What Dorothy Day can teach us about prudence and discernment

Dorothy Day with Robert Ellsberg at the Catholic Worker house in the late 1970s (Photo courtesy of Robert Ellsberg).  

Editor’s note: This interview first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of In Our Time, the newsletter of the Dorothy Day Guild, edited by Carolyn Zablotny. To learn more about Day’s cause for canonization, championed by the Guild, see: www.dorothydayguild.org.

CZ: Father James Keenan, S.J., was awarded the 2019 John Courtney Murray Award by the Catholic Theological Society of America for a lifetime of distinguished theological achievement. Currently the Canisius Professor at Boston College, Jim is a Jesuit priest, moral theologian, bioethicist, prolific writer and author. His many books include Virtues for Ordinary Christians and A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences.

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In past issues we’ve explored the theological virtues (faith, hope, charity)—since their practice is part of the “proof” of holiness—and recently we have begun to explore the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance). I admit that I’ve been somewhat dubious about examining prudence, since I’ve always thought of it as a “bland” little virtue, a kind of “yellow light” that serves only to slow things down.

Keenan: When I teach the virtue of prudence in my courses, I assign Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” It’s one of the great American works of writing. In it, King is responding to white Christian pastors who insisted that African-Americans’ fight for civil rights—and their marches for freedom—were asking too much too soon. M.L.K.’s reply is about timing, a reply often echoed in the famous phrase “Why we can’t wait.” I love teaching this because it corrects our idea of prudence as simply meaning “caution.”

Too many people think of prudence that way. Caution is a worthy part of prudence, but is only one of its many elements. In fact, caution is not the basic thrust of prudence. Prudence is mainly about two things: getting to the end, in the name of justice. So first, prudence is about determining the means to get to the end.

Jim Keenan on civil rights: "White pastors were using what Augustine would call 'resemblance vices,' vices that look like a virtue but are false."

That’s why King told the white pastors: You are slowing us down; you are our obstacle. Their appeal to “moderation” was not a healthy appeal. In following the white man’s moderation, African-Americans would never reach their goal. The white pastors acted as if they cared but were offering little more than a “delaying” tactic. Indeed, they were like the white police who would block the marchers, or worse, attack them, as at the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the marchers were beaten. The police were trying to stop the marchers, but so were the white pastors. In fact, their tactics were worse; they were using what Augustine would call “resemblance vices,” vices that look like a virtue but are false.

Whose “moderation” were the pastors that King was addressing talking about? That’s what he wanted to know. Did these whites understand how awful the lives of African-Americans were, how wrong it would be to move toward equality at the white man’s pace? They used “moderation” as if to suggest prudence, but that was not true prudence. It was nothing more than an insidious delaying tactic that could undermine the civil rights project. Prudence, on the other hand, is the measure of the mean between too much and too little. The pace of the white pastors was too little. They “used” the word “moderation,” but they didn’t mean moderation, nor prudence, nor virtue.

A law that is not fair is no law at all, for all laws must be just. King’s prudence, then, was a just prudence, a true prudence, a virtuous prudence.

Second, prudence is about pursuing justice! Prudence is always in the pursuit of justice—that is, to give each his or her due. King’s letter is about the fact that the African-American was not living in a just world. The “laws” themselves were meant to deny African-Americans equity and justice. Jim Crow and other laws which codified and solidified racism were not “true” laws because they were not just laws, a point that King made in his letter, quoting Thomas Aquinas. The “prudence” of the Jim Crow laws was a “prudence” that kept telling African-Americans they were not equal to the white man, that they were not to be in his place or walking at his time or speaking with his freedom. But these were not “true” laws because they were not “just” laws. A law that is not fair is no law at all, for all laws must be just. King’s prudence, then, was a just prudence, a true prudence, a virtuous prudence.

CZ: You’ve proposed that there should be only two cardinal virtues: justice and prudence. Stanley Hauerwas has talked about the foundational quality of justice. As the proud son of a bricklayer, he’s long held an appreciation for a strong foundation! I wonder how being the proud son of a New York City policeman may have added to your appreciation of prudence?

Keenan: In the 1950s and 1960s, my dad was a police officer in New York City. In fact, the last position he held was as a commanding officer of Manhattan South Homicide, the same position as Kojak! I grew up as the son of a man who knew the truth about New York. I remember once we walked past a few women who were sex workers. He said, “You know, you cannot judge a book by its cover, because these women, who are often forced to do this work in these conditions, are really very honest and very helpful to the most needy in the city.” Then he added that those who traffic them, their pimps, were the worst. He was teaching me how to prudently understand and distinguish the true from the false.

When I entered the Jesuits, I told him that Dorothy Day was coming to my college, LeMoyne. He called her “Moscow Mary.” I asked him why. “She’s a commie.” A few weeks later, he contacted me. “I asked around,” he said, “and all the cops who know her say, ‘She’s the real thing.’ Sorry I called her that name.” It’s prudent to admit when you are wrong, especially when you were, as in his original comment, unjust. He taught me many other ways to understand how to see the true and the false.

CZ: Five years passed between Dorothy Day’s conversion and her founding of the Catholic Worker. She lost many of her old radical friends and found no new Catholic ones with the same commitment to the poor. We’re told she prayed often for the grace of “discernment.” Is discernment another facet of prudence’s practice? And what might it look like?

Keenan: I think discernment is a form of prudence. A lot of people, when they read “Amoris Laetitia,” the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis on marriage, think “discernment” is new. But in the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and James hold a council to determine what precepts of the Jewish law need to be a part of the journey to become Christian. The council had to discern where the Holy Spirit was leading the new community of the followers of Jesus. And they made a very significant judgment about dropping circumcision and other Jewish rules, meaning that Gentiles didn’t have to effectively become Jews first in order to become Christians. So we have been practicing discernment for a long time.

Real discernment has a visceral side as well. The discernment of spirits requires that one listen in a variety of ways: to your heart, your mind, your sentiments, your feelings. I tell students that discernment works on three levels. First, you search your mind—you list your thoughts about trying to make a decision. Then you search your heart—to figure out what’s right or wrong, what’s truly good and loving and what is not. Finally, you search your guts. What do your guts tell you? I think when you get to your guts, you are really into discernment.

Discernment takes time. It’s not known for quickness. It’s where you settle down into a deciding mode. My image of Dorothy sitting in the middle of a park whenever there were nuclear attack drills is telling. She would simply go and sit on a bench— making it perfectly clear that she had discerned the need to protest this preparation for war that was being masked as a public safety event.

CZ: You’ve written about how virtues in practice can conflict with one another. I think of all the competing loyalties in Dorothy’s life. Her multiple talents and roles: a writer and an activist, the founder of a growing movement, a single mom of a young daughter and then the grandmother of a big family, to whom a whole generation of American Catholics looked for leadership. So many different demands! Is part of prudence’s task simply to sort them all out?

Keenan: In a word, yes. Prudence requires one to descend into the details, and in the details are found a variety of multiple roles that one has. Conflict is inevitable. That’s why discernment is so necessary. Always, always, always. Think of the father of the Prodigal Son. We need to realize that as soon as the father went running to welcome back his long-lost son, he knew he would trigger the resentment of his righteous elder son. How could he not? His decision to embrace the one will mean risking the indignation of the other. Conflict: It’s unavoidable.

The discernment of spirits requires that one listen in a variety of ways: to your heart, your mind, your sentiments, your feelings.

CZ: You’ve pointed out that as we develop the virtues, we will form our conscience. What contribution does prudence make in shaping conscience? How did it affect Dorothy, do you think?

Keenan: In the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome, the Gesù, the very first image you see as you enter is an enormous statue of Prudence in the cupola (inner dome) of the church. She is holding her chief icon, a mirror. Prudence holds a mirror because she needs to look to and learn from the past. Only by reviewing what she has done and learned as the result of her decisions can she learn how to make better decisions for the future. Prudence depends on a person reflecting on what he or she has done and whether the decisions proved to be right or wrong. That is why we are always called to examine our consciences as to whether what we did turned out to be for the good or not. The reflective life is a condition for the prudent life.

But the mirror is also a way of not only seeing what’s behind you: It also lets you see yourself. And so prudence needs you to examine not only what you decided to do and what you did, but why you decided on this course rather than another. In other words, prudence lets you examine not only your actions but also your motivations. This is the true examination of conscience.

Finally, the mirror is also to make sure you know yourself. Not only your moral strengths and your limitations, but everything about yourself. Are you quick on your feet? Do you need more time to decide than others? Are you afraid of the dark? Knowing your specific qualities help in making good actual decisions. In fact, knowing yourself is the key to becoming a moral person.

Thomas Aquinas says that all virtues but one should observe the mean, that is, aim for the point between an excess of too much or a deficit of too little; all virtues except charity.

CZ: One of the things you stress concerning the virtues is that they must always relate to concrete situations, to real life. This makes me think of the famous story in 1951 when Dorothy was asked by Monsignor Edward Gaffney of the Archdiocese of New York to consider dropping the word “Catholic” from The Catholic Worker. Dorothy begins her response by assuring Msgr. Gaffney of her “love and respectful obedience to the Church, and our gratitude to this Archdiocese.…” She then recounts that she did consider “that we could change the name rather than cease publication of The Catholic Worker.” But on further reflection, she wrote Msgr. Gaffney, to do so would likely cause scandal and “put into the hands of our enemies, the enemies of the Church, a formidable weapon.” Somehow in her letter to Msgr. Gaffney, she managed to communicate not only her love, prayers and obedience, but her astute awareness of the negative effect such a decision would have on the church. She was apparently so convincing that the issue was never brought up again. Was that prudence in action?

Keenan: A historian recently argued that if you really knew saintly persons, you would realize that they were too dangerous to be models for children. If you really knew what they were like, you knew how extreme they were. Think of Francis of Assisi, or more extraordinarily, Catherine of Siena, who hardly ate anything in the last years of her life.

Thomas Aquinas says that all virtues but one should observe the mean, that is, aim for the point between an excess of too much or a deficit of too little; all virtues except charity. Charity, he said, does not observe the mean. You can never love God enough. Charity knows no limits. Think, for instance, of how alike Mother Teresa of Calcutta was to Dorothy in being known for out-distancing us on the way of the Lord. Their passage of following in the footsteps of Christ shows excesses that prudence might not allow us to follow in our daily lives. In some ways we can follow them, but in other ways we can’t—their charity is just so strong.

CZ: Anything you’d like to add?

Keenan: I met Dorothy once. In the spring of 1971, I was 18 years old, a freshman at LeMoyne College and a Jesuit novice. I was friends with the people at International House, a student-led social justice community that Daniel Berrigan had founded. Dorothy spoke on “Saints and Heroes of Our Day,” and specifically on Cesar Chavez, Julius Nyerere and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I remember the evening, 48 years ago, as if it was yesterday.

The day after the lecture, International House was having a lunch in Dorothy’s honor. In planning it, the students decided that she was most likely a vegetarian, because, as they explained, “She was a saint.” (The decision to be a vegetarian was not made as frequently in 1971 as today.) I simply asked what they were serving. Tofu sandwiches, they said. I asked, quite apart from her being a saint or not, “Do you know if she has eaten tofu?” “She’s a saint, she must be a vegetarian; what else would she eat?”

At lunch, I got to sit next to Dorothy. She asked who I was, and I explained that I was a Jesuit novice. She was happy to hear that. When she bit into her sandwich she said, “What’s this?” She opened it and looked at me. “It’s tofu,” I said. “They said that since you are a saint, you must be a vegetarian, and so figured you’d like tofu.” “I hate when they call me a saint and when they do things like this,” she said. “Dorothy,” I asked, “would you want to come to the Jesuit novitiate, and I could make you a ham and cheese sandwich?” “That would be delightful,” she responded. So I drove her to the other side of campus, to where our novitiate was.

So let me ask: Where is the prudence in this little story, and where is the lack of it? And why?

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of Dorothy Day—including archival material authored by her.]

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