What I first loved about Catholic moral teaching was the logical consistency. It all fit together, how we are body and soul, how we have intellect and free will, how we can practice virtue, how we are responsible for our consequences, how our nature is perfected by grace. I didn’t step back and try to see the whole picture though. I tried to memorize the shape and image of each piece of the puzzle, to figure out exactly what to do in every imaginable scenario so I would be prepared to match up the pieces when the time came. I thought that would secure a good moral life, the complete picture of goodness, and I wanted that security.
Instead I got anxiety. Cataloging endless snapshots was overwhelming. Every news story became an exercise in mapping out potential cases. I scanned every parenting decision, every marital reaction, every civic responsibility, every religious obligation to make sure I mapped it all out case by case—so I would know what to do. I was a casuist, trying to view human life all clean and shiny, abstracted from the mess of the rest of the puzzle, trying to avoid dealing with the pieces I held in my hands in the bedraggled here and now.
I was leaving God out of the picture.
Lately I’ve been reading about the virtues, particularly prudence, and it has reoriented my thinking. I didn’t see it before, but anxiety stems from forgetting the first step. For a person of faith every thought, judgement, decision, or action should primarily be directed toward the right supernatural end, which is to do the will of God. A person who has no faith, at most, directs his thoughts and actions to the end of his life. However, even the most devout Christian risks imprudence if he or she lacks faith, hope, and love, if the will of God is not always the ultimate end toward which all decisions and actions are directed. Prudence is knowing how to solve the puzzle; faith, hope, and love are the light; happiness with God in Heaven is the picture.
To forget the first step is to work in the dark.
If we accept it, we can receive the gift of grace to be authentically prudent in each situation even when it seems we’ll never complete the puzzle. When we fail to be virtuous enough, we can return again and again to the wellspring, “Lord, grant me the grace to do Your will.” Therein lies our security.
The Four Cardinal Virtues by Josef Pieper (free ebook)
The Virtue Driven Life by Fr. Benedict Groeschel