What’s a Relationship without Religion? The Authentic Virtue the World Has Forgotten

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The following was a college essay written by Ben Duphiney. It has been edited and approved by Mary Boneno. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

In today’s world, religion is a complicated word. Many are turning away from religion, claiming that their relationship with God is just that — a relationship, and by no means is it a religion. I’ve heard many non-denominational pastors say that faith is a relationship, not a religion. The world has lost the aboriginal definition of this foreign word, as some do not know it and many fear it. Upon retrieving and truly grasping the meaning of religion, relationships with God will be properly ordered. In this paper, I will provide a concise Thomistic definition of religion as a moral virtue, explain the importance of religion, and reflect on the teaching of Aquinas on religion.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, religion is a virtue whose purpose is “to render God the worship due to Him as the source of all being and the principle of all government of things.”[1] Coming from the Latin word religare–to bind together, religion is a moral virtue that properly orders man’s relationship with God. Religion is categorized as “neither a theological nor an intellectual, but a moral virtue, since it is a part of justice, and observes a mean, not in the passions, but in actions directed to God, by establishing a kind of equality…of man’s ability and God’s acceptance.”[2]

Upon discovering that religion, according to Aquinas, is a moral virtue, I had to find the root of religion, which is justice. Justice is “a habit whereby man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will.”[3] Aquinas states, too, that Wisdom 8:7 teaches “temperance, and prudence, and justice, and fortitude, which are such things as men (i.e. virtuous men) can have nothing more profitable in life.”[4] Like all of these other virtues, justice is something that already exists within us–from God–that requires practice and patience. Justice is a habit; so too is religion.

Religion as a habit “approaches nearer to God than the other moral virtues, insofar as its actions are directly and immediately ordered to the honor of God. Hence religion excels among the moral virtues.”[5] Honoring God is one of the most important things human beings can do. Because we are made by God and for God, a relationship with God is essential. Because of sin, this relationship is at risk of being severed constantly. Religion is important because it properly orders one’s relationship with God; it “denotes properly a relation to God.”[6] To improve and revive this relationship with God, religion must be constantly practiced with the aim to become a habit.

To practice religion, it is important to know how the habitual one practices. Aquinas states that “religion has two kinds of acts.”[7] The first is adoration, which has a proper and immediate end in God. Adoration, referred to as latria, is the “reverence which we pay to God” and God alone.[8] Examples of this include Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Mass, devotions to God himself, and praying to God. Veneration, or dulia, is also a form of worship, however this venerates saints and the Blessed Virgin Mother, as opposed to God alone. Examples of this include devotions to saints and Mary, the Rosary, and the veneration of relics.

The second act is that “which [is produced] through the medium of the virtues which it commands, directing [the means] to the honor of God.”[9] An example that Aquinas uses is visiting a widow during arduous times. Though the end of comforting someone in need is not ultimately in God, the act itself is concerned with the means, not the end. Another example of this is charity, “a divinely infused habit, inclining the human will to cherish God For his own sake above all things, and man for the sake of God.”[10] Though the charity may be imperfect on earth, it is perfect in heaven. Charity manifested is a relationship with God through its means, not its ends on earth. When a seed is planted, its final end is not to remain in the ground as a seed; its end is to grow into its proper plant. Charity on earth is planting the seed–only to see the plant grow perfectly after this life. These two types of acts reveal the practicality in properly ordering relationships to God.

In his book Thomas on Religion, Dr. Reinhard Huetter explains that there are “currently five dominant uses of the term ‘religion’ from which the virtue of religion must be clearly distinguished.”[11] These five terms, summarized, are: a set of beliefs that contradict nature and reason (Political Liberalism); organized, suppressive structure–a relationship and not a religion (American Protestantism); a spirituality that answers life’s deep questions (Consumer-Capitalist); anthropological, secular expression of evolution and being in the world (Religionswissenschaft); and an attempt to manipulate and control the world, placing hopes and desires upon a fabricated idol (Protestant Dialectical Theory).[12]

These five definitions of religion are what the world uses in denoting that religion is not a virtue. I have had many conversations with people, including some of my family members, who agree with at least one of these misleading definitions. Perhaps it is because of the notion that faith is a relationship and not a religion. Many expect that a relationship with the living God–Jesus–can be a mere worship service or a light Bible study. Religion could never tell them what to do or not to do; it always agrees with everything they do. Religion, for many, is merely a sentiment without dogma or a sense of structure. St. John Henry Cardinal Newman remarks in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that “dogma has been the fundamental principle of religion: [he doesn’t] know no other religion; [he] cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to [him] a dream and a mockery.”[13]

The Thomistic understanding of religion as a virtue needs to be taught and emphasized more often. At most universities, religion is brushed aside–holding one of the five misunderstandings of religion as a position. Assuredly, this just virtue requires practice and mastery. The Sacraments, Adoration, and Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy exercise this muscle, allowing it to grow and remain healthy and strong. When it is not exercised or misused, it will shrivel up and be forgotten. Religion gives the framework and tools for a bountiful relationship with the living God.

Religion is crucial for the world, especially today. There are many people leaving religion because they are against organized religion and desire a personal relationship with the living God. Without religion, faith and their relationship become a mere sentiment, void of any structure and sacrifice. In a Christian context, religion is not some walk in the park. Jesus did not say “Keep living as you please and follow me however you want.” He did, however, say that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose their soul?”[14] Religion is required because it properly orders one’s relationship towards God. Without religion, what is a relationship with God?


Aquinas, Thomas. “Question 54, 58, 81.” SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: Religion (Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 54, 58, 81), www.newadvent.org/summa/3081.htm#article7. (Also used for dictionary)

Coogan, Michael David, et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press,

2010. New Revised Standard Version

Huetter, Reinhard. Thomas on Religion.

Newman, John Henry, and Ian Ker. Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Penguin, 2004.

[1] https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12748a.htm, from ST. II-II, q. 81, a. 1, 2, 3)

[2] ST. II-II, q. 81, a. 5

[3] ST. II-I, q. 58, a. 1

[4] ST. II-I, q. 58, a. 3

[5] ST. II-II, q. 81, a. 6

[6] ST. II-II, q. 81, a. 1

[7] Ibid.

[8] ST. II-II, q. 84, a. 1

[9] ST. II-II, q. 81, a. 1

[10] https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09397a.htm

[11] Reinhard Huetter, Thomas on Religion, p. 257

[12] Ibid., p. 258-265

[13] John Henry Cardinal Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, p. 49

[14] Luke 9:23-25

One Response

  1. Religion is preceded by a relationship with God that brings us the inner peace and strength which facilitate the acts of religion. Habitual acts of religion, without a prior relationship with God, are insufficient for lifting us out of our human weakness from the law of sin (see Romans 7:14 thru 8:2).
    The grace that lifts or exalts us is received by humility towards God (see 1Peter 5:5-7 and James 4:4-10). See also Philippians 4:6-7, Matthew 6:25-27, Proverbs 3:5-6, Psalms 37:7, 55:22, Isaiah 26:3-4, 55:7-9, John 6:63, and Galatians 5:22-23).

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