Piety: the Perfection of Religion

COMMENTARY: A Register series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit

The sixth of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit we receive in the sacrament of confirmation is piety. Piety is one of those “religious” words that people tend to tune out. Sometimes, we tune them out because they sound too false (“Look at that smug hypocrite. She’s so pious!”).

Or, then again, we dislike other religious words because, conversely, they sound harsh, forbidding, abstract and out of touch with human need and frailty. The chief of these religious words is, well, “religion.” So we hear frequently the old saw, “I’m not religious. I just love the Lord!”

The notion behind this is that “religion” is the sterile performance of meaningless rites, the memorization of cold and bloodless theology and the turning of a blind eye to the love of God and neighbor.

A “religious” person, in this picture of things, has ice water in his veins and cares only about “The Rules,” not the cry of the infant, the orphan and the widow. While a real Christian has a heart full of warm and human compassion, the religious are Pharisees who obsess over ceremony and remote abstractions.

Consequently, it can be a real double whammy to learn that the gift of piety is described in Church Tradition as “the perfection of religion.” It’s like hearing God is giving you a cake made of cold stone smothered in gooey chocolate sauce. Who would want such a gift?

The trick to getting past this difficulty and really receiving the gifts — all the gifts — God wants to give us in confirmation is to first reflect on the fact that God does not give us junk and that all the sanctifying gifts (including piety) are actually ordered toward our happiness and the deepest desires of our hearts. In other words, they are ordered toward making us more like Christ, not toward increasing our capacity for loveless rule mongering or for sticky, false “Church Lady” hypocrisy.

After we have settled our minds that God gives us gifts for our happiness and not to make us good little Pharisees, the next thing to do is to find out what words like “piety” and “religion” actually mean. Let’s start with “religion.”

When the New Testament speaks of religion, it surprises us by regarding it as a good thing every single time it comes up:

“I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire, but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion” (1 Timothy 2:8-10).

“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16).

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. 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 1:26-27).

What is most striking about these passages is that, for the New Testament writers, it is exactly the people who “walk the talk” who are the most religious. They are the ones who truly believe in the incarnation, divinity and glory of Jesus and who live it out in simple lives full of charity toward orphans, widows and the downtrodden.

In short, “religion” is not what you do to look good to man, but what you do to love God and love his people, “especially the least of these.”

That is what piety perfects. Of which, more next time.

Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.

The series consists of the Introduction; Wisdom: Part 1 and Part 2; Understanding: Part 1Part 2 and Part 3;

Counsel: Part 1 and Part 2; Fortitude: Part 1Part 2 and Part 3; and Knowledge: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.