Easter Week 5
The “When” of the Mission
Week 5: May 7
Fifth Sunday of Easter
At the Easter Vigil, we heard from the Prophet Baruch: “Hear, O Israel, the commandments of life; listen, and know prudence!”
Prudence is the virtue that tells us when and how to act in any particular situation. If you have ever said to a child “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it,” you have been a teacher of this virtue. In Catholic thought, prudence is known as “the charioteer of the virtues.” Because this virtue governs how we make our decisions, it is the cornerstone of how Catholics (and indeed all people) should carry out their activities in the political realm.
Although the word “prudence” has come to suggest hesitancy or undue cautiousness (if you are of a certain age, try to deny that you have the phrase “wouldn’t be prudent” running through your head right now), in reality this is a virtue that is anything but an excuse for delay. While prudence sometimes does require that we refrain from taking an action, at other times prudence requires swift and decisive action. Prudence is about doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way.
From American history comes an outstanding example of prudence in action in the political world: Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation is worth a look here in Week 5 of our series, because it combined outstanding moral purposes with a shrewd, creative, and ultimately successful political strategy.
There are many ways that the Proclamation employed the virtue of prudence, but since our focus this week is on the “when” of the mission in the public square, let’s take a look at the timing considerations that factored into these events.
To start with, we know now that the President first unveiled emancipation to his cabinet early in the summer of 1862. He did not issue the Proclamation at that time, however. This was a point in the Civil War when there had been a string of significant Union military defeats. This led the President to conclude that, in order to avoid making it appear that the Proclamation was being issued simply as an act of desperation, it was better not to formally issue the Proclamation until after there had been some substantial Union military victory. (This idea came from one of the members of the cabinet; we could do a separate discussion on President Lincoln and the virtue of humility as well). In the end, the public announcement of the Proclamation did not happen until September.
The President further decided that he would not make the Proclamation effective immediately. Instead, he announced that the effective date would be over two months later, on January 1, 1863. This was ostensibly to give the Confederate states the chance to end the war and avoid having emancipation imposed on them (the Proclamation only applied in states that were in rebellion against the United States). Realistically, there was no chance of that happening, but the inclusion of this particular timing provision emphasized that the Proclamation was a war measure being undertaken by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, something that was a critical component of the legal and political underpinnings of the Proclamation.
The President’s timing decisions here also depended on a longer term strategy as well. Because the Proclamation only applied to areas then in rebellion against the United States, the Proclamation at first only applied in places where the US government was not able to enforce it. Ultimately, in order to achieve complete abolition of slavery, it was necessary that the Constitution be amended, which happened with the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865. President Lincoln’s strategy was based on an understanding that, for legal and political reasons, the slavery question would not be able to be completely resolved in one fell swoop through the use of a presidential war power.
So let’s consider some lessons that we can draw from this.
First, while there can be a natural tendency to want to avoid conflict or dispute, sometimes the issues presented in a political setting are of such importance that we cannot sit on the sidelines. We simply have to act.
Second, though, the need to act does not answer the questions of when and how to act. This is where the virtue of prudence comes in. As the Emancipation Proclamation exemplified, it may well be the case that the best available outcome at a particular time is not the perfect outcome. It sometimes may be advisable or necessary to leave in place (temporarily, we’d hope) a situation to which we are greatly opposed (much as the success of the Emancipation Proclamation depended in the first instance precisely on the fact that for a time it did not actually free anyone).
The Church recognizes that politics is “the art of the possible.” The bishops have made it clear that, consistent with the demands of prudence, even if it is impossible to achieve complete justice on a particular legislative issue, we should still work for incremental gains. This makes sense from a practical perspective, because in the political arena the principle of all or nothing at all often produces just that: nothing at all. Prudence gives us the ability to judge rightly between the various approaches that are available to us.
Baruch proclaims that God “has traced out the whole way of understanding.” We believe this to be true, and so we know that we are called to bring the virtue of prudence to whatever we do in the public square. If you think that prudence is indeed a virtue that the political world can always use in greater abundance, then that is just one more reason why the body politic needs citizens like you, who will let the charioteer of the virtues drive the horse.
Look at the texts in Chapter 5 of our e-Book for more on Prudence and the “When” of the mission in the public square.
Heavenly Father, fount of all wisdom, renew in us the virtue of prudence. Grant us clarity of vision, and give us the gift of right judgment so that we can always act in accordance with your will and never cease to be effective witnesses for the gospel. Amen.