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The Life of Virtue - Piety

Saturday, July 18, 2009

If religion is the virtue of giving God his due then what, we might ask, is piety? This is a bit of a trick question, because when St Thomas talks about piety, he is not thinking principally of our relationship with God, but of that with our parents and our country. For him, it is filial piety and patriotism that are the fundamental forms of this virtue, which is associated with giving what is due (hence its association with justice) to those from whom we derive our existence.

Obviously, in common parlance piety does generally refer to religious devotion, giving due service to God, and for St Thomas this is an appropriate analogy, because clearly if honour is due to our parents as the origin of our being, it is due all the more so to God, who is the source of our being in a far more fundamental way (and it is in this sense, of course, that we refer to God as ‘Our Father’). Our dependence on God, though, is of such a different order that the virtue of acting in an appropriate relation to him has a separate identity (the virtue of religion), and it is only by analogy that we call it piety.

So what does the practice of this virtue involve? Basically, it demands that we give what is due to our parents (and, by extension, our family and society), and that this is not merely in terms of honour, but also of material support where needed: indeed, we find that the demands of piety are significant enough to be expressed in the fourth commandment, ‘honour your father and your mother’ (Deut 5: 16). Thus, the exercise of this virtue entails a realisation that, as human beings, we necessarily exist in relation to others: we are not completely isolated individuals, but people with parents who brought us into the world, and a native society in which we grew up (except in very rare cases). Put in terms of the virtue of justice, by our very existence (which we owe to others) we contract debts we can never fully repay. This too we clearly see to a pre-eminent degree in our relation to God, and so again we see the analogical relationship between our duty of honour and support to our earthly parents and that of service to our Father in heaven.

Gregory Pearson OP


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