Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues (the other are Temperance, Fortitude and Justice). Like the other three, it is a virtue that can be practiced by anyone; the cardinal virtues are not the gifts of God through grace but the outgrowth of habit. Many Catholics think prudence simply refers to the practical application of moral principles.

Prudence requires us to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. Thus, as Father Hardon writes, "It is the intellectual virtue whereby a human being recognizes in any matter at hand what is good and what is evil." If we mistake the evil for the good, we are not exercising prudence—in fact, we are showing our lack of it.

It has been called the “charioteer of the virtues” since it helps control and moderate all of the other manly virtues we possess. Here’s how the Catechism defines it:

Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.”
The majority of us today sincerely believe that they have a fundamental right to choose any action, regardless of its morality, without consequences.

But it is what we choose that matters, and that’s where prudence comes in. Prudence helps us apply what we know to be right and true, to situations in everyday life and make good choices as a result. Put another way, prudence helps us to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only,” as St. James says.

We all want to be happy, and we want to act in a way that will make us happy. This means we have to learn how to act well, which in turn involves an acquisition of virtue. Virtue is about doing the right things, and if we do the right things, we will become happy. But what is the first thing we need if we want to do the right thing? Well obviously, we need to know what the right thing to do is. This is where prudence comes into the picture.

Prudence is the art of taking moral principles and applying them to concrete situations. Let's take some examples. We all know the maxim: "Love your neighbor as yourself." This is a general moral principle. But even after we learn this principle, the question still remains, "How do I love this neighbor, here and now?" We still have to take the general moral principle and make it concrete in particular situations. To take a second case, the Church teaches that drunkenness is a grave sin, which we should avoid. But how do I avoid drunkenness, here and now? Prudence tells me when I should stop drinking; what beer or glass of wine should be my last. Or what about the principle that sexual activity must be reserved for marriage? Practically speaking, how do I protect my sexuality from misuse? Prudence therefore demands two aspects:

Firstly, knowing the principles, that is, knowing what the goods of human nature are, and that we must work towards them and never against them. Consequently, it is never prudent, regardless of the situation, to act against the moral principles. There is no such thing as a prudent abortion, because it always violates the good of innocent human life.

Secondly, knowing how to apply the principles to the concrete situation. The first part is knowing the goals; the second part is knowing how to choose the means for obtaining the goal. With prudence, we look at every decision in light of the ultimate goal, that is, goodness and happiness.

Prudence is a lot like going on a vacation. The first thing you have to do before going on a vacation is figuring out a destination. Where do you want to go? You have to figure out the best way to reach the destination. How you pack and prepare for the trip depends on where you're going. As we make all our individual decisions, we need to keep our ultimate goal in mind. That's prudence: selecting the right means for bringing us towards happiness.

There are several steps we must all take if we want to practice prudence in our choices.

 Step one: Deliberation. This is the stage where we gather all the relevant information, starting with a consideration of moral principles. This includes an awareness and acceptance of the authoritative teaching of the Church's Magisterium; since the Church's teaching gives us true principles, it's important to see if they teach anything definitively about the issue at hand. For example, if the Church says that a certain act is immoral, then you don't need to deliberate about that act any more; you know not to do it. While deliberating, we must also give a careful examination of the concrete situation, to be sure that we have understood it as fully as possible. It is also sometimes advisable to take counsel with those who are themselves experienced, prudent, and knowledgeable about the matter at hand. With this step it is absolutely critical that we be completely honest.

Prudence is about truth, the truth of what is and what must be done. It is the truth that sets us free; remember, we have to know what is true before we are free to do what is good. So we can't let our own feelings or preferences get in the way of a true understanding of the facts.

Today, married couples, government officials, and even moral theorists never seem to be able to agree about the right thing to do in any situation. This is because they base their decisions on feelings and preferences, not on truth.  One of the major crises of the modern world is that we go on feelings instead of truth. This is the error that we have to overcome in our own lives; we must base our decisions on a careful and conscious examination of the truth. So often we don't deliberate honestly, but rather focus on the aspects of the situation that we want to see. Prudence demands openness to the whole truth of the situation.

Failure to deliberate is called rashness or thoughtlessness. This is when someone just rushes headlong into everything, without ever taking a moment to think it over. It is very dangerous to "act without thinking," to not consider carefully enough before action. If you don't reflect on your decisions beforehand, you will make really stupid decisions. Look at the options, seek advice, pray to God for His guidance, reflect, and take a reasonable amount of time before you act.

Step two: Judgment. After deliberating, we must weigh all the evidence fairly, and then figure out the best course of action. Judgment separates the relevant information from the irrelevant information, and then applies it to the problem at hand. You can't just think about something forever; you have to come to some sort of conclusion. Failure to make a judgment is called indecision. Thinking about some issue without actually arriving at a practical result does no one any good.

Step three: Execution. Once we judge the right thing to do, we have got to act! If you figure out the proper action, but then fail to perform it, what's the benefit? You do not have the virtue of prudence until you actually do what you have judged to be right. Failure to carry out what you believe to be the proper decision is called irresoluteness. Plenty of people make hoards of decisions, and never manage to keep any of them. They can't be faithful to a resolution. One day they've decided to do this major in college, then they change their minds and decide to do that major. The same happens in the case of jobs, or vocations. Such people suffer from the vice of inconstancy.

A helpful exercise might be to analyze these three stages and see where it is that you most often fail in your own life. Are you thoughtless? Indecisive? Inconstant and undependable? Once you identify your weakness, you can make the conscious decision to work on that area of prudence, and so hopefully improve in this fundamental virtue.

One very helpful technique for strengthening prudence is the following rule: 

Take your time in consideration, but once you have reached a judgment, act quickly and decisively. It is unwise to rethink an act when you're in the process of carrying it out. Think about it before you begin it, and then just do it. Also, don't wait until you have absolute certainty before making a practical decision. As Josef Pieper states, "The prudent man... does not deceive himself with false certainties."1 Remember that practical matters don't have the same logical exactness or clarity as mathematical equations, so if you wait until you've perfectly proven the right thing to do, you'll never do anything. All you can do is to try and understand the situation as best you can, given the information and time available. Then make a decision and carry it out faithfully.

We have to realize that every practical decision entails risk; there is no security that our decision will not result in difficult consequences. But we must be able to make decisions and act with abandonment and trust to divine providence. After we go through the necessary steps of prudence (deliberation, judgment, and execution), we've done our part, and we leave the rest to God. At that point we need faith in Him, faith that He'll use even our imperfect human choices in bringing about His plan. Even if we don't see externally discernible results or successes coming from our attempts at prudential decision-making, God may be doing great things with our efforts. Many holy people died in apparent failure (Isaac Jogues, Louis Marie DeMontfort, even Our Lord Himself), but God used their work to bring about wonderful changes in the Church and the world.

We can also remember the following:

Anger. A prudent person will, whenever possible, avoid making a decision while he is angry. He will sleep on it, postpone it or put it aside until he can weigh things calmly and coolly.

Lust. Lust can be a very powerful feeling, with the potential to negatively influence our ability to think clearly. In fact, there is nothing like desire to interfere with the proper working of our reason. St. Thomas Aquinas goes so far as to say that imprudence is caused chiefly by lust.2 The prudent person will step back and give himself space and time before allowing himself to be ruled by lust.
Discouragement. When we are close to despair, our view on reality will be skewed. We will be overly pessimistic, and so the decisions we make will be based on error. Having suffered a failure, or fallen in sin, or having made a stupid move; all these things discourage us, and so we should avoid decisions at such times.

Remember, prudence is about allowing the truth, not feelings, to determine our choices.

Since prudence is not a choice, but rather something that governs our choices, it is a more difficult virtue to acquire. Still, it isn’t impossible, and here are at least three ways to become a more prudent person

1. Learn from your mistakes: Many times in life, we make painful or humiliating choices. When this happens, we can either feel sorry for ourselves, or we can learn from our mistakes and gain wisdom. If we choose to learn from our mistakes, our deposit of knowledge builds up over time, providing us with a reservoir of experience that we can use to make prudent choices.

2. Learn from others: If there’s one lesson the wisdom books of Scripture (Wisdom, Sirach, Proverbs, etc.) seek to drive home, it is the importance of learning from those who are older than wiser than we are. This takes humility, but if we can borrow the experience of others to fill our prudential reservoir, it will save us from many painful lessons.

3. Consider carefully: Sometimes our impulsiveness can be a good thing, but most of the time it is not. When faced with a choice, we need to control our desire to leap into action, and instead carefully consider the ramifications of our choices. As St. Augustine said, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”

In conclusion, prudence is about smart living. It's not just about being smart in school, or being a smart tennis player, or being smart in business. It's about being smart in life, and just like all the other virtues, this takes practice. Experience, too, is a great aid to prudence, not just your own, but also the experience of others. Seeking counsel of wise persons can be very valuable. Most importantly, you want to seek out the counsel of the wisest persons: The Blessed Trinity, Our Lady, the saints and angels. Go to them in prayer, and ask for their wisdom and guidance in making the right decisions in your life. Read the Scriptures, or the Lives of the Saints, for insights on how to make prudent choices.

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