There is an unwritten rule in the Catholic blogosphere that if you want people to read your stuff, don’t include the word sin in the first twenty-two words. There is also a written rule that you should not lie, so I will admit that I made that up in order to avoid jumping right into the topic of which few of us like to speak: sin. More specifically, it has to do with what the Book of Sirach calls “the beginning of all sin” (Sir 10:13) or, what CS Lewis called the “one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves…There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. The more we have of it in ourselves the more we dislike it in others” (Mere Christianity). He, of course, is referring to the most destructive of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride.
The fact that we can easily perceive pride in others and not in ourselves is because we only, as Lewis says, “imagine” we are guilty of it ourselves. We usually only have a vague sense we are plagued by it, but cannot see it clearly because we only know what it looks like exteriorly. So we shun compliments and avoid things like bragging, but make little headway in actually overcoming it. What we really need is a sketch of what it looks like interiorly; how it animates much of what we do. For help on this we can turn to one of the oldest Doctors of the Church, St. Gregory the Great. In his long book called The Morals of Job, he provides the blueprints of pride by separating it into four specific kinds.
The Four Species of Pride
Because of its clandestine character, it is first necessary to understand what pride is. Pride is, according to St. Thomas, a disordered desire for excellence. Notice that he doesn’t say it is the disorder of desiring excellence, but a disordered desire for excellence. That means that there is an ordered desire for excellence meaning that in the human constitution there is a natural desire for excellence (c.f. 2Cor 10:13-17). We are made with a desire for goodness, both material and spiritual, and therefore excellence is simply a measure of the amount of goods one possesses. This awareness that we have a natural desire for excellence helps us to better understand why denying compliments or boasting is little more than a doggy paddle amidst the torrent of pride in our hearts.
This also helps to elucidate why it is so difficult to escape pride’s clutches. Pride is a constitutive element of man’s fallen nature because it is the first sin. In the case of both Lucifer and then Adam and Eve, their fall was because they sought an excellence that was disordered. Both the fallen angels and fallen men sought to “be like God” even if their manner of approach was different. “Pride goes before the fall” (Prov 16:18) is not just a psychological fact but also a historical one. In trying to become “self-made” men raising ourselves from the pit in which we fell, pride is always looming.
What is Pride?
Returning to the teachings of Pope St. Gregory, we find that he assigns the four species of pride accordingly, “…either when they judge that they have their goodness from themselves, or when if they believe that their goodness has been given to them from above, they think that they have received it because of their merits, or surely when they boast that they have what they do not have, or when, despising others, they desire to appear to have in a singular way what they have” (Morals of Job XXIII, 13).
The first species has to do with the source of our personal excellence, that is, we can judge that it comes from ourselves. It is always true that excellence achieved without outside help is better than that which is received with help. Thus the myth of the self-made man. As Christians we acknowledge that “every good thing comes from above,” (James 1:17) and yet this species of pride has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our heart through what I would call “Christian pride.” So common is this Christian pride that it bears some unpacking to make it clearer. I am not saying that being a Christian is not an excellence in which we should derive a form of healthy pride. The snare comes when we see ourselves as better than others, rather than simply better off.
Can we honestly think that when so many of our contemporaries are blind to the truth that we somehow figured it because of our own sagacity? The conflict with the culture can lead us to look down upon others seeing them as non-Christians rather than Christians to be. It is hubris of this sort that turns many people away from Christianity. “But for the grace of God go I” is more than a cute saying. It is a foundational truth upon which humility is built. Faith is a completely unmerited gift. The teachings of the Church, especially in a time of moral turmoil are a gift. The wisdom that enables us to see them as true is a gift. The perseverance to remain steadfast too is a gift.
Closely related to this is the second species of pride by which we acknowledge the excellence as coming from above, but somehow see ourselves as meriting it. In examining our hearts we can find this form in our attitude towards other people, especially in their sins. All too often we demand justice for others and mercy for ourselves. We look for ways to accuse others while excusing ourselves. This is the competitive nature of pride, thinking excellence comes by knocking other people down a rung or two. How often when someone suffers, even if it is self-imposed, do we think “they got what they deserved”? But when we suffer, that thought never crosses our minds.
Pride also causes us to play a game of pretend by “boasting of what he has not.” This is where we have developed a persona and thus do everything we can to keep that image up, usually causing great suffering while doing so. This is a favorite one of Social Media users but also a particular problem in certain Catholic circles. In attempting to present to the world an image of what they think a perfect Catholic should be like, they are ascribing to themselves an excellence they have not. Truth be told, it is usually not even a true excellence. The “perfect” Catholic family looks like a small army that is at war, each one conformed to Christ crucified. That is usually not a pretty picture according to the standards of the world.
The competitive nature of pride also is the genesis of the fourth species of pride —“when a man despises others and wishes to be singularly conspicuous.” This is the pride of the “most interesting man in the world,” or if you prefer a more biblical example, the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like the rest of humanity (Lk 18:9-14). He had true excellences, fasting and tithing, but he was riddled by pride because he thought this made him “singularly conspicuous.” This is the worst form of pride and is actually the sin of Lucifer himself. This form of pride causes us to constantly need to put others down in order to make ourselves look better. As the worst of the four types, it also results in the most serious myopathy. The only barometer for how bad we have it is to ask how much we hate it when people snub us, don’t “respect” us, show off or patronize us.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, Cardinal Merry del Val composed what is now called the The Litany of Humility. Praying this regularly helps us not only to obtain the grace to overcome pride, but helps motivate us by enabling us to see how deeply entrenched pride is in our hearts. There is an inverse proportionality of sorts in the zeal in which we make this prayer and the amount of pride we have. It is also great material for our personal examen. “Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it…”