The virtue of prudence and the gift of counsel in political life. Print
Friday, 25 May 2007 15:29

Written by  Br. Matthew Augustine, OP

A couple days ago, Sherry linked to a post in which George Wiegel speaks of a charism of political discernment. Sherry noted some common misconceptions of charisms latent in Wiegel's discussion. However, while I wouldn't speak of a charism of political discernment, I think Wiegel is on to something. In the Secunda Secundae (Second part of the second part) of St. Thomas' Summa Theologica, Aquinas deals with the virtue of prudence and its corresponding gift of the Holy Spirit: the gift of counsel. In speaking of the virtue of prudence, St. Thomas borrows a definition from Augustine. "Prudence", says Augustine, "is love discerning aright that which helps from that which hinders us in tending to God." Specifically, this love is charity, which is poured into our hearts through faith and the sacraments. This charity moves through our hearts in various ways, and one of the ways it does this is by moving the human person to discern what means are most appropriate to reaching life's most important ends. This is prudence. Every Christian who is in a state of grace is in possession of this virtue even if, for some reason, they are unable to actualize it. One of its most important forms is political prudence. By this one is able to "counsel, judge, and command concerning the means of obtaining a due end", but not with reference merely to one's individual good, but to the common good. Obviously, such a virtue is indispensable to a politician. One can see from this how the effects of faith cannot be limited to the private sphere. Grace transforms the person on whom it acts and the effects of this transformation cannot fail to manifest themselves publicly. A politician's Christian faith is never peripheral; all his actions must be informed by it if he wants his vocation as a politician to yield God's results. God, however, isn't satisfied with his grace perfecting what is natural in us. He also wants to guide us by supernatural means. Accordingly, all of the most important virtues are supplemented by the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Is 11:2: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord. According to Aquinas, the gift of counsel perfects the virtue of prudence. The gift and the virtue have the same objective- finding the appropriate means for attaining certain ends. However, by the gift of counsel the Christian is given, in a manner of speaking, a God's eye view of things. Christians are guided supernaturally in discerning the means to certain ends which, unaided by God, they would never be able to discern. In the case of the Christian politician, he or she is supernaturally guided in seeking certain means toward attaining the common good. Therefore I think there is something which, if not a charism, nevertheless can guide Christian politicians in their vocation as civil servants. Such guidance and help from God, however, doesn't come automatically. Such politicians need to make sure that they are acting from their faith and they need to dispose themselves to and avail themselves of the help that God gives them. Otherwise, the results are all too human. Therefore, during this celebration of Pentecost let us remember our brothers and sisters who labor in the political field and pray that God may transform them through the infused virtue of prudence and guide them through His gift of counsel.