Prudence and the Pandemic 


How should Catholics think about public policy during the pandemic? Even within our own diocese of Birmingham, Catholics disagree about the steps necessary to preserve public health. The tensions can run quite high and differences reflect disagreement about more than epidemiology. The coronavirus has exposed clashing ideological visions of the common good. 


There are many social goods worth pursuing. Public worship, individual and family liberties, economic growth, and cultural activities like sports and the arts all contribute to the common good.  Preservation of life and care for the most vulnerable are also essential values. Crafting policy to balance these priorities is difficult at the best of times. To do so during a crisis is challenging in the extreme. 


Unfortunately, responses to the pandemic have fallen out along ideological lines.  Survey data reveal that political affiliation correlates strongly with a willingness to view the pandemic as serious and to comply with public health guidelines. In brief, liberal respondents are more likely to comply and conservative respondents more likely to oppose. 


There are probably several reasons for this divergence.  Liberal ideology has traditionally favored government intervention to solve social problems while conservative ideology prefers relying on subsidiary organizations. At the risk of gross simplification, liberal ideology tends to affirm solidarity with the marginalized as a very high (or perhaps the highest) value.  Conservatives prefer to situate this value within an organic vision of mediating institutions (family, church, local community).  Heated responses to the recent election have also likely exacerbated division over health policy. 


As Catholics, we should be on guard against ideological bickering. The Church has always warned that ideological division threatens to do great harm to the common good. “A world sustained by rigid ideologies,” cautions Pope St. John Paul II, “can only be world subject to the structures of sin.” (Solicitudo rei socialis


Instead of ideology, the Church offers historical wisdom, transcendent values, and the means of grace.  The Catholic response to social problems is theological, not ideological. It is neither left nor right, nor is it some “third way” between the two. Enriched by Catholic tradition, prudence, and grace, Catholics humbly strive to discern the good motivated by a deep concern for the common good. 


In contrast to the ideologies, the Church does not set up one value as the absolute good to which all competing goods must yield. It is the good as such which demands our reverence.  The diversity of social goods must all be respected but determining the proper balance between them or correct course of action at any one time is not as certain as the ideologies would claim. (Summa Theologica 2nd 



Early in the course of the pandemic, there were voices calling to do “whatever it takes to save a single life.” Opponents rightly pointed out that this is an impossible standard. Applied consistently, no one could ever drive again. As the crisis has evolved, however, others have moved to an opposite extreme. They reject even simple preventive measures (wearing masks) as an infringement on their personal liberty.  In each case, a legitimate value (preservation of life; preservation of liberty) has been made the only value by which to evaluate policy.  


Catholic tradition says that prudence, not ideology, is the proper way to make decisions. According to St. Thomas, prudence works by finding the mean between the different virtues. Fortitude falls between fear and daring. Justice falls between strictness and leniency. Temperance lies between indulgence and austerity. We need the virtue of prudence to determine the balance. 


There is more than one kind of prudence.  Prudence in one area does not guarantee prudence in another. There is a prudence which rules oneself and a prudence which rules others. Domestic prudence is not the same as political prudence. The military, corporations, and the Church are also vastly different societies requiring different kinds of insight.  In any domain, acquiring prudence requires spending time with prudent people who have the necessary experience. 


Ideology destroys prudence by proposing formulaic responses that do not require experience or insight.  The ideologue has a theory that is adequate for any and all circumstances. The prudent person, by contrast, listens carefully, takes counsel from the wise, and does not pretend to an expertise he does not possess.  


In our present crisis, we cannot afford to be divided by ideological bickering.  Catholics have an obligation to put aside both private opinion and virtue signaling and to strive to follow the counsel of the wise. Ideology frustrates pursuit of the common good; prudence finds the balance between extremes.

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