Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18
St. Francis de Sales identified Humility as the greatest of the human virtues. Human virtues are the ones natural to us as rational creatures and can be attained by human effort (i.e., by habituation), though after the Fall, due to the effects of Original Sin, not without the assistance of grace. St. Thomas Aquinas writes that while the supernatural and infused virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity are first and highest among the virtues, the foundation of the virtues is Humility “inasmuch as it expels pride, which ‘God resisteth,’ and makes man submissive and ever open to receive the influx of Divine grace.”
The word “humility” derives from the Latin root humus, which means “earth” or “ground.” The humble person is “grounded”; the humble person “lowers” himself and has his head “bowed down” to the ground. This means that he does not consider himself in a lofty way, but has a sober view of himself. Thus, an essential aspect of the virtue of Humility is remembering that we are taken from the ground, that our very life is dependent on the ground (e.g., for food), and that we are destined to die, decompose, and become ground again. “And to Adam [the Lord God] said… ‘cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life… In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.’”
Humility is the greatest of the human virtues, because its opposite is the greatest of sins: Pride. In his classic work on the spiritual life, Transformation in Christ: On the Christian Attitude, Dietrich von Hildebrand suggests that, as our primal sin and the source of all moral evil, Pride is the “deepest root of the malignancy within ourselves.” While Pride and Lust are the “great enemies to combat within us” and you rarely will find the one without the other, Lust is a consequence of Original Sin, whereas Pride comes before the Fall. Satan’s rebellion against God and vain attempt to appropriate His power and dominion influenced the fall of one third of the angels, and then the fall of Adam and Eve: “And the serpent said to the woman: No, you shall not die the death. For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.”
Von Hildebrand goes on to discuss the effects of Pride and contrasts them with the effects of Humility. First, Pride blinds us – it makes us see ourselves as better than we are. Second, Pride isolates and divides – it makes us see ourselves as above others and judge everything (and everyone) in terms of our own advantage. Even our altruism becomes a guise for self-promotion and for asserting how “good” we are. Third, Pride turns freedom into license – it makes us see ourselves as the ones who decide what is good or evil, what is just or unjust, what is a human right or a crime against humanity. Fourth, Pride refuses all submission as such – it makes us refuse either to bow to God or to legitimate human authority. Fifth, Pride rejects the sovereignty of God – it makes us seek to become “like Gods.”
On the contrary, Humility acknowledges our creaturely status and cries out with the Psalmist upon surveying the sun, the moon, and the stars: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man that thou visitest him?” Humility recognizes that God not only created us, but also conserves us in being every moment of every day. Humility acknowledges our debt to God – whether for creating us, for showering us with manifold benefits, or for redeeming us at the cost of the blood of His only Son – as well as our inability to repay it: “What shall I render to the Lord, for all the things that he hath rendered to me?” Humility recognizes our utter dependence on God, and our utter inability to control ourselves, let alone anyone or anything else. Humility is well aware of our true metaphysical situation – that we are dignified but disordered, beautiful but broken, good but inclined to evil, called to be saints but sinners. Consequently, the humble person gives all glory to God and deflects praise to others. He is ever conscious of his own imperfections, and never takes credit for or is puffed up by whatever good there is in him. The humble person is quick to notice good in others and to look past their faults (given our common fallen nature and its weaknesses). And the humble person does not fear subordination to God or legitimate subordination to human authorities.
I would like to emphasize this last point. Subordination to God means subordination to what God has revealed. It means submission to the teaching of the Catholic Church as it has been passed on to us. It means accepting the created order established by Almighty God in His wisdom: “[Wisdom] reacheth therefore from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly.” And this means accepting the truth of God’s plan for sex and sexuality, gender and generation, marriage and family. It is the prideful person, the one who rejects the sovereignty of God and seeks to decide for himself what is good or evil (or who the allies or the haters are for that matter), that, while believing himself enlightened, actually becomes blind. It is not uncommon for someone in this state to twist Divine Revelation and the teaching of the Church in such a way as to make those who actually submit to it appear “un-Christian.” If you find just the right “hermeneutic,” the right “narrative,” and you toss aside all conflicting evidence, you can say just about anything you want. And after a while, not only do you believe it, but you have to impose it in your newfound righteousness.