The Problem with Piety

I had a recent discussion where in someone suggested that “shouldn’t priests be more pious [than the laity]?” It was specifically related to external works of piety.

There is something of a common belief that being more pious involves more external, visible signs of piety. More genuflections, more kneeling at the right (or even the wrong) times, more signs of the cross, and so on. But where in this piety is there a place for going into your inner room, shutting the door, and praying to God in secret?

It must first be clear that the issue is not with physical gestures. Those are simply the regular Catholic trappings of this mentality (for the Protestant it would be quoting more Bible verses, being seen with your Bible, wearing the latest Christian t-shirt, whatever). Physical actions have their rightful place in the Christian life.

The problem is when we come to being ‘more pious’ and making sure it is known that we are. It is quite easy to build a ‘hierarchy of piety’ using a vast collection of shibboleths: proper hand posture during the “Our Father,” bowing the head at the name of Jesus, genuflecting before receiving communion, etc. To be properly pious I have to assimilate all the correct moves and then display them. If I miss one (assuming the orans position during the Our Father when not a priest, for example) then I stand out as improperly pious.

The inverse of this is the real danger. The ‘proper’ positions are very often positions that are outside the liturgical norms. The current edition of the GIRM in the United States establishes that one makes a bow of the head before receiving communion (not a genuflection, nor a ‘hey Jesus, what’s up?’ nod). When one insists on making a genuflection it is not simply a reflection or personal beliefs, but a declaration to the masses (intentional or not) that ‘I am more pious than you.’

This is essentially the opposite of what Jesus demands in the Sermon on the Mount. The world is to see our holiness by the way we live, not by our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, all of which are to be done in secret. Further, in the same sermon Jesus instructs us to pray “Our Father.” We are in communion, the one body of Christ, weeping together and rejoicing together.

The problem with ‘piety’ is that it very obviously sets an individual apart from the rest. The ‘pious’ person often wants to be seen, not necessarily because he wants to be remembered for being pious (but one can hardly doubt most of fallen humanity is immune to such a desire) but because he wants to remind, instruct, or admonish. But the foundation is still the same: standing out in the crowd, being different than the mass of so-so Christians. The liturgy calls us to not stand out, to be one with the body of Christ, to forgo the super-individuality of today’s Culture and enter into the life of the Pierced One. ‘Piety’ impedes that and seeks to place me before him.

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