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Godzdogz

The blog of the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Built on the four pillars of our Dominican life – preaching, prayer, study, and community – Godzdogz offers many resources for exploring the Catholic Faith today.
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The Life of Virtue - Observance

Monday, July 20, 2009
If religion is the virtue that enables us to be 'just' towards God, and piety is the virtue that enables us to be 'just' toward our parents - in the sense of acknowledging our indebtedness to them and showing them gratitude and honour - then observance is the virtue that enables us to show respect to others who end up in authority over us. There is a certain dignity going with the responsibilities of authority and government, Aquinas says, an 'excellence and power' that give such persons a special status and duty. In virtue of their status we ought to honour them, and in virtue of their duty we ought to show them reverence.

Piety is prior to observance, he thinks, because it is concerned with people who are bound more closely to us, our parents who have given us birth and have overseen our education. It can be extended to include the gratitude and respect who show to our patria, 'the land of our birth'. (Think of how often people refer to the 'fatherland' or 'motherland'.) The virtue of observance is concerned with others whose involvement in our lives is important but less so than that of our parents or kin. 'Blood is thicker than water' seems to be what Aquinas is getting at here.

His account of this virtue is one of the places where we can detect a strongly medieval flavour in his thought and it gives us a glimpse of medieval social mores. But it remains relevant. A moment's reflection on the cult of celebrity shows us 'observance gone mad'. People give honour and show reverence to 'screen goddesses' and others who have achieved 'iconic' or 'cult' status. (Note the religious language we use.) Aquinas's concern is that such honour and reverence be observed only where someone has great and genuine personal value for the way they serve a community or otherwise live a life worthy of dignity.

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