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Decorum & Civility As Virtues
that Refer to God

When so many men have become slovenly, influenced by the 1960s hippy revolt against all decorum and discipline in dress and deportment, it is good to see a Saint writing a book titled The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility. This manual, intended for men, should remind them as heads of families to set the good example and instruct their children properly instead of leaving courtesy to the women.

St. John Baptist de La Salle, founder of The Christian Brothers, a teaching institute for youth, believed that good manners and civility should be inspired by love of God and neighbor, not worldly goals to appear well before others. Good manners and civility are means to build good morals and self-discipline, fighting self-centeredness and laziness. One wonders what this Patron Saint of educators would think of the Catholic men and youth of our days?

This excerpt is from the Preface, written by the Saint

St. John-Baptiste de la Salle

It is surprising that most Christian men look upon decorum and politeness as merely human and worldly qualities and do not think of raising their minds to any higher views by considering them as virtues that have reference to God, to their neighbor and to themselves. This illustrates very well how little true Christianity is found in the world and how few among those who live in the world are guided by the Spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 5:10).

Still, it is this Spirit alone that ought to inspire all our actions, making them holy and agreeable to God. This is an obligation St. Paul points out to us when he tells us in the person of the early Christians that because we must live by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, we must also act in all things by that Spirit (Gal 5:25).

According to the same Apostle, because all our actions have to be holy, there are none that should not to be done through purely Christian motives. Thus, all our external actions, which are the only ones that can be guided by the rules of decorum, must always, through faith, possess and display the characteristics of virtue.

This is something to which fathers and mothers should pay attention while educating their children. It is likewise something about which teachers, entrusted with the instruction of these children, should be especially concerned.

Parents and teachers should never fail, while teaching children the rules of decorum, to remind them that they have to observe these only through purely Catholic motives, which concern the glory of God and one’s own salvation.

Parents and teachers should avoid telling the children in their care that, if they fail to act in a certain way, people will blame them, will not have any respect for them, or will ridicule them. Such remarks can only inspire children with the spirit of the world and turn them away from the spirit of the Gospel.

Rather, when they wish to train children in practices pertaining to bodily care and simple modesty, they should lead them carefully to be motivated by the presence of God, as St. Paul does when he makes the same point with the faithful of his time, saying that their modesty ought to be known to all, because the Lord is near to them. In other words, children should do these things out of respect for God, in whose presence they are.

When teaching children and training them to observe the practices of decorum that refer to their neighbor, teachers must urge them to show others the signs of consideration, honor and respect appropriate to members of Our Lord Jesus Christ and living temples of God, enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

In the same way, St. Peter exhorts the early faithful to love their brethren and to pay to all the honor due to them, thereby showing themselves true servants of God and making known in this way that they honor God in the person of their neighbor. If all Catholics make it a practice to display goodwill, esteem and respect for others from considerations of this kind only and from motives of this nature, they will sanctify all their actions and make it possible to distinguish, as it should be, between Catholic decorum and civility and what is merely worldly or almost pagan.

Thus they will live like true Christians, for their exterior behavior will be conformable to that of Christ and will correspond with their Catholic profession. They will thereby show themselves to be different from infidels and from those who are Christians only in name, as Tertullian remarks when he says that in his time people could know and recognize Christians by their exterior conduct and their modesty.

Catholic decorum is, then, that wise and well-regulated conduct that governs what we do and say. It arises from sentiments of modesty, respect, union and charity toward our neighbor. It leads us to give due regard to proper times and places and to the people with whom we have to deal. Decorum practiced toward our neighbor is properly called civility. ...

Different forms of decorum

What should observed in the presence of the King or in the royal apartments should not be done elsewhere, because the respect we must have for the person of the King demands that certain signs of reverence be shown when in his palace that would be out of place in a private home. We should act in our own home differently from the way we act in the homes of others, and so too in homes of people whom we know as opposed to those whom we scarcely know.

Because politeness expects us to have and to show special respect for certain people that we do not owe to others and because it would also violate decorum to show the same kind of respect to everyone. Whenever we meet or converse with a person of some social standing, we must pay attention to his rank, dealing with and treating him according to what the rank calls for.

We should likewise consider ourselves and who we are, for whoever is inferior to others is obliged to show submission to those who are superiors, whether by birth, by official position or by social rank. We should pay them much greater respect than we would to someone who is our equal.

A peasant, for example, must show more respect for his lord than would a working man who does not depend upon that same lord. Similarly, a working man should show greater respect for a lord than would a gentleman who happens to be visiting that lord.

Continued

The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility,
LaSallian Publications, reprinted 2007, pp. 3-5

Posted October 5, 2019