Thomistic prudence & faithful citizenship
In American society today, the faithful people of God are faced with the question of how to exercise the franchise to vote which is theirs by right as citizens of the United States. The Catholic Bishops of this country have on two occasions introduced a document, Faithful Citizenship, outlining with specific policies how Catholics can go about discerning a proper exercise of their duty to vote. Broadly, this discernment process has been characterized as a question of prudential judgment for how to best advance the common good. But to properly understand the foundation the teaching the Church proposes about properly forming and exercising one's conscience in the voting booth, one must understand how the Scriptures, the perennial tradition of the Church, and the Church's magisterium have built the framework upon which documents like Faithful rest.
The proper exercise of the right to vote in a liberal, Western democracy in the early twenty-first century by a faithful Catholic springs from the nexus of two of the virtues posited by St. Thomas Aquinas in his most important work, the Summa Theologica. In the Summa, St. Thomas literally treats on just about every topic imaginable, from a deep theology of the Trinity and the human person to every day, practical questions of morality like lying or stealing. In the second half of the Second Part of the Summa, the so-called secunda secundae, St. Thomas examines the three theological and four cardinal virtues in great detail. In his analysis of the cardinal virtue of prudence, he discusses two species of prudence that play an important role in the Catholic understanding of how to act in a political community: political prudence and regnative prudence. Generally, political prudence is identified as the prudence of subjects of political masters and the subjects' obedience to laws for the common good of the whole society. Similarly, regnative prudence is the right judgment exercised by the sovereign to promulgate just laws ordered to the common good.
In St. Thomas' day, of course, regnative prudence was exercised by a small class of individuals who often received their authority by virtue of their birth or by military conquest. The regular “citizen” was conceived of more as an object of the laws of the sovereign rather than as a subject of laws of his own making. Indeed, the point of political prudence for most persons was a dutiful and well-ordered observance of the justly promulgated laws of the state. St. Thomas' analysis of these two virtues approaches the whole subject of the governance of states from this notion of monistic or at least oligarchic rule, regardless of the source of the legitimacy of the sovereign's authority.
Despite this seeming anachronistic flaw of St. Thomas' treatment of these issues, it is possible to apply the wisdom which St. Thomas culled from a synthesis of classical philosophy and Christian moral theology in the modern, democratic context. The key to doing so is the application of the principle of regnative prudence: while it is still the mark of the citizen to observe political prudence, in a participatory, Western-style democracy, the citizen must also—at least in the exercise of his franchise—employ the virtue of regnative prudence as well. One of the inherent risks of democracy is that in voting, people will cease considering the common good and simply vote for candidates or initiatives that promote their own, individual interests. By exercising regnative prudence, the Catholic faithful who vote will be pushing the body politic toward the common good.
The Scriptures have numerous examples of regnative prudence and its important in the promotion of the common good. In the Old Testament, there is the example of blessed Joseph, whom Pharaoh elevated to what was effectively prime minister of Egypt and who exercised very shrewd regnative prudence in preparing his adopted country for the famine which God had revealed to him would come. Joseph could have used his position to carve out a lucrative living for himself and his retainers. Instead, he carefully shepherded the resources of Egypt so that the country would be ready when the seven years of leanness plagued the Middle East. When the difficult times did eventually come, just as God had revealed to Joseph, Egypt was able to survive; not only that, but because of Joseph's regnative prudence and interest in upholding the common good, people from across the famine-stricken Middle East were able to live thanks to Joseph's policy of trading with those who came to Egypt in search of food.
For the faithful living today, blessed Joseph is an exemplar of how to analyze a public policy issue: not from a consideration of one's own interests, but in the best interest of the common good of the whole society. Indeed, Joseph's example also demonstrates the consideration that one must have for not only one's own country, but also to the whole of mankind. And while the faithful Catholic in the polling place does not have command of the entire economy of the United States or even his own State, he can and must use the same regnative prudence that Joseph exercised in his rule over Egypt when casting his ballot. In doing so, the faithful Catholic will have acted in accord with virtue and with the mind of the Church as she proposes an integral, solidary humanism founded on the Trinitarian love revealed by our Lord Jesus Christ to those who believe.