Cathblog - Would the cardinal virtues help our Church leaders now?

I have been thinking a lot about the four Cardinal Virtues for two reasons. The first relates to the current flurry of activity and discussion surrounding the Royal Commission into sex abuse and the range of recent commentary about how various Catholic Church leaders have responded. The second relates to some requests that I have received for permission to use an article on decision-making that I wrote in one of my recent newsletters, writes Damien Brennan.

Given this, I offer the article now in this wider forum, as a way of considering something from the tradition that might prove enlightening to the tradition’s champions as they enter into a territory where decision-making at various levels of the Church will be scrutinised.

I read lately an excellent, short article about decision-making. The author proposes that any organisation needs to have a rubric for decision-making similar to that used by pilots.  He quoted research that presents, ‘better decision-making systems, rather than identifying decision-makers, as the key to reducing mistakes and strategic blunders’ (cited in McManus 2012, p 19).

Ah, yes. We often think that it is all about who makes a decision being more important than how decisions are made or implemented. This view implies that the ‘people at the top’ get there and are paid more because of their capacity to make good decisions. Reality might prove otherwise at times.

Layers of decisions are made daily in organisations by a variety of role holders. Some decisions are very simple and others have degrees of complexity. At times the decisions made lower down in an organisation can have a more direct impact upon workplace morale and outcomes for others than those reserved to senior leaders. Just look at the impact on staff demeanour of a change in car park allocations, alterations to the air conditioning temperature or to the appearance of the front foyer.

How does your organisation or team approach decision-making?  Is it overly complex, spot on or superficial? Do you have any rubrics in place?

As I reflected upon this article, my thoughts returned to my time in senior leadership and the vast array of complex decisions that we faced as a leadership team. I also considered the fairly recent proliferation of risk or compliance managers that are dotted throughout firms. How is this development advantageous or deleterious to healthy decision-making?

I was fortunate to work in a high functioning team for the vast majority of my time in senior leadership. I consider that overall we made wise decisions more consistently than unwise ones. We worked from a good ethical base and had a key orientation to improving learning opportunities for students, where our key organisation deliverables were to occur – everything else needed to support this.

And there was a very strong commitment to coming to meetings well prepared, with a generous capacity to ‘view the whole’ in which the respective parts that we led found their place.

On balance, however, our teams and we might have been more effective if we had developed and implemented consistently some rubrics for decision-making. I don’t know fully if decisions made elsewhere in the organisation were considered as robustly or as objectively so consistently.

I think that we, as a team, would have benefited from using, in a more comprehensive manner, some higher order thinking strategies, such as Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, far more regularly.

Too often it is so easy for us, as individuals or a team, to ‘stay in our heads’ or in our natural pre-dispositions or preferences towards issues. A rubric, or using higher order thinking strategies, can assist us to move into new paradigms that can test possibilities and improve our functionality. It can also prevent groupthink or being pigeonholed.

My final observation relates to a concept I wished I had applied more, not so much in the decisions themselves but more in the manner in which I personally engaged in the contestation of viewpoints. And in my propensity to make a quick, off-the-cuff, smart remark.

This relates to prudence.

The Catholic Church describes prudence as the first of the four cardinal virtues. The others are justice, fortitude and temperance. Prudence is described as, ‘the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it’ (CCC 1806). Or, as Thomas Aquinas stated it, ‘Prudence is right reason in action’ (CCC 1806).

The right means of discerning and achieving good – now that is something to consider as we face decision-making in the professional or personal aspects of our lives. What if the cardinal virtues were to become a framework or rubric for decision-making, even if used at a very rudimentary level of primary questioning?

Try playing with this. I’d welcome your observations in the comments section below.


What is the good we are trying to achieve? What is it that we wish to improve upon or replace?  What are potential impacts if we do this, avoid it, or refine it? What is a realistic process and timeframe for implementation? Overall, how wise is this decision?


How just is this decision? Who might benefit? Who might suffer? What are the potential consequences, both positive and negative?  What might happen to others if we do, or do not do this? Is there a moral purpose to the outcomes of this decision?


How strongly required is this decision? How strongly do we feel about it? How might others feel about it? What might they do with these feelings? How strong will other role holders, and we, need to be to implement it fully?  How might its implementation be interpreted? What might we need to watch out for?


What attracts me to this decision and what detracts me? What will it mean for my role and responsibilities? How do I feel about that? What resourcing is required to sustain the outcomes of this decision? Is this a responsible use of resourcing? How will it improve things? Who or what might be impacted upon negatively because of this resourcing? How can we address this?

Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance all used conjointly might help our Church and Civic leaders to act more wisely and appear more connected to the communities they are called to serve, especially as we enter a time in which great sorrow and accusation may abound.

Prudence itself might call our whole Church community to enter into the ongoing Royal Commission journey in a spirit of humility and genuine sorrow. It might be a moment of genuine reconciliation in our culture and for our Church. Maybe, at some stage, we need a Year of Repentance in both symbolism and deed?


Catechism of the Catholic Church, St Paul Publications (1994), pp 443-445

The Hard Call by McManus, G. (Management Today, October 2012, pp 18-19)

Damien F. Brennan is a consultant and writer and provides leadership development services primarily to education, welfare, Church and not-for profit sectors.

The Online Mass


From Parish of Our Lady of The Way, North Sydney & Lavender Bay. The first Mass of the day on YouTube.
Mass on Demand donate

Daily Prayer

Daily Prayer

All your daily readings, reflections and prayers can be found here...