The Problem of Piety

Piety is an important Christian virtue, closely allied to the virtues of justice, mercy, and religion. St. Thomas ranks it as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. For St. Augustine, piety is the wisdom God gives to worship God rightly. Scripture says that piety (godliness) “has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8) And yet despite the importance of piety in Catholic tradition, it is one of the most misunderstood virtues. Instead of a virtue, many people understand “pious” as a synonym for credulous, superstitious, and insincere.

Our word piety comes from the Latin pietas. For the ancient Romans piety was a civic virtue exemplified by the mythical figure of Aeneas. Vergil’s hero was devoted to family and fatherland, dutifully leading his aging father and his sons, together with the family gods, to establish the glorious city of Rome. For Cicero, piety was the virtue that “admonishes us to do our duty to county, parents, and other blood relations.” (De invention, 2.22.6)

Ancient Christian writers also embraced this ideal of piety. For St. Augustine, Aeneas was a model of self-restraint, a soul who would rather lose bodily comfort or security rather than commit an immoral act. (City of God, IX. 4) Ultimately, for Augustine, piety was understood to be the proper worship of the One God. Piety implies the wisdom and self-possession that comes from rebirth in the Holy Spirit. (On the Trinity, 14.1-17)

St. Thomas Aquinas fully embraced both the social and theological nature of piety. He defines piety as “the gift whereby a man, through reverence for God, works good to all.” (S.T. 1st 2nd 68.4. ad.2) For Thomas, piety is particularly concerned with our duties to parents and to country. He writes, “Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country.” (S.T.

The Catholic virtue of piety supports our care for the elderly and the unborn. Piety is associated with the works of mercy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless. Visiting those sick, homebound, or imprisoned would be a supreme act of piety. In short, the Catholic virtue of piety sustains and nurtures our concern for the common good, but especially as it concerns our own aged parents.

This is not the notion that most people have of piety. There is another and more common understanding of piety, referring to the elements of popular devotion. Under this heading, the catechism mentions “the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc.” (CCC 1674)

The two meanings of piety are not necessarily in conflict. By their very nature, public devotions evoke a social response. In many historically Catholic countries, “popular piety” is one of the principle means the Church uses to build solidarity across generations and to encourage reciprocity. I will never forget the lunch I once had with an elderly Lebanese woman who described her Catholic life growing up in that country. For her, Catholic life was simply the public cult that marked the times, seasons, and social boundaries of Maronite life. Her memories were intensely familial and intensely charitable.

The “problem of piety” emerges when these two forms of piety, these two ways of understanding our duty to God and neighbor, become detached. It is possible to focus on the forms of devotion to the exclusion of warm, respectful social relations. When those we know are suffering, “pious platitudes” are a poor substitute for presence and empathy. It is even worse when our favorite devotion or pious practice becomes a badge of distinction instead of an invitation to belonging. “Piety” of this sort can become a weapon, driving Catholic away from Catholic, leaving wounded people in its wake.

The Second Vatican Council offered us a catechesis on piety that draws these themes together. For the Council fathers, “popular piety” was a “storehouse of values that offers answers of Christian wisdom.”

This wisdom is a Christian humanism that radically affirms the dignity of every person as a child of God, establishes a basic fraternity, teaches people to encounter nature and understand work, provides reasons for joy and humor even in the midst of a very hard life. (SC 13.3)

The council called on Bishops to sustain and support popular piety, and to correct and purify the religious sense underlying these devotions. For our part, the laity should also be aware of the proper meaning of piety. Piety is the gift whereby people, through reverence for God, work good to all.

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