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Virtue of prudence critical to living Catholic faith

Summer has begun, and the election is a lot nearer than when I started unpacking the U.S. bishop's document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." Last month I wrote about the importance of comparing apples to apples when discerning between candidates for public office. Intrinsic evils, for instance, must be weighed against intrinsic evils. But what if we're not talking about intrinsic evils?

Our bishops write in paragraph 19 that "the church fosters well-formed consciences not only by teaching moral truth, but also by encouraging its members to develop the virtue of prudence." Prudence is the habit of seeing what is truly good in every situation and discerning the right way to serve that good. Prudence is not knowing right from wrong; that's why we have a conscience. Rather, the virtue of prudence is the habit of applying the principles that we receive from a well-formed conscience to everyday situations for the sake of the common good.

There are two things to note here. First, prudence is a virtue. A virtue is just another name for a good habit. So while some people may be generously gifted with a prudential nature, it is still something we all have to work on. Second, prudence is the habit of applying the principles we receive. Therefore, to be prudential in our decisions about public policy and about candidates, we have to be firm in our principles and in the habit of applying those principles to everyday life.

Here is where Catholic social teaching comes in. Every day we are faced with a million choices. We choose what to watch on TV, how to respond to a probing question from our child, what store we will patronize, how much food we will make for dinner, whether to buy that $4 coffee, how much gas we will put in the car, how to cope with a co-worker who ridicules our faith, and on and on.

The dramas of life can seem overwhelming, and we are taught by our society to direct our choices inward to our own wants and desires so as to make life "bearable." Our culture tells us that doing what works for me is what makes life worth living. But in truth, this leads to a culture of selfishness and to death.

Human choices encourage life when they are directed outside of our own wants. And when our choices are discerned with Christ's teaching preserved by our church, we become players in a beautiful drama about life eternal.

The church invites us to understand that we are called to adopt a principle of the unassailable dignity of every human person. The church asks that you and I build a culture where we foster the virtue of prudence by making all our choices in light of such principles of our faith.

Therefore, preparing for the November elections starts today with our little choices. Prudence is the habit of being Catholic in everything that I do and say. Prudence is the art of living our faith in the here and now. So pay attention to your choices now before you make your choice in November. Next month, I'll write about what happens when Catholics prudently disagree.

Omar Gutierrez is the manager of the Archdiocesan Office of Missions and Justice. Contact him at

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