On Prudence in Correction

Most famous people have a least one or two lines they should hope that history forgets. For the evangelist Frank Buchman, one of those has to be, “I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler.” It’s not that the evangelist, who had done such effective work with the YMCA, thought that Hitler was a good man. He didn’t, but Buchman did admire the Fascist style of leadership. He thought that, if only Hitler would embrace Jesus Christ as his personal savior, all might be well. As he put it in a 1936 interview with the New York World Telegram, “think what it would mean to the world if Hitler surrendered to the control of God. Or Mussolini. Or any dictator. Through such a man God could control a nation overnight and solve every last, bewildering problem.”

When German ecclesial diplomats spoke in London, in an effort to gain English support for the Nazi-dominated Evangelical Church, Buchman was one of the few ecclesial celebrities to attend the lecture. He was also on hand for Hitler’s infamous 1936 Nuremberg Rally. The Berlin Olympic Games as well. Buchman wasn’t toadying to the Fuhrer. He was seeking access. He believed that correcting Hitler could convert the world.


Of course, Buchman might have quoted Ezekiel to explain himself.

If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die,”
and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way,
the wicked shall die for his guilt,
but I will hold you responsible for his death (33:8).

God does expect us to love those who stray. God certainly does. And we are commanded to help them to know the truth. I’ve admitted as much to countless crying mothers in confession. And their tears are understandable. As burdens go, watching someone make mistakes, someone you dearly love, is a heavy one.

But there is an oft forgotten step between wanting your correction to aid another and the successful completion of the task. It’s called prudence, the intellectual virtue that Aquinas defined (in his Summa Theologiae IIa, IIae, 47) as “right reason in action.” In addition to knowing the good, Christ’s disciples must also question themselves about the best way to accomplish the good. 

Prudence calls the moral mind to calculate when it comes to correction. I want the other to choose the good, but I must still ask myself, based upon my knowledge of her, about the best way accomplish that goal. The saint taught that prudence requires knowledge of general moral principles and of the individual situation. For Thomas, what allows one to grasp the second is experience and memory. That’s why prudence can’t be taught. It’s an acquired wisdom. 

Put another way, prudence is cunning applied to the good. It tells us when to speak and when to remain silent because prudence constantly considers what will produce the desired effect in the other. Silence, or apparent inactivity, does not necessarily mean that we are negligent or uncaring. We may well be calculating how to achieve the greatest amount of good while doing the least amount of evil. 

A person may indeed be in error, but to begin your correction with that avowal will probably not produce the desired result. Most of us do not immediately warm to the words, “You’re quite wrong, and let me tell you why.”

The failure of prudence in correction is easier to recognize than its success, which is typically measured. If your daughter is no longer speaking to you, or going to Mass, after you reminded her of the church’s teaching on cohabitation, your zeal may have outpaced your prudence. Gentle Saint Francis de Sales suggested that a spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar. He also wrote, “Correction given in anger, however tempered by reason, never has so much effect as that which is given altogether without anger”—a helpful reminder that correction should be both controlled and charitable. 

As an intellectual virtue, prudence takes stock of all its armaments, and, in the case of correction, one of those is example. Only the naïve and the bullish think that words alone admonish. Example is always eloquent. Living virtuously, according to the light we’ve been given, does more than simply proclaim the right. It also shows it to be possible. 

One can debate whether Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich was imprudent. There was no “peace in our time,” but the Prime Minister at least had reasonable grounds to believe there might be. But arguing, as Frank Buchman did, that the world’s problems “could be solved through a God-controlled Fascist dictatorship” is an example of unmistakable imprudence. Correction isn’t accomplished through such coercion, especially when one compares the good to be accomplished with the evil to be endured.

To love another is to want his good. True love does admonish, because all of us fall short of the good. And prudent love? It ponders how best to accomplish its object.

Ezekiel 33: 7-9    Romans 13: 8-10    Matthew 18: 15-20

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