Holiness and Prudence

Throughout history, devoted Christians have mistakenly confused holiness with prudence, often with bad results.  A holy monk is not necessarily the best person to make judgments about civic affairs.

Let’s say, for example, that Father Fred, chaplain to the local fire department, is a holy priest who has the gift of infused prudence formed by charity.  What is promised to him is that, with the continued help of God’s grace, he will make prudent decisions regarding his salvation.

Would we say, however, that this holy man will now make better prudential judgments than the fire chief with decades of experience about whether firefighters should go into the burning Twin Towers in New York or not, whether they should train five days a week or three, or whether they should strike for better pay or not – all judgments concerning the common good of the firemen? Clearly not.

St. Louis of France was a holy man, and he did many good things, but his personal holiness did not of itself mean that he made a prudent decision when he chose to pursue the Seventh and Eight Crusades.

I will leave aside for the moment the possible objection that pursuing the Seventh and Eighth Crusades shows that Louis IX was not only not a prudent man, but also not a truly holy one.  My view leaves open the possibility that a man might be both holy and yet also make imprudent judgments – judgments made in good faith for what the person took to be good reasons, which resulted in a course of action that we might still judge to be ultimately imprudent.

Thus, even if we agree that Louis IX was a saint, we are not thereby forced to conclude from the fact that he was a saintly man who made many good and holy judgments that his choice to pursue the Seventh and Eighth Crusades must have been prudent.

My use of King Louis IX as an example may be annoying to those with a special devotion to him. But I mention him not out of any lack of respect, but precisely for the opposite reason; he was, to my mind, in many respects, a great king, which makes his example better than one using a second-rate king as a straw man.

Nor am I presuming, as some do, that all the Crusades were “obviously” imprudent or immoral. My claim has been more specific: namely, that Louis’s decisions to pursue the Seventh, and then especially the Eighth Crusade, were imprudent.


If it would help to clarify matters, I could change the example this way.  A decision had to be made on the day originally scheduled for the D-Day invasion whether to call the ships and planes back due to bad weather or whether to press on with the attack.  Hanging in the balance were the lives of thousands of soldiers and perhaps the future of Europe.

If I had to choose whether St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis, St. John Henry Newman, or Gen. Dwight Eisenhower should have been the one to make that decision, I would choose Eisenhower, even though I have the deepest respect and reverence for all the others.  And note:  if none of the saints I listed – Bernard, Francis, or John Henry Newman – could have been said to have possessed prudence infused by charity, then perhaps no person in history can, and the set of those having the infused virtue of prudence would be null and the term meaningless.

Someone might object that the virtue of prudence does not cover every practical judgment, only those of a certain sort.  This is possible, but such a person would then have to define the proper scope of prudence such that we could rule in some judgments while ruling out others commonly said to be “prudential.”

Such a person might claim, for example, that the decisions I have included above under the heading of “prudence” are not all prudential judgments.  Perhaps deciding whether to order firefighters into a burning building or not is a practical judgment of a sort that is more like a technē (a skill) than prudence per se.

One might claim, for example, that “prudence” includes only judgments about moral issues, not judgments about questions such as whether to go into a burning building or not, or whether to go on a Crusade or not, or whether to increase or decrease taxes.

This distinction is possible but introduces its own difficulties. We commonly think of decisions about whether to go to war or not and whether to increase or decrease taxes as moral choices about the common good, precisely the things requiring the virtue of prudence.  Thus, even if we granted there were a class of “non-moral” choices of this sort, it would be an uphill climb to argue that “going to war vs. not going to war” or “raising taxes vs. not raising taxes” are not “moral” choices – not the choices subject to and meant to be perfected by the virtue of prudence.

This conclusion would seem clearly to counter to the teaching of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, all of whom have agreed that making such decisions are precisely the sort subject to refinement by the virtue of prudence.

Holy men and women will often have a clearer vision than the rest of us about our ultimate goal and of the fundamental moral principles that should guide our lives. So too, they frequently have greater wisdom about the human heart and soul.  These gifts will not, however, always result in prudent decisions about particular matters.  Such prudence is usually the result of long experience, trial and error, and good training by someone who already possesses good judgment.

So, when people renowned for holiness make mistakes, this does not prove that they were not really holy after all. It is important for the well-being of all that they, and we, understand this.  Otherwise, we will either expect too much of them or judge them too harshly when we are forced to conclude that they made mistakes.



*Image: Prudence and Manly Virtue by Paolo Veronese, 1560-1561 [Villa Barbaro, Maser, Italy]

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Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.