As we saw last time, Church Tradition describes piety as “the perfection of religion.” That does not tend to score big points for this gift on the Popularity Richter Scale, since most people react negatively to both the words “piety” and “religion.”
As we also saw, it turns out that religion, the basis of piety, has pretty much the opposite meaning from what our culture supposes. Instead of referring to cold, dead ritualism or icy and abstract theologizing, devoid of the love of God and neighbor, it actually refers to a lively faith in and relationship with Jesus Christ, coupled with a gung-ho zeal for doing all those things that Pharisees aren’t supposed to care about.
So James tells us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
Given that, the most “religious” people in New Testament understanding are precisely those who have deep faith in Jesus Christ and who live that out by rolling up their sleeves to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, pray for the needy and love the unloved.
Think of some salt-of-the-earth old guy with crinkly, twinkly eyes who prays on his knees and will give you 20 bucks without thinking about it, fix your tire in the rain and offer you a beer if you look down in the mouth. That’s a heckuva lot closer to what “religion” means to a New Testament author than the picture we typically have of a reptilian Pharisee devoid of warmth or love.
Which brings us to piety. Like all grace, the gift of piety builds on nature and perfects it, but precisely for that reason, it is more than nature and genuinely partakes of the supernatural. It’s something we could not do on our own (which is why the gift is necessary). So the gift of piety grants us a sort of instinct for the love of God and neighbor. As Servant of God Father John Hardon notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, piety is “the moral virtue by which a person is disposed to render to God the worship and service he deserves.”
The key word here is “disposed.” Piety gives us the grace to really love God and neighbor from the heart, not as a duty or a chore, nor on the basis of minimum daily adult requirements for obedience, but with a full heart. It graces us to sincerely desire to go above and beyond.
So worship becomes an act of love and not punching a Sunday Mass attendance card and love of neighbor becomes full of light and joy and not burden. We find we actually like God and neighbor and don’t merely act out of duty.
Jesus remarks, “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27). Piety, more than any other gift, is how that happens. Sheep are seldom college-educated theologians, as a rule. Lots of saints aren’t either. But they recognize the Shepherd’s voice by a sort of instinct. They say things like, “How could I not have helped? It’s what Jesus would do!” or “That’s just not what Jesus would want,” even when the world or their own flesh says otherwise.
Many times, those acting from the gift piety can’t articulate why they sense something is wrong or right to do. They just go ahead and help the wounded Hatfield even when their own McCoy clan murmurs darkly of their betrayal. In short, true piety gives us a “gut” sense of how to love God and neighbor as Jesus would.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.
The series consists of the Introduction;
and Piety: Part 1.