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Piety and Virtue

I should pray more.  And I definitely need to be a better person.

Since I am now a Catholic, I believe there is an important relationship between prayer and becoming a better person.  But as a Catholic, I don’t believe that becoming a better person is something that God will do in me without me.  I need to do my part.  My part is made possible by God’s grace, but the operations of God’s grace are not contrary to my free will, nor do they preclude my own efforts.  Grace, as Thomas Aquinas was fond of saying, does not violate nature but perfects it.

So I need to pray and work on developing the virtues.  They’re not mutually exclusive; they’re mutually inclusive.  You pray for more virtue. And if and when you feel a little of the freedom that comes with having developed the virtue, you turn your eyes to heaven like you were turning to address the doctor who just put your dislocated shoulder back into its socket, and you say, “Thank you, God.  That’s much better now.”

On the Catholic understanding of grace, it would be a mistake to imagine that I do something truly charitable, truly good, apart from God’s grace, such that I can turn to God and say, “See how good I am!  I did that!  You should show me some respect!”  This would be like a child who asks for money from his father to buy him a Father’s Day gift – then asking him for privileges because he bought his father a gift.  Everything we have we got from God.  What God wants in return is that we love our blessed, saintly mother and get along with our brothers and sisters.

And yet it would also be a mistake to imagine that we can depend on piety alone without virtue.  If you’re an alcoholic, you can’t say, “Well, I do the rosary every day, so I don’t need to go to AA meetings.”  That would be a big mistake.  People in AA know that their sobriety depends on a “higher power.” But they also know that they must do the work and go to meetings.  It’s not an either-or; it’s a both-and.

So too, it would be a mistake to imagine, “I have a deep devotion to Mary; I visit her shrine all the time; so I don’t need to work on my marriage.”  I am repeatedly saddened and confused when I see pious, devoted Catholics simply dump their spouse, saying little more than, “That just wasn’t working out,” or, “I wasn’t fulfilled in that relationship,” much the way any non-Catholic or non-Christian would.  Piety is no substitute for virtue.  Saying the rosary is great, but it makes no sense to say it and then abuse your employees or support abortion.  It’s like saying, “I love my mother” and then kicking her down the stairs.

It is classic among evangelicals to find someone who says he has “devoted his life to Jesus,” and who believes he has, but is still getting drunk and cheating on his wife. Just because a person has “given his life to Jesus” one day in an altar call doesn’t necessarily mean that all the temptations will miraculously go away or that now he will suddenly be caring and responsible in a way he never was before.

Read more at The Catholic Thing 

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