What is Piety? And How Does a Lack of Piety Spell Doom for Us?

In the modern world the word “piety” has come to be associated with being religious. And while it does have religious application, its original meaning was far wider and richer. The English word “piety” comes from the Latin pietas, which spoke of family love, and by extension love for one’s ancestors,  of one’s country, and surely of God. Cicero defined pietas as the virtue “which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations.”

For the ancient Romans piety was one of the highest virtues since it was the virtue that knit families and ultimately all society together in love, loyalty and a shared, reciprocal duty. Piety also roots us in our past and gave proper reverence to our ancestors.

I hope you can see how essential piety is and why, if we do not recapture it more fully in the modern world, our culture is likely doomed. Piety is like a glue that holds us together. Without its precious effects, we fall apart into factions, our families dissolve, and the “weave” of our culture gives way to tear and dry rot.

Recently over at the Catholic Education Resource Center Donald Demarco (Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell CT) wrote some helpful reflections on Piety. I’d like to share some excerpts here, the full article is HERE.

“Piety,” said Cicero, “is justice toward the gods,” and “the foundation of all virtues.” By extension, piety is the just recognition of all we owe to our ancestors. [Thus], the basis of piety is the sober realization that we owe our existence and our substance to powers beyond ourselves. We are social, communal beings. We are not islands; we are part of the mainland…..

“Greatness” is never a purely individual accomplishment. Its roots are always in others and in times past….Our beginning coincides with a debt. Piety requires us to be grateful to those who begot us. It also evokes in us a duty to give what we have so that we can give to our descendents as our ancestors gave to us. [And] Piety, by honoring what poured out from the past to become our own living substance, enlarges and enriches us. It disposes us to give thanks and to live in such a manner that we ourselves may one day become worthy objects for the thanks of others.

Piety was a favorite virtue of Socrates. Far from considering himself a self-made man….[he] gave full credit for whatever civility he enjoyed to those who preceded him. Ralph Waldo Emerson, by contrast, America’s head cheerleader for the man of self-reliance, spoke of “the sovereign individual, free, self-reliant, and alone in his greatness.” Emerson’s belief in the “greatness” of the individual is a dangerous illusion. It is a presumption that naturally leads to pride.

The great enemy of piety is individualism. Individualism is the illusion that we are somehow self-made, self-reliant, and self-sufficient. It is essentially an anti-social form of thinking that belongs to Nietzsche, Rousseau, Sartre, and Ayn Rand rather than to Socrates, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution.

The soul of individualism is unfettered choice. Abortion, for example, is presumed to be a private affair. Magically, as its advocates allege, it affects neither the child, its father, the family, nor society…. “Individuality” is the result of a fall from grace. Adam and Eve behaved as persons until sin reduced them to individuals. As individuals, they began lusting after each other. The aprons of fig leaves they fashioned indicated that they were profoundly ashamed of their new identities as self-centered and self-absorbed individuals.

Yes, individualism leaves us largely closed in our self and pathetically self-conscious.

So many of our struggles in this modern era center on a loss of piety, a loss of love and duty owed to our families, community, Church and nation. Our families and our duties to them and the wider community are sacrificed on the “altar” of self-love and self-aggrandizement. Divorce and cohabitation stab at the heart of families ties and family loyalty. We indulge our sexual passions and selfishly cling to our supposed right to be happy at high cost of a devastated family structure, and a heavy-laden community. Church and nation, that are somehow supposed to carry the weight of our imprudent and selfish choices. We speak incessantly of rights but almost never of duties.  Love of me, and what I “owe myself” is alive and well, but love and duty toward family, Church, community, and nation has grown cold. “I gotta be me” results in many, very small and competing worlds.

Further,  Our modern and post-Cartesian era is mired in a “hermeneutic of discontinuity.” That is to say, we have significantly cut our ties with the past. Our ancestors, and antiquity have little to say to us since we have closed our eyes and ears to them. The “Democracy of the Dead,” as Chesterton called tradition, has been cut off by the “Berlin Wall” of modern pride. Our love and respect for our ancestors and the duty we have to honor their wisdom is, to a large extent, gone. We largely see ourselves as “come of age” and are arrogantly dismissive of past ages. As such our continuity with our ancestors and with the wisdom they accumulated is ruptured, and our mistakes are both predictable and often downright silly. As we indulge our passions, and are largely lacking in self-control, we who pride ourselves as “come of age” look more like silly and immature teenagers, than the technical titans we boast of being. It is one thing to go to the moon, it is another to wisely accept need to learn from the past.

Some will like to emphasize the errors of the past, such as slavery, in order to dismiss it. But this misses the point that we learn, not only from the good things of the past, but also from the errors of the past. I learned as much from my parents’ struggles as from their strengths. We do not honor our ancestors because they are perfect. Rather we honor the collected wisdom they have handed on to us, some of which was discovered in the cauldron of struggle and sin.

Finally, the loss of piety also means the significant loss of learning. Without the respect and honor of our parents, teachers and ancestors, there can be no learning. If I do not respect you I cannot learn from you. It is no surprise that in our current American culture, which often celebrates youthful rebellion, that learning, tradition and faith are in a grave crisis. Teachers in classrooms spend so much time in discipline that there is little quality learning time. Parents, whose children are often taught by popular music and television that “adults are stupid” and “out of touch” give little thought to dismissing their parents wisdom. Where there is no respect, there can be no learning.

It is no surprise that the opening commandment of the second table of the Law is “Honor your Father and Your Mother that you may have long life in the land.” For God knows well that if a generation lacks piety, it severs itself from no only from worldly tradition but also from Sacred Tradition. Without reverence, without piety, there is no learning and there is no faith. We are cut off from the glorious wisdom God entrusted to our ancestors. It is no wonder that, in these largely impious and individualistic times,  faith is considered irrelevant to many and the Churches are increasingly empty.

Pray for piety. Pray for the gift of strong and abiding love for your family, for Church, for community and nation. Pray too for a deep love and respect for the ancestors who have gone before us, stretching back into antiquity. We owe a great debt to our family, nation, Church and ancestors. They have much to teach us, not only by their strengths, but also by their struggles. Scripture says,  Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith (Heb 13:7).

This song is rooted in Hebrews 12:1-3 and the opening lines say, We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord! We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Let us stand worthy and be faithful to God’s call. The photos in this video are from the clerestory walls of my own parish, showing the saints in the “cloud of witnesses.”

23 Replies to “What is Piety? And How Does a Lack of Piety Spell Doom for Us?”

  1. Wonderful reflection Msgr. You are absolutely correct that “piety” is an orphaned term in our modern lexicon. The libertarian right over-emphasizes the importance of “individual freedom”, especially in areas that relate what they might term, “victimless crimes” (e.g. legalizing drugs, prostitution, pornography, and euthanasia). While the progressive left, has a utopian mindset that tramples over the person’s inalienable rights, in pursuit correcting some perceived societal injustice, using the lever of big government (e.g. the President’s HHS mandate, trumping religious liberty).

    Piety, and a vibrant God fearing culture, requires solidarity. Solidarity is learned in the home first. It is the family where the “person” is formed, and the “individual” is made to heel.

  2. I just got back from a spiritual retreat and one of the subtopics ironicly was piety. Many of your reflections if not all are correct. Let me just add that many in our world do not have the Godly model that you list in this reflection. So the question still remains. How can ALL OBTAIN PIETY? the answer is not long and complicated, it is very simple. LOVE. God’s love. Receiving God’s love produces authentic piety regardless of family circumstances, war torn countries or moral decline. Love. Love is the beginning of piety.

    1. I work in a prison with many people who lack the circumstances where piety is taught. Oftentimes these families are places where the human person must separate him/herself from in order to heal. Through baptism and conversion, the Church becomes the “family,” the place where “original sin” is dissolved and we have the opportunity to be “born again” into a new family, the family of God, to learn and heal. What a great gift. We can all obtain piety through the family of God where we belong, but only if the family is open to welcoming the poor, the broken, the tatooed, the pierced, the inappropriate, the unschooled, the searcher…may we work at loving all members of the family and reaching out with the Spiritual and Corporeal works of Mercy in our parishes.

  3. Thanks for the reminder.

    I remember reading Pacem in Terris in the wild days of the 60’s where everyone was focused on rights. Of course in those days, as today, it meant the right to do wrong in many cases. Duties was a word lost from our social consciousness. But, as usual, the voice of the Church, in this case Pope John 23rd, came forth with the truth. That encyclical had an effect on me which lasts until this day. Those of you who have not read it, really should. It inspires and is still timely.

    From Pacem in Terris, 1963

    “All of humanity was created in God’s own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26.) and endowed with intelligence and freedom and give power over the earth. We were also given free will along with certain rights and duties.”

    “Each person has the right to life and the means necessary to live their life. In addition, all of humanity has a natural right to be respected, to worship God, to live their life as they choose, to work and support a family, to form associations, to emigrate, and to take an active role in public life. All people also have the duty to preserve their life, to respect the rights of others, work together for the common good, and maintain an attitude of responsibility.”

  4. It’s seems strange that with all that “choice” the only one without a choice it the baby. He/she is always killed.
    Thanks for the reminder of the importance of piety.

  5. I would very much like to learn from my ancestors and my heritage, but my family never talks about such things. My family is so dysfunctional, each member is only interested in their own suffering and pain, no room for anybody else. My mom is in pain from her mom focusing on HER pain and not my moms, so my mom had and has no notion of duty. My dad is so focused on is own gratification, anything outside of his immediate consciousness doesn’t exist. I wish we could all heal, but it is doutful. How could I possibly learn anything about my heritage when we can’t get out of the present?

      1. NRR…your heritage is of God. As a Christian you are an heir of God, a co-heir of Christ. Your true heritage is within the Church and we are your sisters and brothers. Remember the Lord’s words and make them your own, “Who is my Mother and Brothers: He who hears and does the Word of God.”

  6. No offence Mgnr. but as soon as you started quoting someone who quotes the godless…..well, I am outa here.

    1. Oh please. Christians have been quoting philosphers to support Christian teaching since the late first
      century. See the writings of the Christian convert-philospher Justin Martyr circa AD 100. The ancient
      philosphers point out the goodness, truth, and beauty in the natural world and these are
      hallmarks of the true God’s creation, especially the desire he implanted in every soul to
      reach our for him. They may not have hit the mark but they were moving in the right direction.

      1. If God wants all men to be saved (and He does), we believe He’s given all men a portion of the truth. Perhaps we can learn something from them.

  7. One of our former bishops said he did not like personal peity. I now know why.

  8. Monsignor, don’t liberals have a sense of piety? Don’t they have a sense of duty towards human beings and towards the environment? Don’t they pay tribute to the likes of Frederick Douglaas, Martin Luther King Jr,Galileo, Susan B. Anthony, and those who defended Alfred Dreyfus?

  9. Pardon the spamming, but I sincerely hope that I couched my comment in much more respectful terms this time.

  10. Great piece! I forwarded to my 17 year old son and 16 year old nephew. Will send it to my 27 year old Randian nephew too. One thinks too of the eptithet for Aeneas: “Pius Aeneas.” Thus, piety is the foundational virture of the founding hero of Rome.

  11. An excellent article! I totally agree with you, Msgr. Pope, losing piety means the possibility of losing our culture. Piety is demanding and not easy, and therefore not popular. At asks us to be our genuine selves.

  12. I’m sorry, but a contributor to our culture’s loss of piety (a diagnosis I am in complete agreement with), is that too many of our priests are more comfortable with phrases like “hermeneutic of continuity” than “Jesus loves me, this I know, ‘Cause the Bible tells me so”. Piety was always a simple virtue, mostly practiced by simple people. Our striving for sophistication has not helped us.

    1. What an odd comment. I guess you are equating piety with merely religious sentiment, which is precisely one thing the article is at pains to show is a reduction. Your opposing of intellectual tradition and piety is neither helpful nor pious.

  13. You mistake me. I do not confuse piety with religious sentiment. I believe piety to be grounded in the human cry: “Lord, help me in my unbelief”. That we have a hermeneutic of discontinuity abroad in the land is inarguable, I grant you. But piety was never based in the theology schools (though certainly we would like it there), piety was always strongest in the working, failing, sinning and confessing “common” people. These people have, strangely, lost it. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is these people have been preached to by priests so “well-educated” that they believe the “common” man needs to hear of the deep perceptions of Lonergan or Heidegger or whoever. Ah, but now I’m going further in my problems with how we make priests these days and that, I am sure, is beyond my purview.

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