Piety the Just Gift
by Mary Lanser
St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, teaches that the gift of piety perfects the virtue of justice. This synergistic relationship between piety and justice comes down to us through the ages from both classical ethics and Christian morality, although the interaction is distinctly different in each system respectively.
Socrates, in his dialogue with Euthyphro, turns his entire argument on the virtue of piety in itself. The discussion of piety in itself, as opposed to pious things, finally helps us to realize that there is indeed a middle ground between relativistic justice, and justice as a rigid universal moral virtue with respect to one's duty to the gods and family and state. [Plato] There is a natural balance in a good life that is pleasing to the gods and that keeps man, his family and his community from tearing apart from the stresses of polarized extremes.
So we can say that justice as an acquired or natural virtue often concerns keeping the passions in check so that we do not allow baser instincts to blind us to what is right and what is true in any situation requiring that we choose or discriminate among various thoughts, words or deeds. In this way piety, as a known duty to ones gods, family and country, encourages or promotes just words and deeds.
St. Peter of Damaskos cites St. Dionysios the Areopagite, in The Divine Names as saying that God is praised through justice. [The Divine Names VIII, 7, P.G.iii, 893D] And St. Peter says that this is indeed true because “...justice is sometimes called discrimination: it establishes the just mean in every undertaking, so that there will be no falling short...or excess.” [Philokalia, Vol. 3, p.258] In this understanding of justice, it also appears that balance is a desirous outcome for the two virtues of piety and justice.
However we must remember that Plato's gods warred among themselves, and visited evil upon mankind, and unjustly abused mankind, as often as they bestowed goodness. In Plato's world the gods were the source of both good and evil. In the world of classical Greek and Rome, a balanced life hopes to mark out a path between most unforgiving extremes of good and evil, justice and injustice, piety and impiety.
However, for St. Dionysios, as it is for all Christians, God is the source of all goodness. God is never seen as the source of evil at all, in any form or fashion. Balance is not at all the desired outcome of leading a virtuous life in Christian terms. The desired outcome for a Christian life quite simply put is the beatific vision. So that all that we do and all that we are must be directed toward that end, by faith, in the hope that we may be granted the grace of union with the divine and the beatific vision.
In The Divine Names, St. Dionysios said:
Again the title Righteousness is given to God because he assigns what is appropriate to all things; He distributes their due proportion, beauty, rank, arrangement, their proper and fitting place and order according to a most just and righteous determination. He is the cause of their individual activity. It is the righteousness of God which orders everything...it gives the appropriate and deserved qualities to everything and that it preserves the nature of each being in its due order and power. [The Divine Names, VIII, 7]Rather than seeking a life in balance, the Christian seeks to discover the right order in Creation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the guidance of Scripture and life in the Body of Christ, the Church. It is the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our lives that makes it possible for us to be able to discern rightly, to comprehend revealed truth, and to live lives of self-discipline and self-control. It is in this way that the fathers and the tradition of the Church can teach that “piety perfects justice.” Without the divine grace to obtain perfect justice or what is also called infused justice, then we would never be able to even begin to see Creation as God see is. We would never begin to be able to have a creatures share in the divine life.
"God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (Gal 4:6). "All who are led by the Spirit are children of God... It is that very Spirit bearing witness to our spirit that we are children of God" (Rm 8:14, 16). The words of the Apostle Paul remind us that the fundamental gift of the Spirit is sanctifying grace (gratia gratum faciens), with which we receive the theological virtues—faith, hope and charity—and all the infused virtues (virtutes infusae), which enable us to act under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Unlike the charisms, which are bestowed for the service of others, these gifts are offered to all, because they are intended to lead the person to sanctity and perfection. [JPII, "Letter to Priests, For Holy Thursday" 1998]
Piety does not merely influence or prompt justice or set a balanced path between two extremes. Piety perfects justice in that it divinely empowers us to discern what God intends as the right order of all Creation. The ability to turn our will to the rightly ordered divine will is the hoped for result of the perfection of justice. It is the purpose of the divine gift of piety or reverence that we have the necessary spiritual tools that will enable us to know the mind of God, for as we read in the book of the Prophet Isaiah 5:20 "Woe to those who call evil good, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter."
To quote from Luke 18 (Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition):
2...There was a judge in a certain city, who feared not God, nor regarded man. 3 And there was a certain widow in that city, and she came to him, saying: Avenge me of my adversary. 4 And he would not for a long time. But afterwards he said within himself: Although I fear not God, nor regard man,5 Yet because this widow is troublesome to me, I will avenge her, lest continually coming she weary me. 6 And the Lord said: Hear what the unjust judge saith. 7 And will not God revenge his elect who cry to him day and night: and will he have patience in their regard? 8 I say to you, that he will quickly revenge them. But yet the Son of man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that it is possible for any of us at all to have faith. God, the Just Judge, has given us all that we need to attain the ultimate end of every soul in everlasting life, a share in the divine life in the presence of the beatific vision. Such a sublime justice!! Glory to God for all things!