Woman and the Cardinal Virtue of Prudence
Woman and the Cardinal Virtue of Prudence

Woman and the Cardinal Virtue of Prudence

Cormac Burke FAITH MAGAZINE July-August 2013

In his continuing series on woman and the cardinal virtues Mgr Burke examines the virtue of prudence and its specific calls upon women to see beyond socially imposed expectations.

General Ideas

Prudence, in modern usage, is not a very highly considered virtue. It suggests a general cautiousness, a reluctance to take risky decisions, a preference for the easy life. As such, prudence seems just one step removed from cowardice, self-concerned calculation or simple laziness.

But that is not what is implied in this virtue. Prudence is the ability, usually acquired by experience and reflection, to take the right decision in the right moment. And that often leads to action, and even risk rather than inaction. What, for instance, does the idea of a prudent general suggest? One who is always strengthening his defences, never venturing to engage the enemy in battle? No; the prudent general knows not only when to be on the defensive, but also when to attack, and does not delay the moment of doing so.

In general prudence implies the ability to exercise good judgment and common sense, especially in the conduct of practical matters. By itself it does not carry out any actions, being concerned solely with knowledge and decision. Yet all our actions should be regulated by it. Otherwise they will be imprudent actions, that is, inspired by bad judgment. And if one makes imprudent choices in important matters, one will have to pay the consequences.

Inasmuch as prudence signifies the ability to choose or to decide wisely or rightly, it relates both to freedom and to values. Without freedom we are unable to choose, or are obliged to make one choice – which is really to have no choice. Prudence also relates to values, for the prudent person must be able to weigh the worth of the choices before him, so as to choose the best in each circumstance. Only the imprudent person freely chooses what is of less worth or what is completely worthless or even harmful. Naturally, given the defects of our nature, we may be attracted by something that does us harm; but prudence, backed by fortitude, will help us resist that temptation.

A whole mind-set is being socially imposed on women today. Perhaps the most direct and saddest summing-up of the life-style it presents to young girls, for their present and for their future, is that of “neither virgin nor mother”. 

Imprudent choices have a tendency to lessen freedom and may even undermine it completely. For instance, the person who freely starts to over-drink may become an alcoholic and so, like any addict, lose his or her freedom. At the same time there is little point in being prudent and free if there is nothing worthwhile to choose or to decide upon. In practice, therefore, prudence is a virtue only if there is a real value in what you choose or decide upon.

Given the intimate connection between prudence and freedom, prudence may at times restrain a person from a free but irresponsible action, for example betting his month’s earnings on a race-horse. But there are also cases where prudence should impel a person to take a considerable risk. Leaving military strategy behind, let us imagine a man caught in a cove surrounded by cliffs and with the tide rapidly rising. He sees that the only way out is a narrow steep and slippery path up the cliff; and he realises that that too will soon be submerged in the rising water. He may be afraid of heights and fearful that he will slip; but the only prudent decision, to be made quickly, is to take that path.

Or take a more commonplace, but not for that less important, case: that of a young woman in her late twenties who cannot decide between two suitors both of whom she likes. She had better make up her mind, or else face the likelihood of remaining a spinster for the rest of her life. We will return to the topic.

Let us try to take a prudent look at some main areas where this virtue needs to be exercised.

Prudence About the Purpose of Life

We all have the awareness that we are alive, but at the same time that we are constantly changing. What am I becoming? What will I be? What am I meant to be? What is life all about?…
How can one be prudent about life if one does not know what life is for? If, like a modern atheist, you believe that life has no purpose except personal enjoyment, you use your life for selfish enjoyment and put an end to it when the loneliness such a life induces seems to outweigh whatever satisfaction it formerly gave you. And that is the last prudent or imprudent decision that you make.

If you believe that life, which is so fleeting, continues for good or for bad into eternal life, then your prudence tries to direct every passing thing to ensuring that good eternal life. If you are a Christian, you try to remember the gospel idea of building up treasure in heaven rather than on earth. Especially you should try to make sense of that key phrase: “Whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.” Which brings us to the question of self-fulfilment.

Prudence About Self-Fulfilment

The Cambridge Dictionary Online defines self-fulfilment as “a feeling of satisfaction that you have achieved what you wanted”. It is hardly a good definition. Self-fulfilment is surely something much more than just a feeling. Besides, if what you want is an ice-cream and you manage to get and eat one, can that achievement be raised to the level of self-fulfilment?

No. If taken seriously, self-fulfilment implies something much more than any passing feeling. Collins Dictionary seems closer to the mark when it says that it is “the fulfilment of one’s hopes, dreams, goals, etc”; or (under “self-realisation”) “the fulfilment of one’s own potential or abilities”.

From a Christian point of view, one’s hopes or dreams don’t necessarily correspond to one’s potential. We all have the potential for heaven, for sharing in the joy of the Lord, in his infinite goodness and love. But we also have the potential for hell, to become a tight little ball of despairing self-centredness. We have the potential to grow without limit, but also to shrink into almost nothing. Prudence will make us ponder these alternatives of growth or shrinkage in our different choices.

Here I could, but intend not to, go into the matter of feminine prudence or imprudence in regard to expenditure on dress. If the motive for over-expenditure in this matter is vanity, that represents an obstacle to true self-growth. It is always a sign of immaturity if a woman thinks too much about what others think of her. But let us look at some more important issues.

Prudence Regarding the Choice of a Profession and of a State in Life

If it is important to be prudent in smaller choices or decisions, it is much more important to be prudent in the bigger ones. We don’t make the choice to be born or not to be born; others make it for us. Nor do we choose the family we are born into. Again that depends on others. Let us dwell on two major choices that we do make: that of a job or career, and that of whether to marry or not.


A job can seem attractive because it gives a certain financial independence. And later on, in marriage, it can seem necessary because it gives an important financial support. In any case, most women today want to have a self-supporting job or career and train for it. However, given the worldwide rate of unemployment, prudence may dictate training not for the job you would like most but for the one most likely to gain you employment. A person well qualified, but for only one thing, may end up without any job at all.

Better-off people may be in a more fortunate position. They can choose to study for a job or career with almost sure hopes of employment. They may be able to choose the school or university where they want to pursue their studies, and may even be in a position to change career if the one they take up is not to their liking. For them, however, perhaps the most important exercise of prudence regards the motive for choosing one career over alternatives that may have occurred to them.

For many such people today, and especially for their parents, the prudent and possibly the decisive motive is the amount of money any particular job is likely to pay. The greater the salary, the clearer the choice. Is that really prudent motivation? Is it the wisest criterion by which to make a decision that is so going to affect one’s life? Later on, will one feel it was wise to have chosen a job which pays well but at the cost of being left bored or unhappy for most of the working week?

The idea of job satisfaction has a history behind it that goes back well into the last century. Few people, if any, expect to find an occupation that will perfectly satisfy all their aspirations. Yet more and more do want a job that they can reasonably enjoy even if it pays less.
Nevertheless the income factor remains paramount in peoples’ minds, and even takes on a snobbish element when it is allowed to determine social status. Many women who would like to be a nurse or a teacher choose to work in an office instead, because that way they will be more socially acceptable. Does that show prudence, or simply the lack of an independent mind?


What is the prudent approach to marriage? We will leave aside the case of the person who chooses a celibate life for God’s sake instead of marrying. Such a choice, to those who don’t feel drawn to it, may seem imprudent or downright mad. Those who have that calling would disagree.

However, most people don’t have such a calling. Rather, they feel a call to marry, even if at the same time they sense that it is a very problematic calling.

To marry, or not to marry; that is the question. Not much of a question, of course, if one regards marriage as a temporary sexual liaison to be broken at the will of either of the parties. Then it is no big deal; and (morality apart) requires no more prudent consideration than might be advisable regarding any other temporary association.

But most people, admit it or not, would like to think of marriage in much more human terms – as the voluntary union for life of a man and a woman who intend to create a family together. That is a venture filled with idealism and human attractiveness, calling, as it does, for complete mutual dedication. If seen so (and only seen so does it merit being called a marriage), then getting married is definitely a matter that calls for a prudent approach.

To many people the commitment to marry seems so scary that they conclude the prudent thing is not to marry. But that means to deprive oneself of companionship, a home, a family, the fulfilment of one’s desires for maternity or paternity. Is it prudent to so deprive oneself? The matter is not easily resolved, as one can see. Let’s take it from the girl’s point of view, as she might weigh the matter. Here is this boy. He likes me and I like him. Yes, I think we could be happy – well, with a relative but real happiness – together. He could be a good husband and a good father. Besides, the respect we have shown to each other in our courtship so far (how important this consideration should be!) tells me that we will be faithful to each another.

And then, the beauty and privilege of having children. The joy of having a child, my child, feeding at my breast. Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, one of the great novels of 19th-century English literature, expresses this joy so: “It was her life which the baby drank in from her bosom. Of nights, and when alone, she had stealthy and intense raptures of motherly love, such as God’s marvellous care has awarded to the female instinct” (chapter 35).

Further, there is the unique parental experience, backed by prayers and concerns, of being a chosen instrument to help one’s daughters or sons grow to maturity as God wants. The joint venture, with my husband, of building a family with personality, capable of bringing back true values to a valueless world.

But then the bother of children too. Pregnancies, child-birth, nights short of sleep, cleaning up this and that. School fees, no break from home life… Yes, there are pros and cons to be prudently weighed here. Of course, a further issue arises: that of the job or profession of which we have just spoken. Is it not natural to want to pursue a profession, to have a certain independence, to succeed in life, to be someone of worth? Yes, but isn’t there a tension, felt strongly by women (though apparently not in the same degree by men) between family and profession? A prudent woman will want to see how or if this tension can be resolved.

Which is more important – family or job? Which contributes most to personal fulfilment or to social status? Which should come first? Can they be successfully combined? Insistent questions for many women today that call for prudent and adequate answers. Here are a few considerations that may be worth pondering. Regarding the social status a job may give you. Are you sure you will be a “success”, in other words that you will become someone important in your future job or profession? How many of your age-mates are likely to become CEOs or doctors or professional consultants? How many are more likely to get stuck part-way up the ladder – as a secretary or an accountant or an assistant manager, at the beck and call of their superiors?

Is their job more important or more independent or more satisfying than running a home and family? Social opinion, which professes to look down on home-running and family, would probably insist that they are. Would you, in your prudence, disagree? And if so, would you have enough fortitude to act in defiance of social opinion? Regarding fulfilment. Success in professional or business life, if it comes, takes a lot of hard work (and perhaps a bit of ruthlessness). Success as a wife and mother also takes a lot of work, as well as a lot of selflessness. Which will fulfil you more? The answer depends on so many factors that your prudence will have to take into account. Let us mention a few of the more fundamental ones.

Men like doing things, especially in the field of external action. Achievement there, even at an intermediate level of work, easily gives them a sense of fulfilment. Women are more interested in people than in things, and like to do things that have to do with people. Hence their interest in certain aspects of medicine, in human relations, in teaching, in design, and the greater sense of fulfilment they can draw from these fields. A woman would need to study her character, and basically consider how feminine she is, before going into such fields as engineering, surgery, industrial production, the armed forces… To be blunt about it: is a woman tough enough, hard enough for such jobs? And if she is, will she not become less feminine before herself and before men?

If, as some researchers hold, women tend to be less competitive than men1 then they may more easily find themselves left lower down in the professional climb-the-ladder exercise; and so give way more to dissatisfaction, jealousy, or a victimisation complex.

But, you may say, can motherhood and professional career not be combined? They can, but at the probable cost of being mediocre in one or, more likely, in both. The idea of being successful in both at the same time is just not realistic – for the simple reason that it is a competition between two jobs each of which can be a “success” only on the basis of a full-time dedication.

How is it today that so many women are not prudent or deep enough in their thinking to see through and disregard the cliché according to which an office job is freedom, while home-building is slavery, the first is enhancing while the second is degrading? A few comments on this cliché. All jobs imply some effort or service. In a job or profession, one serves one’s clients or patients or bosses; but one serves. In home-making, one serves one’s family. The first is service for pay or for self-centered ambition; the second is service for an ideal and for love. In which can a woman hold her head higher?

Motherhood and Home-Making

The last 60 years or so have seen a co-ordinated world-wide campaign against motherhood, against the privilege and dignity, the beauty and fulfilment that it represents. Motherhood and home-making are looked down on today. To choose them is to accept the traditional woman’s burden – this is a central tenet of radical feminism – and so to be unfree.

Earlier I cited the Cambridge Dictionary Online definition of self-fulfilment as “a feeling of satisfaction that you have achieved what you wanted”, and rejected it as inadequate. Now consider the one example the dictionary gives of this definition: “When the options are unemployment or a boring job, having babies can seem like the only means of self-fulfilment”.

The editors appear to put mother hood almost at the bottom of self-fulfilling choices, just one place above unemployment or a boring job. Another small reflection of the almost total discredit into which motherhood has gradually been thrust over the last century. What prudent analysis can we make of such a mind-set?

Prudence – ie Discernment – in the Understanding of Motherhood

No true feminism can be developed which does not give a central position to motherhood. Woman’s nature is much more essentially – biologically, and therefore (given the harmony of nature) psychologically – geared to motherhood (conceiving, bearing, nurturing) than man’s is to fatherhood. Moreover, to fear and avoid a vocation to motherhood, when that vocation is there, is an immense block to the fulfilment of womanhood, and an immense impoverishment for humanity.

Let us listen to observations from two famous but very distinct thinkers. One is Pope John Paul II, holding that motherhood develops the richest aspect of feminine character: attention to others. He says: “[The] unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings – not only towards her own child, but every human being – which profoundly marks the woman’s personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man – even with all his sharing in parenthood – always remains ‘outside’ the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own ‘fatherhood’ from the mother” (Apostolic Letter of 1988, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 18).

For her part, Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, already in her 1949 work Male and Female, held that the natural feminine longing for and pride in child-bearing can be eradicated but only through intense social conditioning. “The simple logic of [the biblical] ‘breasts that do not give suck’ [considered as a privation] can only be escaped by the most elaborate forms of cultural learning.

Girls can be placed in learning contexts where every one of them will wish to be a boy and resent being a girl; girls can be placed in learning contexts in which being a woman and bearing a child is a synonym of having one’s body invaded, distorted, and destroyed. Girls can certainly learn not to want children, but such learning seems always to be socially imposed.”[2]

A whole mind-set is being socially imposed on women today. Perhaps the most direct and saddest summing-up of the life-style it presents to young girls, for their present and for their future, is that of “neither virgin nor mother”. The first thing that girls are led to do, in violation of a truly feminine instinct, is to abandon their natural modesty – perhaps the most powerful quality that both attracts and inspires respect for girls and women in boys and young men.

The immodest girl gives the impression to boys and men that she cares little for her virginity or has perhaps already thrown it away. The current life-style of so many teenage girls suggests a contempt for virginity – in which a girl should naturally see an affirmation of her own sense of self-worth, the surrender of which signifies the total gift of self and as such is to be kept for the man she marries.

Hence, also in courtship, she sees purity as the necessary setting for true love to grow and the necessary condition for knowing if it is true. So she realises that only as a virgin can she enter marriage with the full respect of her husband.

Just think of the icons of womanhood that the media insistently project today – “neither virgin nor mother”. What
a way to lose both self-respect and the respect of men. Contempt for motherhood! – for motherhood which, despite its burdens, is the natural aspiration and should be the pride of every normal woman; and which is also the main source for her husband’s continuing admiration for his wife, as well as the cause of a similar admiration on the part of the children as they grow up.

Disregard of modesty. Contempt for virginity. Disesteem for motherhood. … Ask yourself: are you able to evaluate this life-style? Are you aware of the pressures towards it? Are you standing up to them? Do you try to wake up your friends and colleagues to this brutal de-feminisation to which modern woman is subjected?

I repeat that if your prudence discerns some truth in these observations, you will need to summon up all your fortitude so as to follow the path they suggest.


[1]See Time magazine Nov 30, 2010 [http://business.time.com/2010/11/30/are-women-less-competitive-than-men-explaining-the-gender-gap/]
[2]Male and Female, 1949, p231.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2013