The Perils of the Pious: How the Devil Can Hijack Holy Practices

Many years ago I heard a Protestant Minister say that Satan wasn’t all that concerned when a person went to church because he could drag a soul to Hell from a church pew just as soon as from a gutter or brothel. Now preachers are given to hyperbole and perhaps some distinctions are in order here, especially for a Catholic. We do in fact believe that the Sacraments, if received fruitfully, do strengthen us and provide a sure help against the incursions of the evil. That said, we ought to also acknowledge that there are certain temptations common to believers and church-goers. Perhaps we could refer to these as the “Perils of the Pious,” or the “Risks of the Religious.”  What are some of these?

1. The Risk of Ritualistic Reductionism – This temptation is to reduce holiness and righteousness to the following of a few simple rules. One becomes proud of the fact that they go to Mass on Sunday, put some money in the basket, say a few prayers, maybe even the rosary. Now these are all good things, but the danger becomes thinking this is all we must do. We can too easily tell ourselves how good we are and not look at the deeper drives of sin in us such as unrighteous anger, rash judgment, sensuality, greed, and injustice. We think, “I am basically a good person  because of my religious observances.” On account of this thinking, we are not prone to consider that there may be some pretty ugly things about us that need attention.

Many years ago there was a woman in my parish who came to daily Mass and stayed to pray the rosary as well. In many ways she was very holy, and certainly pious. But she had a deep wound in her heart she refused to see. At least once a week she would lament to me how the “neighborhood was changing.” This was basically code for the fact that it was becoming African American. Her laments about this were quite bitter and she thought she’d have to leave the neighborhood on account of it. I suggested to her that perhaps she could love her new neighbors, get to know them, and evangelize. She rebuffed this in strong terms and said, “We’re not going to have them come in here and change our church!”  In further discussions between us it was clear that she couldn’t see her racism for the sin it was and she often protested that she had been going to Church all her life. She had reduced holiness to the following of rituals, to saying a few prayers. These are good things,  but somehow she thought this exempted her from looking at other things, or perhaps it blinded her.

The Pharisees had reduced faith to the following of 613 rules. Now this may sound impressive at first, but many of the rules were about washing things, not eating certain things and so forth. They weren’t that hard to follow. In addition to reducing holiness in this way, they also interpreted the rules in a very minimalistic way. You may recall the rich young man in the Gospel who, when being reminded to love his neighbor asked Jesus, And who is my neighbor?  (Lk. 10:29). In effect what he is trying to do is minimize the concept of “neighbor.” It is as if to say, “If I have to love my neighbor, let’s define neighbor strictly and keep this whole thing manageable.” This is what the Pharisees did, they reduced holiness to a very narrow spectrum and thought they could buy God off by these observances.

There is more to holiness than ritual observance. To this peril of the pious the Lord says, For I desire mercy more than sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6). Jesus reiterates: If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matt. 12:7).

2. Crass Comparison – The religiously observant exhibit important virtues that are praiseworthy. Going to church and praying, reading Scripture, and financially supporting the Church are good things. The religiously observant also strive to avoid serious sins such as fornication, immodesty, drunkenness and the like. They may not live perfect lives,  and surely they admit that, but they do strive to heed God’s Law. However, this too can lead to the tendency to rashly judge others and to show a lack of humility. It becomes too easy to congratulate ourselves for being decent people. We can think, “At least I’m not like that prostitute or that corrupt city official!”  But in the process we can lack the humility to see our own sins as significant, or to see ourselves as in need of great mercy.

The fact is, being better than a prostitute or a corrupt city official is not the standard that’s going to get us heaven. The standard that we must meet is Jesus Christ. Now if we really grasp this and understand how far we are from meeting that standard, then we will humbly cry for mercy. But the peril of the pious is to compare ourselves to others, not to Jesus. Too easily we can become smug and superior, arrogant. We can become unaware that we too need boatloads of grace and mercy to even stand a chance of getting to heaven.

To address this peril of the pious Scripture also speaks: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

3. Checking off the God-Box – There are some people who are religiously observant not so much because they Love God but more because they want to control Him or overcome their fear of Him. We can too easily reason that because we have said certain prayers, or followed certain rules we have “checked off the God box.” Once we’ve said our prayers we can feel safe and get on with our day.

Perhaps this attitude is rooted in fear, and so the thinking is that I have to placate God to get what I want from him. If I don’t pray, perhaps bad things will happen, or good things won’t happen. So I need to pray, but the motive, conscious or unconscious,  is more to advance my own agenda and self-interest than loving attentiveness to God.

Another more cynical form of this is to pray and fulfill religious duties more as a strange way of keeping God at a distance. The thinking here is that God has to be honored for my life to go well. Hence, I will do some quick devotions, (i.e., check off the God-box) and then I can feel free to get on with my day. St. John Vianney said of some who pray in this manner: And still worse, there are some who speak to the good God like this: “I will only say a couple of things to you, and then I will be rid of you.(Catechisme sur la priere: A. Monnin, Esprit du Cure d’Ars, Paris 1899, pp. 87-89).

God wants whole hearted devotion, not perfunctory practice. And we can too easily think that quick devotions, good though they are, will be sufficient. But love is extravagant and wants to do more, not less. God wants love, not lip service. Religious rituals and recited prayers are beautiful things, but they are not the end of our relationship with God they are the beginning. Yet there are some among the religiously observant who think that perfunctory observance will buy God off or permit them to run off in their own directions for the rest of the day. To them the Lord says, This people draw near with their words, and honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists [merely] of tradition learned by rote, (Isaiah 29:13).

You may wish to add to this list. The main point here is that our flesh and the devil can take beautiful things of the faith and twist them for other, less holy purposes. Beware these perils of the pious, these risks of religious.

This video is a rather “humorous” interview with the Devil and how he actually likes the Church because it provides him opportunities to take good things and twist them for bad outcomes. Not sure I agree with everything in the video (e.g. it seems to imply that being right is a form of arrogance) but it is fun and thought-provoking.

25 Replies to “The Perils of the Pious: How the Devil Can Hijack Holy Practices”

  1. Hmmm. I must say that I’m guilty of feeling that I’m not like those “other” people who are carousing about at all hours of the night … must work on not feeling so superior. Because, of course, I have many things I need to improve in my own character.

    One thing that struck me while going through RCIA was how I slowly fell in love with Jesus. It is not romantic, but it has the same quality as when I fell in love with my husband. I found myself constantly thinking, talking, or just gazing at the cross. We had to run to shops to find the right crucifix (and I hate shopping). Luckily you can buy anything on the Internet. We checked out books from the library. The ones I liked, I bought to reread. I discovered your blog. I’m reading the Bible and will return to it over and over again. I remember that when I was a little girl, I wanted to be a nun … I was in love back then too. But now I am married with children, so it will never happen. Raising my children to follow Christ is wonderful. It really is an amazing journey back into His arms.

    1. I’m replying to myself because I do not know how to edit my response … but my second part was in reference to praying “dutifully” and transitioning to “falling in love” if that makes sense. Sorry for all the rambling.

    2. now I am married with children, so it will never happen.

      Never say never, Vijaya. May you and your husband have a long and happy marriage. But if it should happen that God calls your husband to Himself, He might also then call you to take up the habit.

      Our own St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (co-patron of Arlington) had been married with children before she entered religious life. As was St. Rita, and many others.

      1. Ah, yes. I’ve not thought that far … with my mother dying so young, I’ve felt I, too, might be called home sooner rather than later. But I always pray not too soon …

    3. Yes Vijaya, At most times, I sit teary eyed in one of the pews when I see the catechumens for the RCIA program, with a resolve ‘ I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back…’ written large on their faces. My angst at such times is, I have still not been able to treasure that same Jesus who was given to me at my own baptism, a few days after my birth. A little moment later, I fall in love with him all over again. Yes, you are right. It can get quite romantic at times, Sitting, standing, waking,sleeping you are just talking to him all the time. You do not forget to ask him before you do the smallest thing. That brings in loads of humily and we start dwelling more on him and grow deaf and dumb towards most things in this world that actually make you a Pharisee as someone just said. I tell you, it is such a difficult thing to look at our own sinfulness rather than that of others. I fall into this trap all the time. Lord have mercy on me is all that I can say

  2. I think C.S. Lewis wrote, “Being in a Church doesn’t make you any more of a Christian than being in a garage makes you a car.”

    Thanks for this post! The parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector from Luke 18 always makes me cringe because it cuts so deeply. Just when I think I am a little holier I realize that I am taking pride in my apparent holiness, and that is when I KNOW that I am neither holy nor humble. It is a good thing God is merciful.

    Thanks again.

    1. “Being in a Church doesn’t make you any more of a Christian than being in a garage makes you a car.”

      I’ve never come across that quotation in C.S. Lewis’ writings but I have heard TV evangelist Joyce Meyer say it more than once. Either way, it makes a good point.

      “It becomes too easy to congratulate ourselves for being decent people. We can think, “At least I’m not like that prostitute or that corrupt city official!” But in the process we can lack the humility to see our own sins as significant, or to see ourselves as in need of great mercy.”

      Whenever I’m tempted to fall into this error, I remind myself that God doesn’t grade on a curve, so to speak …

      1. I do agree with the statement but also important to remember that in a Catholic church Jesus I
        ss present. When I am in His presence and thinking of Him I am far from the devil.

  3. Sometimes people tell that they don’t pray (beyond quoting known prayers) because they don’t know how. At such times I refer them to Luke 18:9-14 and suggest that they can say an original prayer better than I ever have by reaching deeper into their heart than I have and describing what they feel.

  4. How about Knowledge of God.

    As soon as I start to feel like I’ve figured it out, as soon as I think I’ve solved the God riddle, you can be sure it’s then that I’m in greatest danger of losing my faith.

  5. I would like too add to this important discussion that I have heard it said: “He came to save sinners…the self-righteous have no need of a Saviour…” and “Church is for (repenting) sinners,” …”He who says he is without sin, does not know Me…” “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
    So, if you are a sinner, don’t feel too special… join the human race and go to Church. None of us is perfect, but we are all made in the image and likeness of God. I may be wrong but I don’t believe that God intends for us to go around “pretending” we are broken. We can break God’s commandments and break and disfugure ourselves in the process and the Church is there to help us heal and be strong and beautiful again. More even than through words, by being good examples of what we are meant to be (by God) we can lead others to the Truth. You cannot, and no other creature can create or destroy your immortal soul. Only God can do that. Sin is rebellion against God. Not very smart when you think about it!

    1. Sounds like a well chosen reference of Matthew 20:1-16, and perhaps other good scriptural guidance which Leonard has at hand better than I do.

  6. Devilishly funny video! He just sits back and watches the fights! He’s on the internet for sure.

    Thanks Msgr Pope.

  7. I think another relevant verse came up in yesterday’s liturgy. Paul writes, “I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted.” It might very well be that as we examine our days we might not find any sin, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there; we might just be too blinded to see it. Of course, even if we should some how be perfect before God, we certainly aren’t any less in need of His mercy. How did we become perfect in the first place? How do you suppose you might continue down this narrow path? The answer to both is solely by the mercy of our dear Jesus. Also, as Msgr. Pope noted, frequently comparing ourselves to Jesus is an excellent method of thrashing any pride left in the soul. That or reading St. John of the Cross…

  8. Then there is the flip side of this whole issue. Thoses individuals that feel they are good and “spiritual” and therefore have no need to go to Mass. It is interesting that Mark Shea has a post today about the perils when someone begins a comment with “I used to be a devout Catholic……”

    1. There is the flip-side of the issue, but some of us are too busy pointing the finger at such people that we miss the fact that we are on the other side of that coin. That is where we should place our focus – as the spiritual masters always taught.

  9. As an African-American woman I am sensitive. (you’ve heard that before (lol)). I don’t want to do the same thing as the woman in your post did at your previous parish. It is easy for African-Americans to feel isolated and discrimated against in the church. We can begin to feel fearful when are congregations are changing, even territorial. The danger is that we sometimes do exactly what we say others are doing to us or we inflict the same injustices of our past on others.

  10. Amazingly many people, especially the elderly (and isn’t it wonderful that God allows some people enough time to work on saving their souls after the busy important things of life are past?) attend daily Mass not so much it seems and they say to work out their salvation, but because it’s a social event.

    Holiness is easy. Look at how many people at Mass are appropriately Churchy…….and holy!

  11. I have heard is said somewhere that sin is not just a question of breaking one or more of the ten commandments but going against God’s particular wishes for oneself. In a choice between two ‘goods’ choosing the one that gives self a ‘good’ feeling instead of the one that God wishes self to carry out could be something that one should consider confessing to in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

  12. There seems to be a struggle in the paradox of the fine line between pride and humility. C.S. Lewis in “The Screwtape Letters,” reveals this paradox where the senior devil Uncle Screwtape advises his apprentice temptor devil Wormwood; “Your patient has become humble…Catch him at a moment when he is really poor in spirit, and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride – pride at his own humility will appear. If he awakes to the new danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt- – and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you might awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.”
    Oh, the struggle, so how do we discern between the two competing emotions is the question. One answer is constant prayer, morning (Lauds), evening (vespers), and night (compline)from “The Liturgy of The Hours.”

  13. I think this is a timely and relevant post. I am, however, troubled by the Msgr. Charles Pope’s choice of an example under item #1 (The Risk of Ritualistic Reductionism) though I agree with his basic premise. I note that his choice of an elderly white woman in a parish in transition plays on themes common to the progressive movement’s stereotypes of European Americans. At best, I think this was a poor choice, if for no other reason, because it reinforces a perception about us that is frequently in error. White Americans do not all fear or hate people of other ethnic groups.

    I lived much of my early life in a black neighborhood. The problems there had less to do with race than they had to do with poverty: both material and spiritual. It is indeed unfortunate that many ethnic groups find themselves living in such conditions. Nonetheless, poverty has not always been limited to blacks and “people of color”. My mother lived in New York prior to World War II and she frequently reminisced about her fear of Manhattan’s Lower East Side (an Italian neighborhood). Decades ago, many Irish neighborhoods had similarly unsavory reputations.

    If a ghetto is a place where people live in deprivation and where the services of the civil authority are minimal, then it would be simple to place the whole blame on those artificially created conditions. Realistically though, ghettos are ghettos more because of the spiritual failures on the part of the inhabitants. In other words, poverty is oppressive but it only comes to drive the passions in the individuals concerned when there is a paucity of spiritual resources sufficient to restrain them. There are many cultures in the world where people live in poverty but do not commit sins that affect their neighbors’ property or well being because the spiritual dimensions of their lives remain intact.

    Ghettos are places where lives, many of them innocent, are thrown away because those in power have no regard for what is being lost. I watched most of my generation, white and black alike, be swallowed whole by a social structure that first abandoned us to poor quality schools, unjust police practices, lack of religious education, et cetera. The daily assault on the souls of the children of the poor is real. A poor child starts out needy: perhaps hungry both for love and food; he grows without any spiritual consciousness. Unrestrained by any sort of parental supervision or knowledge of God, bombarded daily by need and violence in his environment as well as pornography and violence on television, in music, and in the media, he eventually slides into sin. Sin leads to greater sin. It is an ages old formula and one the Devil knows well.

    Msgr. pope does not tell us much about this particular parishioner. We don’t know, for example, if she has to fear for her life when she leaves her apartment or home to come to church. Are her words code for racism (hatred) or for fear? It is a bit difficult to “love thy neighbor” when he is standing at the end of a hallway waiting for you with a knife in his hand. Clearly, though, that is the context that Jesus was intending in his message to us.

    Jesus tells us that goodness and truth are more powerful than sin and that we should confront sin with love. I believe that. On the other hand, I am a practical man and I think Jesus was too. By the time a man arms himself with a weapon to take his brother’s property, he has fallen quite a bit under the influence of Satan. We have already failed to help him to confront his sin. We have already failed to love our brother, our neighbor, and his sin has grown so great that it has overwhelmed the man’s soul. After he has fallen, love him as much as you want, but I believe he will still take your property and may hurt you to boot. Fearing your neighbor in that event may serve not only to prolong your life but may also serve to prevent him from committing more sin.

    in this case, the parishioner in question may have been ever so much a loving and caring Christian but also may have been living in constant fear. Because of that fear, she may have also confused sin with race. I wonder if Msgr. Pope questioned her about HER conditions.

  14. Fr. Benedict Groeschel, in his book The Virtue Driven Life, makes a distinction between the virtue of religion, which is a part of the virtue of justice (including religious practices) and the theological virtue of faith. “All worship of God is not the same as the virtue of faith. Worship involves the virtue of religion, which is part of the virtue of justice.” This worldly religiosity is a natural foundation for the supernatural virtue of faith, but is not to be mistaken for faith, which is what Msgr’s example so clearly pointed out. To see us call ourselves Christian as we engage in pious practices yet show a lack of charity to our neighbor must give the devil such delight. Thanks for the excellent post!

  15. Re. Msgr’s first sentence: it is a pity that during a normal Mass nowadays, no holy water is sprinkled upon the people nor incense burnt. I have read many times that these actions relieve, to a good degree, the people of demonic oppression within the church’s confines. Opinions? I’m talking about unseen reality here, not mere poetics.

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