Lesson 5b: Faith and Prudence

We are justified, i.e., put on the Way of Life rather than the Way of Death, by living faith alone, as St. Paul constantly teaches. But if we have living faith we obey God's commandments and thus do good works knowing these are the response God asks of us. Yet we cannot do these good works by ourselves just as we cannot believe of ourselves without the gift of God's grace. We can do them only by the power of God given us to cooperate with his work of restoring his creation. Protestants are mistaken in thinking that Catholics believe they are saved by their own good works. That is the heresy of Pelagianism that the Church has always condemned. We are saved only by "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6). "We love [God] because he first loved us." (Jn 4:19) and because God loved us he gave us the gift of Faith from which flow Hope and Love that lead us to do "good works," that is, to obey God in all things. This requires a profound conversion and transformation or "new creation" (2 Cor 5:17) by grace in baptism. As Jesus said, "Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing"(Jn 15:5) that can lead to salvation.

Those who were once justified by faith, but who have then fallen into mortal sin, left the Way of Life, and started again down the Way of Death, may still have the virtue of faith. Yet this can only be a dead faith that cannot justify nor save until in his mercy God again converts the sinner to repentance and the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation that restores the life of grace.

The first three of the Ten Commandments (worship of the One God, reverence for his Holy Name, observance of the Sabbath) express a living faith whose direct object is God himself. The other seven commandments have as their direct object respect for the rights of our neighbor. In the Lord's Prayer the same order is found with the first three petitions directed toward God, the last four to our neighbor and ourselves. Sins against these first three commands are sins directly against faith and if fully deliberate and serious are mortal sins that render faith dead. Formal heresy, i.e. deliberate, serious, and stubborn denial of God's Word recognized to be such, destroys even dead faith. Material heresy, i.e. denial of God's Word that is not recognized to be such through ignorance, etc., or that is not stubborn, but only impulsive, does not kill faith.

Along with the gift of Faith, the baptized receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Is 11:2-3) with which the Messiah is anointed. The Gifts of Understanding and Knowledge in particular support Faith and it is these gifts that flourish in the life of Christian mystics. The baptized are also given the Virtue of Christian Prudence aided by another of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, called Counsel (Is. 11:2). Christian Prudence enables us to apply the New Law to the various situations of our life so as to move forward on the Way of Life to eternal union with God in Christ. But we need to be always mindful of what Jesus would do in the same circumstances and of what the Church and sound reason and experience teach us that we may have a rightly formed conscience. The prudent Christians are thoughtful persons who always think of what effects their actions will have on their relationship with God and neighbor. Even the "little ones" among the baptized are given this divine wisdom to always seek to do what pleases God not men. Casuistry is legitimate when it is an exercise of Christian Prudence so different from a "worldly" or "carnal" prudence that seeks ways to satisfy one's desires apart from God.

We sin against Christian Prudence when we refuse to accept the guidance of the Church or neglect to pray, study, and meditate in order to understand the new Law of Christ more profoundly. Moral theology is an academic discipline in the service of Christian Prudence and is of no value unless rooted in it. Too often today the axiom that "One must always follow one's own conscience" is taken to mean that in matters of conscience we have absolute autonomy. It was the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant who at the end of the eighteenth century made this view popular. He taught that it is morally wrong either to act out of motives of self-interest or to follow any other guide than one's own autonomous conscience. Neither of these theories is compatible with Biblical teaching. The Creator made each of us responsible to seek our own happiness, but he also made us social beings so that our happiness must include sharing the common good with others. That is why Jesus said love God and your neighbor "as your self." True self-love is not selfish! Thus Kant's "altruism" is psychologically false; we cannot love others if we do not rightly love ourselves. Furthermore, Kant exaggerated human autonomy. We do indeed have to follow our own conscience but only after we have properly informed it and sometimes this means trusting in the judgement of those wiser and more prudent than we. Our first responsibility is not to make up our own minds for ourselves, but to find guides that are trustworthy. No one could be be more trustworthy than God, his Son Jesus, and the Church to which God has given the Holy Spirit and confirmed as creditable by accessible signs.

After Vatican II, the theology of Karl Rahner was widely accepted. Instead of the traditional apologetics, or arguments for the credibility of Catholic faith just outlined, Rahner proposed a fundamental theology based on a blend of Thomism and the philosophy of Kant (Transcendental Thomism). This fundamental theology depends not on the objective signs just mentioned, but on subjective religious experiences and their correlation with historical Christianity, as in Rahner's Foundations of Christian Faith. I have already shown that such arguments can have validity. Hence Rahner's method is not false, but it requires confirmation by the more objective method base not on private subjective signs but on ones that are public and objective. Jesus gave both such kind of signs, since he worked public miracles but also appealed to the hearts of his disciples by his own witness.


  1. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, Chapter 3.

  2. The Book of Sirach

  3. The Epistle of St. James


  1. "To be prudent" in English usually means to be cautious. Is the virtue of Prudence just caution? What is it then?

  2. What is an "informed conscience"?

  3. Discuss the Kantian concept of morality? Has it influenced your thinking?

  4. Why must we love ourselves? How should we love ourselves?

  5. Why is Prudence the chief of the moral virtues?


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