Guest Post by James P. McCollum Jr.
Mr. McCollum is a Houston lawyer who mostly practices immigration law. He is a graduate of The University of Texas Law School and a graduate of Duke University. I grew up with him in suburban New York, where we called him “Jimmy.” In recent months, we have reconnected in cyberspace and it has been wonderful to share thoughts about our faith.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that prudence is the “charioteer” of the four “cardinal” virtues. Prudence is the virtue that enables a person to discern true good and the right way to achieve the true good.
Webster’s Dictionary teaches us that the word “cardinal” is derived from the Latin cardo, meaning hinge. Therefore, Webster’s first definition of “cardinal” is: 1. on which something hinges or depends; fundamental; principal; chief.
St. Anthony the Great defined intelligence as the quality that permits a person to judge what is good and what is evil. An intelligent person thus avoids what is evil and harms the soul and cares for and practices what is good and profits the soul, greatly thanking God. St. Anthony the Great was a “Desert Father.” He lived as a monk in Egypt in 250-350 AD.
The word “discern” may be specially used to describe a process of thought, analysis, meditation, contemplation, and prayer in arriving at a solution to a question. One supposes that any larger question in one’s life may be “discerned.” It goes without saying that in the process of the discernment, you seek the counsel of others. But ultimately it is the one person who discerns God’s will in arriving at an answer, or, in secular terms, in discerning the truth.
In contemporary society, the agnostic questions the notion that there is a “true good” or that one may distinguish “good” from “evil.” This notion that there is no “true good” may be disproven in the way people deal with the very tribulations that befall us every day. Peace arrives through an ordered and reasoned response to these perceived difficulties. A virtuous person is equipped to meet these challenges with equanimity.
Prudence guides the judgment of our conscience and enable us to act accordingly. A hallmark of prudence is the lack of timidity or fear in applying moral principles to particular cases for the good.
But how does one arrive at the right thing?
St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of the 15th century, teaches in “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel” that if you do a good action, you must do it for the glory of God in order for it to be truly good. If you are aware of yourself doing a good action; or if you are doing a good action so that others may see you do a good action; then the action is not perfect.
Why is it that some people are so aware of this larger perspective and are great humanitarians and others are not? Why is it that some great social problems go unsolved year after year? Is it because prudence cannot be discussed in a sound-bite?
In the Civil Rights movement, great Americans took courageous action on behalf of African-Americans. Bobby Kennedy, for example, spoke as no other politician since Lincoln in framing contemporary problems in a larger perspective.
The alien has no vote and no influence. Where will we find the leader who stands up for the impolitic?
The United States is a deeply religious country. And even where there is no stated religion, there are deeply spiritual forces at work. The Congress may yet find the courage and farsightedness to discern a solution to the question of immigration. It would be refreshing to hear a leader speak in terms of the four cardinal virtues as Bobby Kennedy spoke unabashedly of love.
“For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the LORD of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes; who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him. So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.”