The Deadly Sin of Pride and Its Healing

06-18-2023Weekly Reflection

The nature of pride

Pride is a sin of the spirit, which in itself is less shameful and less degrading than sins of the flesh, but is much more serious than they (though they are also "mortal sins"[1]), since it distances us much more and diametrically from God (S. Th., I-II, q. 73, a. 5). Carnal sins are not found in the devil, who is a pure spirit and was damned by his pride, which prompted him to cry out "non serviam!" (“I will not serve!”) Divine Revelation very often repeats that pride is the principle of every other sin (Eccli., X, 15), since it excludes any true and healthy relationship with God, that is, the submission of the person created to the Creator. Therefore, it interrupts all our relationship with God and irreparably separates us from Him. Even original sin was a sin of pride (S. Th., I-II, q. 84, a. 2), that is, wanting to “be like God” (Gen., III, 5) and claiming for oneself the "knowledge of good and evil" (Gen., III, 6), in order to be able to rule himself without being submissive to anyone, not even to God.

NOTE: [1] Not all mortal sins are equally serious. In fact, they are - more or less - serious, depending on how far they move away from right reason. The gravity of sin varies according to their object, i.e. whether the sin is committed against something, someone, or God. Furthermore, the gravity of the sin also varies according to the dignity of the virtues it goes against. Therefore, sins of the flesh are of greater infamy, but are inferior to sins of the spirit (S. Th., I-II, q. 73, aa. 2- 5). Right reason is the operative principal that permits a person to exercise his faith and overcome temptation. Christ is closely identified with right reason and properly so since he uses his right reason to meet the temptations of Satan.

St. Thomas Aquinas (S. Th., II-II, q. 162, a. 8 ad 1um) explains that pride is more than a capital/deadly sin, in fact it is the source and root of all capital/deadly sins and above all of vainglory, which is one of its first effects. The exact definition of pride is quite difficult, since it is opposed, not only to humility, but also, to magnanimity or greatness of soul. Now, we must be very careful not to confuse greatness of soul with pride or even confuse humility with timidity, which unfortunately is quite frequent. The humble soul must have a noble and great soul, that is, it must humbly tend to do great things. St. Thomas helps us a lot to discern humility from pride, timidity, and greatness of soul. Pride is defined by Aquinas as disordered love of one's own excellence. Indeed, the proud would like to appear superior to what he really is. Think narcissism. It can be directed towards sensible goods, for instance, one who is puffed up by his physical strength. It is also found in the will, when it tends towards spiritual or spiritual qualities, for example, intellectual and spiritual pride. In this second case our intellect concentrates, more than necessary, on our qualities and the deficiencies of others and goes so far as to magnify the miseries of others to appear to rise above them.

As can be seen, pride is very different from greatness of soul: for example, a soldier must ardently desire the victory of his country, however, the proud man, in disordered fashion, seeks his own excellence. That is why pride is represented by a blindfold placed over the eyes. In fact, it prevents us from "seeing" or rather knowing the reality, both with regard to God, whose infinite greatness is denied, and with regard to our neighbor, whose qualities we cannot bear, especially with regard to superiors in refusing to accept their authority. In short, pride blinds us.

The various forms of pride

St. Gregory the Great (Moralia, XXIII, chap. 5) enumerates various degrees of pride: 1°) belief that what we have received from God comes from us; 2°) belief that we deserve that which comes purely from God’s mercy; 3°) attributing to ourselves virtues that we do not have; 4°) despising others and claiming to be better than they and, therefore, to prefer ourselves to them. The maximum degree of pride is that of Lucifer: one that claims to equal God. However, this degree is very rare in an explicit way. However, if in theory, we recognize that God is our Creator and we are his creatures, in practice, we often overestimate ourselves, as if we were the authors of the qualities God has given us. This is a form of pelagianism : the heresy that we save ourselves by our own efforts and excellence. Thus we exaggerate our few qualities and close our eyes to our many flaws. All of this inadvertently but inevitably leads us to prefer ourselves to others and to despise them, just as the Pharisee who went up to the Temple to pray did nothing but praise himself, despised the publican and thought nothing of praising God (Lk., XVIII, 10 ss .). These faults of pride, which are initially venial, can become fatal if they lead us to commit reprehensible acts.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (De gradibus humilitatis, chap. X) lists twelve degrees of pride: 1°)sinful curiosity investigating dangerous things 2°) out of place jocularity or sadness; 3°) always silly; 4°) haughtiness; 5°) arrogance; 6°) presumption; 7th) obstinacy in not wanting to acknowledge one's wrongs; 8°) denying and hiding one's faults and mistakes; 9°) constant rebelliousness 10°) unbridled freedom or licentiousness; 11°) the habit of sinning to the point of wanting to despise God to justify one's disordered life; 12°) self-importance and the desire to be outside of any rule.

Very dangerous is intellectual pride and even more spiritual pride. In fact, it can lead us not to accept the traditional interpretation of the dogmas of the Catholic Faith, to weaken them, or even deform them, to make them more acceptable to the needs of the spirit of the contemporary world. In others, pride can produce a stubborn attachment to one's own opinions to the point of not even wanting to listen to the arguments of the opposing party. Finally, there are some who are in truth, so full of themselves and satisfied with their speculative knowledge, that they forget that they owe all they have received to God. Now, if one is full of himself, how can he receive the grace of God? This intellectual and spiritual pride is an insurmountable obstacle to saving grace.

The defects that arise from pride The first degree of pride is presumption, which consists in the disordered desire to do things that are beyond one's strength (S. Th., II-II, q. 130, a. 1). For example, we think we can solve the most difficult questions; we pronounce hastily and with absolute certainty on the disputed and most difficult problems, wanting to teach them to all the others. Instead of building one's spiritual life on humility, one aspires above all to striking, clamorous, and showy action or assumes that one has reached the highest levels of the mystical life. The second degree is ambition. In fact, since we excessively presume on our strengths and consider ourselves superior to others, then the desire arises in us to dominate them, to impose our opinions on them in matters of doctrine even with a certain arrogance. (S. Th., II-II , q. 131, a. 1). Finally, with the third degree, pride leads us to vainglory, that is, to the desire to be esteemed for ourselves without referring this honor to God. This is the case of the pedant, who delights in showing off his knowledge by speaking incessantly, who, then, reaches the point of pertinacity, that is, bitter dispute in defending one's opinions, causing discord and bitter criticism (S. Th., II-II, q. 132, aa. 1-3).

How to heal the wound of pride

The great remedy is to recognize the infinite greatness of God and our total dependence on Him who is our Creator, not only in theory but also in practice. In fact, we often know theoretically that we were created out of nothing, but in practice, we behave as if we were the be all and end all of everything. St. Thomas Aquinas explains: "Since God's love for us is the cause of all our good, God does not love us, because we are good, but by loving us He makes us good, therefore no one would be better than another, if he were not more loved by God, who loves all sufficiently” (S. Th., I, q. 20, a. 3). In short, it is completely foolish to glory in a good that is in us, as if we had not received it from God, as if it were our property, and not ordered to honor God, the source and goal of all goodness. The remedy against pride is to recognize, not only as a matter of right, but also as a matter of fact, that we ourselves are nothing, that we were created from nothing, by the totally gratuitous love of God, independently of any merit we may have. Attention! It is important that this principle does not remain in us as pure theory, but that it is lived in practice, and directs all our actions. To get to that point, concrete humiliations are necessary, developing the virtue of humility, which alone could purify the pride, rooted in every man after original sin. All (God) versus nothing (myself on my own.)

“Better that only a few Catholics should be left, staunch and sincere in their religion, than that they should, remaining many, desire as it were, to be in collusion with the Church's enemies and in conformity with the open foes of our faith.” St Peter Canisius S.J. Apostle of Germany