Barbarism Rising

The Black Hole Where Piety Used to Be

Anthony Mazzone


(Posted 12/15/09 It is mid-Lent sometime in the 1950’s. Deep within a large Eastern city early morning Mass is about to begin. The sanctuary bell rings and the priest enters with two altar boys. He places the sacred vessels on the altar and gets right down to business. There is no greeting of the people, never any eye contact. His movements are practiced, precise and quick. Those in the front pews can hear the whispered Latin phrases.

The congregation consists largely of elderly women dressed in black who continuously tell their beads. Scattered about are a few school children who try to follow along in their missals. Once in a while a huge workman enters. He kneels heavily, rolls up his sleeves, and remains absolutely still for the duration of Mass. Less often another fellow, better tailored, comes in. He favors lighting candles and stuffing money into the poor box but never stays for Mass.

Other scattered memories surface from around the same time: priests occasionally conversing in Latin, statues of saints carried in procession through the streets, every home having a crucifix on one of the walls and somewhere else a picture St Anthony. Once I was standing on some corner when the parish priest came hurrying by, black bag in hand. My friends and I weren’t accustomed to seeing Father outside of Church. We stared open-mouthed until a harsh whisper from a teenager startled us:Inginocchiati, stronzo!” “Kneel down, idiot!”

Reciting the Angelus at noon, making the Sign of the Cross when passing a church, keeping silent between one and three on Good Friday, having Masses said for deceased family members, naming one’s children after favorite saints: such customs were innumerable and rather instinctual, little things that came naturally simply from being Catholic. They signified continuity and stability and among us constituted a kind of common patois. This is what our parents and grandparents did; it was what we should do in reverence of their memory.

I can admit that this is to some extent an idealized portrait of the past, and will acknowledge that there is little merit in merely following custom without understanding or devotion. We can all recognize and reprobate those elements of hypocrisy, or worse superstition, that often infected many of these customs. Nevertheless there is no question that, when well ordered, works of popular piety are indications of spiritual health and of a robust Catholic culture.

So it is disheartening to recognize that the time of universal Latin Masses in cold churches, of fervent street processions, of fidelity to long standing customs has long since passed. No longer do we dwell in a world that takes outward expressions of religious faith for granted. Instead, sincere displays of piety are increasingly unwelcome in public and tolerated only as vague invocations of the deity on national holidays or, at most, charming vestiges of ethnic culture. We are all to some extent intimidated, if not cowed. And what are the chances these days of a young man, hanging in front of the pool hall, taking anyone to task for not kneeling as a priest passes by carrying the Sanctissimum?

In fact the term has been so inverted that to call someone “pious” today is practically to insult him, to intimate that he is ipso facto a hypocrite, likely ignorant and intolerant also. This is truly an inversion, for Piety is one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Aquinas tells us that it is the gift "whereby, at the Holy Spirit's instigation, we pay worship and duty to God as our Father."[1] It corresponds to the Cardinal Virtue of Justice and along with Fortitude and Fear of the Lord, directs the will towards God.

But we are a modern people and in our hubris and luxury have emphatically rejected this gift. We do not prize it because it will make nobody any money, and is suitable only for duds and flunkies. Could anyone say that dutiful respect and docility of soul are admired today? Rather the stylish masses prefer to revel in gross confrontation and ugly “attitude.”

Lack of reverence toward the past, disrespect for what has been handed down, disdain for the virtue of humility, outright revulsion toward the compliant fulfillment of duties—simply a revolt from piety—is the acid bath of modernity.

We all experience the corrosive effects in our daily lives. The most noticeable symptom is that coarseness of language and rudeness of behavior are ubiquitous, and tolerated. Turn on the TV, listen to the radio and the crassness seems to get worse every day. Not even the most insular among us can escape the relentless onslaught of advertising: the primary outlet for creativity in our time. It is literally borne on the air, thrust into our faces, rammed into our ears. It aims not at enlightenment or elevation of mind but instead suborns the artistic talents for the purposes of manipulation. In the world of marketing value is not measured by intrinsic worth but by the possibility of profit; absolutely nothing is sacred or beyond exploitation. Advertising touches everything and trivializes everything it touches.

How is it possible then for modern man to sustain a healthy spiritual balance, a personal decorum, when his senses are constantly under assault, when the means of modern communication exist not to inform but to propagandize? How does he maintain emotional equilibrium when his appetites are artificially stimulated or his moral composure when his culture has proudly moved beyond the very concept of good and evil? Why should he value the continuity when all about him novelty trumps experience and new sensations are eagerly substituted for wisdom? It’s no wonder that mental illnesses and social pathologies of all kinds have reached unprecedented levels.

But it is this same frazzled modern man—partitioned from his past, morally undisciplined, infantilized by Big Brother—who now constitutes the basic unit of society. Cascading political and social revolutions have stripped from him the protection of mediating institutions such as family, clan, guild, or church. He stands, very much by design, defenseless against the naked power of a secular and increasingly oppressive state. As he represents no family or people but himself, his power is limited to a single expression of opinion among millions of others, all of equal weight and value. In a world where statistical equality is more sacred than merit, even the most accomplished will often find themselves on the wrong end of the equation.

Having effectively corralled the individual, impiety sets out on its Gramscian march through the culture. Secondary schools, which should transmit and reinforce traditional values, now take it as their primary duty to question and destroy them. Our once great universities have long since divorced themselves from the wisdom of the Faith; any confession of objective truth is deemed prejudicial and exclusionary. They celebrate doubt as a virtue and foster a narrow rationalism that serves to cheapen rather than to edify the life of the mind. A few hours spent on almost any campus will show that there is no institutional acknowledgement of moral value, or any expectation that students will observe standards of virtuous excellence in personal behavior. What a student must do is express the prevailing political and social opinions and jump through the various administrative loops. Finally and briefly the modern arts, again to the extent that they are divorced from objective standards of beauty and truth and freed from the restraint imposed by virtue, do not serve to ennoble, enlighten and please, but to manipulate the emotions and corrupt the imagination.

The decline in mores is mirrored in the public spheres of life. Even our currency, supported by nothing of objective value, is proving to be hollow while the art of statesmanship has fallen into cliché and naked ambition. So great is the coarsening and distortion of the contemporary moral sense that a puritanical fury will be directed at a public figure, not because he lacks any vestige of traditional Christian morality, but because he may have expressed the tiniest bit of political incorrectness. Over and over again we see that a public figure will inevitably be excoriated for something as trivial as a dumb ethnic joke, for example, but will get a pass for serial fornication, adultery, divorce, advocacy of abortion, or culpable financial mismanagement. A bishop may in effect deny the Virgin Birth or the Real Presence; he may turn his cathedral into a circus, protect perverts, or bankrupt his diocese and still remain in a “regular” relationship to the Church. But let a doctrinally orthodox bishop utter a mistaken opinion on a matter of history and howls of fury erupt from around the world, meriting repeated official apologies and justifications.

I can’t help but imagine that this absurd state of affairs would shock the moral sensibilities of thoughtful pagans. Cicero, unlike any contemporary leader I could name, understood that “Piety is the foundation of all the other virtues.”[2] The more enlightened of the virtuous ancients cherished the notion of “dutifulness.” This ideal encompassed patriotism and religious devotion and was characterized by respect for the order of society and diligent fulfillment of one’s obligations toward it. They venerated and tried to imitate models of moral rectitude. The Roman historian Tacitus writes of his father-in-law, the general Agricola:

Let us honour thee not so much with transitory praises as with our reverence, and, if our powers permit us, with our emulation[3]

The iconic image of pietas in the Western world is the Trojan hero Aeneas. He is depicted by Virgil [4] as escaping from burning Troy with his son in tow and bearing his aged father Anchises (who carries the household gods) on his back.

Come then, dear father, clasp my neck: I will carry you on my shoulders: that task won’t weigh on me.

Whatever may happen, it will be for us both, the same shared risk, and the same salvation.. . ..(trans. A.S. Kline)

The noble Roman was one who showed reverence toward his ancestors and faithfully fulfilled his duties to gods, country, and family. In fact, so high was the regard for this virtue that many of the Emperors, beastly in other respects, strove to create a public image of themselves as pious rulers. The emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161) is still celebrated for his eponymous distinguishing virtue. He combined personal simplicity with a high and noble conception of his office, and governed to the best of his ability with prudence and magnanimity.[5]

At one time, too, the heroes Americans admired most were distinguished by their reverence for duty, their conscious fidelity to home and ancestors. It was not long ago that citizens from all regions esteemed Robert E. Lee as the model of national piety, the American Aeneas. He was extolled as the supreme example of a man unswervingly faithful to his duties and just to his subordinates, one who conducted all his affairs, personal and public, with unfailing honor. Lee viewed with horror the very thought of ever being found unworthy of his distinguished ancestors. As he said, “Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character.” He recognized, as did the wider culture until recently, that virtue is the expression of an “energetic manliness.”[6]

These examples lead to one more consideration: the gift of piety consecrates the natural virtues to a noble end. It is the alchemy that transmutes our baser intentions into gold of a spiritual kind. Without piety a man’s boldness in bombast, his largeness of mind is temerarious opinion. Even his generosity stings as a humiliation to its recipients.

Through a confluence of circumstances as outlined above, society throughout the West now recoils from notions of manliness and personal honor as Lee understood them.[7] The contemporary mentality finds simply incomprehensible any idea that a person has role-based duties imposed on him by history. This is a dangerous and unsustainable attitude, for Justice requires that God be rendered His due.

Keep ye my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary. I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:30)

Man has an innate capacity for reverence and a corresponding need to express it. But having lost sight of Almighty God’s greatness:Thou thoughtest unjustly that I should be like to thee (Psalm 50:21)

and being steeped in what is foul and petty, he can only manufacture caricatures of piety. By now we all must have encountered someone who is scrupulous in recycling his trash (after all, he has a planet to save), or who ostentatiously basks in the moral superiority of having bought a Prius. He will express fealty to New Age ideological movements and devotion to ersatz political messiahs. Though this is in reality pathetic, Leviathan will smile approvingly on the recycler and reward him with tax breaks. But for the Christian who is punctilious in obeying—however imperfectly—the Ten Commandments, there will be at best condescension.

The Christian can live with this. But it does get worse for he finds that the modern world, while tolerating no dissent from its own approved orthodoxies, with impunity misappropriates the pieties and signs of his faith. His religion is mocked when the most sacred symbol of Jesus’ redeeming love for man, the crucifix, is sold as a fashion accessory. His heritage is debased when Gregorian Chant is used to sell toilets. His sensibilities are offended whenever municipalities advertise “First Friday” as an opportunity for late shopping.

So devoid of the support that even a vaguely Christian culture once provided, senses assaulted by ubiquitous disorder, out of place in a world that debases the symbols of his faith, the Catholic turns to his pastors. After all it was not long ago that a healthier Church would stigmatize certain teachings via various theological censures. Propositions were styled “offensive to pious ears” if they merely disturbed the delicacy of faith. It was a Church that was jealous in defending the symbols of itself and the prerogatives of its people.

But he has found that the shepherds are somewhere on sabbatical and the defenders of the faith on hiatus. Where once he could at least find within the walls of the Church some measure of serenity, he now enters to see that the buildings have been crudely modernized, a showcase for the tawdry, the rituals within seemingly run by lunatics.

It must be said: our beloved Church fails in her sanctifying mission whenever she curtails her public teaching office, whenever—whether out of human respect, fear, or sloth—she refrains from criticism of corrupt arts, fashions, and public policies. When a priest pays more attention to animating the assembly than offering sacrifice, Catholic pietas is violated. When seminarians are not taught to know and reverence their past, the labors of our fathers in the Faith are devalued. An injustice is done to the rights of God whenever His public worship encompasses novelty, self-aggrandizement, and aesthetic shoddiness. Finally we cannot fail to acknowledge that we who are the Church militant often and with little regret acquiesce in the same disorders.

I am writing these words at the close of the Christmas season, on the great feast of the Purification of Mary. As a meditation on the true spirit of piety consider that the most pure Virgin Mary, by virtue of her sinless nature, had no need of ritual purification and that Our Lord, by virtue of His Divine Nature, did not require formal introduction into the house of God. Nevertheless, 40 days after the Virgin birth the Holy Family humbly submitted to the Mosaic dispensation. Picture Joseph the just man, the pure Theotokos, and the Sun of Justice offering their poor sacrifice of two doves. The incandescent humility of the Holy Family, the beauty of their radiant piety, forevermore illuminates all humanity’s poor and subsequent imitations.

And evidently great is the mystery of godliness, which was manifested in the flesh. (I Tim. 3:16)

Most Catholics have seen the heraldic symbol of the pelican, which is sometimes called “pelican-in-her-piety.” It is most commonly shown vuning itself: that is, the pelican uses her curved beak to wound her breast, drawing blood with which to feed her young. It is an ancient and beautiful Christian symbol of the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the spiritual nourishment provided by the Most Precious Blood.

The legend is invoked by Shakespeare:

And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican
Repast them with my blood.

Thomas Aquinas sings of the pelican in the hymn Adoro Te Devote. One stanza is here translated by another great priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what Thy bosom ran
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win

All the world forgiveness of its world of sin

A deteriorating culture requires the purification of the present time by the power of our piety.

Let works of piety, therefore, be our delight, and let us be filled with those kinds of food which feed us for eternity.[9]

So while the past is retrospectively graced with our veneration, let hidden good works serve to detoxify the present. May our quiet suffrages nourish, as would the pelican-in-her-piety, a future that is congenial to silent early morning Latin Masses, one in which workmen will roll up their sleeves to pray and even racketeers light candles to a higher power.

[1]  Summa Theologiae, II.ii. q. 121.

[2] De Re Publica, VI, I, vi.

[3] The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola, 46.

[4] Aeneid 2.721.

[5] In his Meditations, Pius’ adopted son Marcus Aurelius writes: “In my father I observed mildness of temper, and unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation; and no vainglory in those things which men call honours; and a love of labour and perseverance; and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common weal. . .” I, 16 trans George Long.

[6]  Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, Washington D.C., Regnery Gateway, 1991 Third Edition, p. 99.

[7] Lee had a singular life-long devotion to the Guardian Angels. When not yet four years old, financial distress led his family to leave his birthplace at Stratford Hall Plantation. At moving time he could not be found. He was finally located in front of the fireplace in the nursery. The fireplace in this room has an iron fireback on which are embossed two angels. The child told his parents that he did not want to leave without saying goodbye to his angels.

[8] Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V.

[9] Sermon XL: on Lent II.