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Emile Guerry: Prudence and the see-judge-act
Today, we remember Archbishop Emile Guerry, a French bishop who was a very early YCW chaplain in his home diocese of Grenoble, and who as a bishop became one of greatest promoters of Specialised Catholic Action right up to Vatican II. He died on 11 March 1969.
Born in Grenoble in 1891, Emile Guerry initially studied law becoming president of the diocesan Catholic youth movement in 1911.
The following year he entered the seminary on the advice of the former Sillon chaplain, Jean Desgranges. I suspect that young Emile Guerry may even have been a member of the Sillon, a fellow traveller at least.
During World War I, he became a military nurse before resuming his studies.
After the war, he completed a doctorate in law with a thesis on the Free Feminine Trade Unions of Isere (Les syndicats libres féminins de l’Isère).
Finally he was ordained for the Diocese of Grenoble in 1923.
In 1932, he founded the JOC (YCW) and the JAC (Rural YCW) in the diocese and remained a great supporter of the Specialised Catholic Action movements for the rest of his life.
He also founded the Soeurs de la Maternité catholique.
In 1940, he was named co-adjutor archbishop of Cambrai and became archbishop of that diocese in 1952.
Emile Guerry was one of the earliest to make explicit the connection between the see, judge, act and the teaching of St Thomas (and Aristotle) on prudence.
In 1946, he wrote:
All chaplains and leaders of Catholic Action should make a profound study of the marvelous tract of St. Thomas on Prudence. Prudence is essentially the virtue of action. With his keen psychology, St. Thomas analyzes the three acts which make up the exercise of prudence: to deliberate (the small inquiry, the interior counsel which one holds within himself); to judge; to act. Here we easily recognize practically the same three acts of the method of specialized Catholic Action: observe, judge, act.
To this day, we can read the echoes of that statement in the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching at §547-548.
Acting with prudence
547. The lay faithful should act according to the dictates of prudence, the virtue that makes it possible to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means for achieving it. Thanks to this virtue, moral principles are applied correctly to particular cases. We can identify three distinct moments as prudence is exercised to clarify and evaluate situations, to inspire decisions and to prompt action. The first moment is seen in the reflection and consultation by which the question is studied and the necessary opinions sought. The second moment is that of evaluation, as the reality is analyzed and judged in the light of God’s plan. The third moment, that of decision, is based on the preceding steps and makes it possible to choose between the different actions that may be taken.
548. Prudence makes it possible to make decisions that are consistent, and to make them with realism and a sense of responsibility for the consequences of one’s action. The rather widespread opinion that equates prudence with shrewdness, with utilitarian calculations, with diffidence or with timidity or indecision, is far from the correct understanding of this virtue. It is a characteristic of practical reason and offers assistance in deciding with wisdom and courage the course of action that should be followed, becoming the measure of the other virtues. Prudence affirms the good as a duty and shows in what manner the person should accomplish it. In the final analysis, it is a virtue that requires the mature exercise of thought and responsibility in an objective understanding of a specific situation and in making decisions according to a correct will.
All this is particularly important because people often mistaken the see-judge-act for a formula to implement Catholic Social Teaching, a reductive notion.
Rather, as Léon Ollé-Laprune had foreshadowed, it is fundamentally a method that needs to be practised to develop the habit of seeing, judging and acting well, hence the virtue of prudence.
Author: Stefan Gigacz
Emile Guerry (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
Emile Guerry, Spirituality of Catholic Action (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)
Emile Guerry, Prudence – see, judge act (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)