On Prudence & Religious Life - Louise Dempsey, CSJP

I'm engrossed in some serious research for three research papers that are due in exactly one month.  One of the papers is on the virtue of prudence.  I'm looking at prudence as considered from Aquinas to today, with particular attention to its potential in the moral formation of 21st century consumers.  We shall see where that goes.  At the very least I will learn something in the process.

When I was in New Jersey last month, I discovered that I am by no means the first CSJP to explore the virtue of prudence.  One of my CSJP Sisters lent me a copy of a 1964 Masters Thesis written by one of the "giants" of our community, Sister Louise Dempsey. I knew Louise in her later years after a stroke when she had a gentle smile but was unable to communicate much otherwise.  She was elected our first "Sister President" in 1970.  I also had a chance to get to know her a bit in this capacity during a novitiate research assignment on our Congregation Leaders. Sister Louise passed away in 2008. She was an amazing woman by all accounts.

Now I am reading her 1964 Masters Thesis from her studies at the Providence College Summer School of Sacred Theology for Sisters.  Given that she was instrumental in my community's response and renewal following Vatican II, it is a true privilege to be reading her early thinking on the topic.  You see, her thesis was entited "The Function of Prudence in a Program of Renovation."

For the purposes of my own research paper, she is now teaching me, putting the theology of Thomas Aquinas into very understandable language and pointing me to the sections I need to read in the Summa!  She is also teaching me about religious life, the renewal, and what it means to be a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace.  Here are a few of the more key passages. Enjoy!

"Religious life, even by its very name, implies the necessity for growth, change, adaptation.  All living beings experience such transformation, otherwise death or extinction is inevitable.  In order, however, to insure the permanency of the essentials of this religious life in the process of this growth and development, prudence is indispensable so that wisdom and zeal will render adaptation and renovation efficacious.  The giving or restoring of life, even living itself, has always involved risks; religious life is not immune to this law.  The saints risked everything."

“The necessity for adaptation and renovation is forcing itself on religious institutes. The problems to be solved and the decisions to be made repeatedly call for the application of the virtue of prudence.”

"Changed times are to be met with new and appropriate means.  Responsibility to effect such changes devolves upon Major Superiors and General Chapters who must proceed conscientiously, prudently, and courageously always under the direction of ecclesiastical authorities.  Cardinal Suenens succinctly expresses the vital challenge: 'The whole matter,' he said, 'is summed up in the question: where and how are the cause of God and the visible extension of His kingdom best served?'"

"While the basic and fundamental elements of religious life should be maintained and nurtured, those which are no longer beneficial or efficacious, and which even hinder a greater good, should be discarded.  This is the key point that demands a sincere, prudent investigation. ... It is in these areas that the virtue of prudence will fulfill the role of a special guide since all programs of renovation and adaptation are nothing more than the applications of prudence within modern religious life.  The abilities to make proper decisions and to assume responsibility with competence are marks of a mature person."

"Applied to the attitudes of the founders of religious congregations, it appears evident to the contemporary nun that the founders were not satisfied with the service of the needs of the Church in their day; otherwise they would not have founded a new religious body. Experience also serves to prove the age-old truth that a living organism does not remain immobile for a long time, that respect for the past should not be a deterrent to the progress of today."

"The Church's needs today, however, demand the presence of Sisters in the direct apostolate.  Since they are the normal auxiliaries of the hierarchy in the apostolate, the Sisters must not fail in this great mission.  Responsibility in areas of religious instruction, parish organization, and social work for the greater good of souls presents a reasonable demand upon Sisters.  No one would maintain that a Sister's energies are unbounded or that she is expendable but the attainment of her capabilities is far from being realized.  The anti-feminist tradition, too often inspired by some canonists and spiritual writers, militates against nuns' freedom to participate in areas which could profit by their presence and in ways would hasten a desirable renewal.  Prudence is the virtue of human risks, and risks must be taken.  Superiors must assess these risks cautiously, seriously, conscientiously."

"The spirit of the community should be the spirit of the founder whose spirit was one of adapting herself, her works, her community to the needs of the age.  ... A real knowledge of one's religious congregation as well as of the needs of the present age is essential so that one can prudently discern which observances can be adapted."

"The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, presents compelling reasons for the necessity of adaptation, both through example and through the Gospel itself.  Since religious are canonically erected only participating in the living organism which is the Church, they are faced with the alternative: adaptation or death.  Renovation is the law of Divine Providence evident in the renewal within the Church of approved devotions and liturgical functions suited to time and place.  Renovation has been asked for by the express will of the Supreme Pontiff exercising his supreme authority over religious institutes.  Adaptation is the universal law of history from which religious exclude themselves at the risk of becoming extinct."

"The virtue of prudence is the perfection of the ability to do or to act. Its function in a renovation program is impossible to assess, but no one is ignorant of the fact that he [or she] is obliged to love the good and accomplish it. Similarly it is more than common knowledge that the good most characteristic of the nature of [the human person] is 'to be according to reason.'  Since, however, love of the good grows by doing good, the foundations of prudence are sunk deeper and firmer to the extent that prudence bears fruit in action. And of such a one who thus acts truth Holy Scriptures assures us that he [or she] 'comes to the light.'"

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