This is the fourth in a seven-part series on the seven moral and theological virtues listed in the Catechism. They are faith, hope, charity (love), prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The series will take a closer look at how these virtues are tested in this life and how we can grow in these virtues.
Moving now from the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, we will examine what are called the “moral virtues” — prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. (CCC 1805)
The Catechism, in describing “prudence,” uses the Latin phrase auriga virtutum, which translates as the “charioteer of virtues.” It also states that prudence “guides the judgment of conscience.” (CCC 1806) Let us now look more closely at this charioteer so we can better identify and utilize this virtue in our lives.
We have all heard phrases like “guilty conscience,” but so often we do not do anything about how our conscience is feeling. We ignore our guilty feeling or justify our behavior. Our conscience is the expression of our souls. And prudence is the voice of our conscience. The cleaner our conscience is, in other words, the more free from sin, the more understandable and accessible our conscience will be to us. But if we are mired in sin and continue in habitual sins, the more difficult it may be for us to follow the voice of prudence.
Let us look at an example. Gossip is something that we have all heard and probably even something in which we have partaken. Gossip is one of those habits that can quickly erode our conscience until the point that gossip just feels natural, and it becomes a habit. How does the conscience feel when we gossip? It should not feel good. What do we do when we have this bad feeling? If we ignore it, then we have given into the sin, and we will be more susceptible to that sin in the future.
If we imagine sin as an image, it would be like something that tears a hole in our conscience. If we notice it and repair it right away through reparation and behavioral modification, then we have allowed the Holy Spirit to clean us up. But if we allow the sins to continue, the hole will get bigger and bigger. Rupture without repair leads to the deadening and weakening of our conscience, and ultimately to deformation of our conscience. If we continuously forget to listen to prudence, our conscience will become more difficult to access. It can deform such that we can become unaware of our sins, like in the gossip example above. I remember talking to a friend once who said that his conscience was totally fine with his pornography addiction. How can this be? It can be because of the deformation that occurred to his conscience over his lifetime of giving into habitual sin without repair.
So what must we do to follow the voice of prudence? We must be ready to acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness. If we have committed a mortal sin, we need confession. If we have committed a venial sin, we could benefit from confession or partaking of the Eucharist. But for either, we should first do an examination of conscience. This is where we can dedicate time to listen to the voice of prudence and to check in on our conscience. When we do examine our consciences, it can be tempting to justify our sins and effectively talk ourselves out of fixing the problematic behavior. If we find ourselves in this position, we need to fight the temptation to avoid acknowledging our sins. It is imperative that we regularly and honestly examine our conscience. If we become lax in this, the tears can accumulate faster than we catch them.
We have access to our conscience all of the time, not just during a time set apart for its examination. Prudence is the voice of our conscience. Yes, we can actually perceive prudence, whether through a presence that we perceive as a voice or whether it is a feeling that is registered in our bodies. We need to stop thinking about virtues as abstract concepts and mere words. Our souls inhabit our physical bodies, and thus our physical bodies and minds can feel the needs of our soul. But we have to tune into our bodies and minds. We have to listen and pay attention. We have to become more aware of how our conscience is communicating to us. It is through this awareness that we will develop better ways of listening to the voice of prudence.
If we are to undertake the task of growing in the virtues, we need to have a healthy connection to the auriga virtutum. The more attuned we are to this virtue, the better positioned we will be to access and utilize temperance, justice and fortitude. Like so many things in life, practice makes perfect. So let us practice listening to prudence, the voice of our conscience, the leader of the other moral virtues.