Prudence and the Pandemic

The current situation is so difficult for Catholics because it seems there is a real tension, or perhaps even in some cases an opposition, between temporal goods and eternal goods.

October 2, 2020 Thomas P. Harmon 

(Image: Adam Nieścioruk/

When surveying the landscape of opinions about how to navigate the conditions brought on by the pandemic, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, uncertain where to turn for guidance, unclear about whom to trust and what to do. Without descending into the details of infection and death rates, particular policy responses, and so forth, what I would like to do is to try to marshal the resources needed to think well about the situation as a whole. The situation is so difficult for Catholics because it seems that during the pandemic there is a real tension, or perhaps even in some cases an opposition, between temporal goods (e.g. the health of the body) and eternal goods (access to sacramental grace).

Part 1: Temporal and Eternal Goods

There seems to be a real tension, if not an opposition, between temporal and eternal goods because of the response to COVID-19 in that reception of the sacraments has been made difficult or impossible. The sacraments are outward signs, given by God, that confer grace—to use the traditional definition. That means that the sacraments require some degree of proximity—usually close, physical proximity. As with so many other things, COVID-19 seems to attack us where we are at our strongest and best: embodied, human contact with each other. To keep ourselves safe, we refrain from the things that we characteristically and even spontaneously do as human beings. We are not angels, that is, spirits lacking bodies. We are, as human, body-soul unities. The sacraments, in the wisdom of God’s providential designs, are specially tailored for our nature as body-soul unities: they are visible signs of invisible, spiritual realities. The logic of the sacraments in unifying body and soul flows directly from the logic of the Incarnation itself. God chose to give grace to us through our humanity and, specifically, through the humblest part of our nature: our bodies. The Fathers of the Church have much to say about the humility of Christ and the humility required in the recipients of the sacraments as remedies for our pride, which work partially by requiring us to bow to the lowest parts of our natures.

The sacraments are the ordinary means of salvation through the imparting of sacramental grace, which they do by uniting us to Christ in some way. There are clearly extraordinary ways to be saved, but the sacraments are the regular, institutional ways Christ set up so that we can have continuous access to the river of grace he poured out for us with his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. It is possible to be saved without having recourse to the sacraments, but it is a perilous position to be in. The sacraments are our main weapons against sin and the main help we have to grow in holiness. Without them, we are left disarmed.

The reason we are currently barred from unfettered access to the sacraments, of course, is the risk of infection. COVID-19 is dangerous to our bodies: it can kill us and our loved ones. We therefore face two, different types of dangers: danger to our bodies from the disease, and danger to our soul through deprivation from the ordinary means of salvation. The question is how to balance the two dangers in order to direct our actions prudently.

For the Catholic, there are two basic classes of goods: temporal goods and eternal goods. Temporal goods have to do with creatures that have a beginning through God’s act of creation and will pass away. The lowest temporal goods are material things. Ranking material things will always have to do with their various natures and purposes, some of which have to do with their use by human beings, and some of which do not.

Eternal goods are goods which will not pass away. God himself alone can properly said to be eternal, since he neither comes into being nor passes away. But there are also spiritual beings—the angels and the human soul—that, once they are created, will not pass away. These spiritual beings, although not eternal in themselves—since they have a beginning—have eternity as their destiny and proper end. Therefore the virtues that spiritual creatures exercise as having God as their end belong to the category of eternal goods.

We can now begin to see the problems of our current crisis more clearly and why there has been so much frustration and even acrimony. At first glance, it seems that what we have done is to prioritize a rather low temporal good, the good of the health of the body, over eternal goods, namely, access to sacramental grace. But the choice of the lower over the higher is not so clear-cut. For instance, in most places, reception of the sacraments has not been forbidden, merely made more difficult. Social distancing protocols that limit church occupancy may make it less likely that everyone is able to attend Church every Sunday; Confessions may be more difficult because it has to be done outside; etc.

Decisions are being made that must balance the weight of an urgent danger with respect to a lower good, namely the health of the body, with the danger that comes from reduced access to a higher good, namely sacramental grace. Matters are therefore by no means clear. In such situations, the virtue that we need is prudence. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, “To prudence belongs only the application of right reason in matters of counsel which are those wherein there is no fixed way of obtaining the end.”1 That is our situation: there is no fixed way, either by science or logic, of obtaining the ends we seek.

Part II: The Operation of Prudence During the Pandemic

Prudence lies somewhat in disrepute, for reasons of our intellectual history. In the early modern age, prudence became the virtue dedicated to getting what you want and, because modernity generally speaking lowers our sights so that we want goods that are mostly lower, later Romantics rejected it as a crabbed, grasping, fake “virtue.” Now, nobody wants to be known as a “prude,” which is an insult derived from “prudence,” and very few parents name their beautiful baby girls “Prudence” any more. But traditionally, prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues. Prudence is the virtue that chooses the correct means to achieve the ends of the other virtues, for the individual, and it is the ruling virtue that allows communities to choose the right way to achieve their common good. It is the virtue of kings and patriarchs.

Prudence is a moral virtue, which means that it regulates one of our powers that concerns action. By contrast, an “intellectual virtue” regulates our powers that have to do with knowing. Prudence is a mediator between the moral and intellectual virtues because it requires a contribution from the intellect even while primarily being about the will’s direction to action. Specifically, prudence is a moral virtue that involves choosing among means to an end in an action. In order for prudence to operate, there are three things that must happen: counsel, judgment, and command. First, you must take counsel. In a situation in which it is not clear what means will work, or are the best, to achieve a desired end, you have to weigh things in the balance, investigate, discover. If you are a pitcher, your goal is to get the batter out. There are many ways to do this, but you can only throw one pitch at a time. You have to consider carefully the plusses and minuses of each pitch. Normally, the statistics say that this batter hits the fastball better than a curveball, but you can see that he’s favoring the wrist of his strong hand. He might have trouble catching up with a fastball right now. Once you have come up with the possibilities, then, you must judge: will the results of your investigation do what you think they will do? Now you need to weigh evidence. This stage draws on what Aquinas and others call the “speculative reason,” which is reason that considers things only to understand them rather than to affect them, in contrast with “practical reason,” which is reason that tries to understand a thing in order to affect it. St. Thomas says, After checking your reasoning, you make a judgment: yes, the fastball is best. You must now, finally, command: what has up to now been a mental exercise must be translated into action. You throw the pitch.

Prudence works in situations that lack the crystal clarity of logic or science because it deals with what Thomas Aquinas calls “singulars.” Science knows universals, things that are common to many things and that are always so. No matter which tree you have in front of you, the universal, “tree,” which allows you to identify this thing in particular as a tree is always the same. In contrast, there is no science that can tell you why this tree has grown the way it has, with a knothole here and a twisted branch there, so that it looks like the face of a friendly old man. Only the contingent singulars of this particular tree’s history can account for those things. St. Thomas tells us, “To prudence belongs not only the consideration of the reason, but also the application to action, which is the end of the practical reason. But no man can conveniently apply one thing to another, unless he knows both the thing to be applied, and the thing to which it has to be applied. Now actions are in singular matters: and so it is necessary for the prudent man to know both the universal principles of reason, and the singulars about which actions are concerned.”2 We live and act in the world of singulars, which is why what the right way of acting seldom has the kind of certainty we think we would like. In that sense, the cold and spare logic of mathematics oftentimes appeals to us.

But the realm of human action is not like the realm of mathematics. That is why St. Thomas warns, “Since the matter of prudence is the contingent singulars about which are human actions, the certainty of prudence cannot be so great as to be devoid of all solicitude.”3 The only way to avoid all solicitude, which is a kind of restive alertness or careful guardedness in acting, is to have absolute certainty. Notice what Aquinas is not saying: that we cannot have certainty about the ends of the virtues, or what we would call our principles. We can know for certain, for instance, that telling the truth is good and telling lies is evil. What is less clear in certain cases is how to choose the best way to tell the truth. When a doctor gives a patient a bad prognosis, he certainly should not lie. But he should prudently choose the means to inform his patient, lest he make matters even worse than they need to be.

There are also different kinds of prudence, because there are different kinds of goods at which our actions can aim. Prudence properly so-called concerns the actions of a human being with respect to his or her own good. But the virtue of prudence is also needed when someone is acting for the good of a community. There is both “domestic prudence” and “political prudence.” Domestic prudence is exercised by the human being or human beings who have care of the common good of a household, whereas political prudence is exercised by the human being or human beings who have care of the political common good. It is very important to note that these virtues of prudence are not transferrable. Just because someone is prudent in your own actions for your own good, does not mean that he or she will necessarily be prudent when directing the actions of a household; just because someone is prudent when directing the actions of a household, does not mean he or she will be prudent when directing the actions of a whole political community. The way to develop those virtues is to have care of the common good of a community and to build up experience providing for it.

When it comes to political prudence, there is the virtue of the ruler and of the ruled. Unlike inert objects, human beings are all rational animals. As a pitcher, I can rule the baseball absolutely despotically: the baseball has no ability of refusal. But when human beings are ruled, they also exercise prudence in obedience. This is so not only because they can choose to disobey (and sometimes, as when Caesar requires false worship, the higher prudence of the Christian requires them to disobey), but also because even the laws oftentimes give leeway in how to obey them. Think of freeway driving during a rain storm. We are governed by two laws: the speed limit, and the prohibition against reckless driving. Although the speed limit might be 70 mph, it is up to us to judge, given the circumstance of slick roads, what the prudent speed is.

To turn finally to the operation of prudence during the pandemic, there are two points to be made. The first concerns this last distinction I have made about political prudence. The second concerns the necessary preconditions for the exercise of prudence now.

Those who have care for the common good are the ones who properly exercise what Aquinas calls “regnative” prudence, or the ruling prudence that belongs to a king. Now, in a representative democracy, things are a bit complicated, since all of the free and equal citizens, to some extent, are responsible for the common good. Nevertheless, the ones who most properly exercise regnative prudence in our democratic republic are the ones whom we elect to be our representatives, and the officials our representatives appoint. Even if one were to have all sorts of problems with many of the regulations pertaining to COVID-19 our representatives and their appointees have made, private citizens would also have to recognize that they do not have care of the common good of the community directly, as their representatives and their representatives’ appointees do. Concretely, that means the private citizen has not gone through the process of counsel and judgment in order to get to a place where they could responsibly command. Further, in a situation in which the means to the end of public health are unclear (as they are), and in a situation in which the right way to balance the urgency of various goods that are at stake is unclear, private citizens have no right to disobey the regulations that the properly constituted authorities make. That is part of the prudence of the ruled: to recognize that these regulations are made by legitimate authorities, duly elected, who have the care of the common good. If citizens have a problem with those regulations, they can speak their mind, and they can vote for different representatives when the times comes, but have no right to disobey.

On the other hand, the Church is no kind of democracy. The ones who have care of the common good are the bishops. Hopefully, the bishops have taken proper efforts to carefully develop the regnative aspect of prudence, which must of necessity have a comprehensive breadth. And that leads to the second, final point. The bishop’s rule, even though it does not directly care for the political common good of the nation, touches on all of the goods of a human life, and so a bishop, above all, must have been the recipient of a fulsome, robust, liberal education, an education that has itself touched on the goods of every aspect of a human life, from the low to the high, and is capable not only of commanding, but of taking counsel by doing in-depth research about those goods, and in judging according to a properly formed speculative reason. It belongs to our bishops, especially, prudently to decide how to weigh the dangers against bodily health as compared with the dangers against deprivation of sacramental grace.

To turn back to private citizens, a robust liberal education is also critical, not only because it would make them better, more responsible citizens. A humane, liberal education ought to lead to moderation. A liberally educated citizen should see the difficulties involved in the manifold decisions weighing means and ends, and weighing the various goods involved in community life. Further, the Catholic faith, together with its commandment of love of neighbor, ought to lead Catholic citizens to be even more zealous to do their duties as citizens so that their neighbors in the earthly city are benefited as much as possible by their own contributions to civic discourse and action.

The pandemic presents a situation in which some goods must be sacrificed for the sake of others. When decisions are made, either by civic or ecclesiastical authorities, that means that some real goods will be lost, suppressed, or delayed. So when fellow Catholics and citizens get upset, wisdom should reveal that they are upset about the loss of real goods. That realization ought to have a moderating effect in discourse about how to respond to the pandemic prudently.

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