from several sources:from the experience of life as it has been lived; from the alertness and healthiness of the instinctive capacity for evaluation; from the daring and humble hope that the paths to man’s genuine goals cannot be closed to him; from rectitude of volition and of ultimate ‘intention;’ from the grace of direct and mediated divine guidance. (18)

Of course, mothers must remember that a “life of friendship with God must not be construed in the sense that it is immediately ‘given’ or realizable in smooth and ‘harmonious’ development”(36). Mothers understand that there are so many seasons in life. Through Pieper’s writings we are reminded how intensely the great saints loved the ordinary and commonplace (39), With the practice of prudence, we too can follow in their footsteps.


Aquinas, Thomas. “Suma Theologica.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 13 July 2005. Web. 2 Oct. 2010.

Catholic Church Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1997. Print

Kaczor, Christopher & Sherman, Thomas. Thomas Aquinas on the Cardinal Virtues. Ave Maria, Florida: Sapientia Press at Ave Maria University, 2009. Print.

Mother Teresa. “God Had Sent the Family to Be His Love.” The Co-Worker Newsletter. Wauwatosa, Wisconsin: Family Life Council, Inc., 1989. Print.

Pieper, Josef, The Four Cardinal Virtues. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Print.

Pope John Paul II. “First General Audience of John Paul II.” General Audience. Vatican: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1978. Print.

Jacquelyn Barten is a homeschooling mom from Lindstrom, Minnesota. She earned her masters degree in Theology from the Catholic Distance University in 2011.

This piece was originally published in the ‘Year of the Mother’ Journal.



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