I usually write a ‘This Week in Madonna House’ wrap-up on Saturday. At this point in the summer, it gets hard to do this, as the weeks start to look pretty much like one another, and I could virtually get away with copying and pasting last week’s post. Work and hospitality, hospitality and work, rinse and repeat… such is life in high summer at MH.
Meanwhile, something cropped up on my Facebook page lately that I was unable to respond to in the narrow confines of an FB comment thread. Namely, this:
Now it first must be said that this quote is wholly fabricated – Pope Francis has never said these words. And that if someone is trying to make a larger point about being a good person without God, it’s probably not a good idea to start off by TELLING A LIE. Just a thought.
But what about the actual quote? Is there some validity to these words, anyhow? Leaving aside the parts of the quote that are so vague that they are impossible to respond to (the traditional notion of God… part, for example – what does that mean?), let’s focus in on the question of ‘can you be a good person and not believe in God.’ What is the Catholic answer to that.
The Catholic answer to that is that, no, it is not really possible to be a good person and not have a relationship to God. I would go further and say that it is impossible to be a good person, really, and not go to church (the ‘money’ thing is a total red herring here, since the Church does not absolutely command people to financially support it).
OK, shocking! Intolerant! Hateful! Right? I thought you were a nice guy, Fr. Denis! All that jazz. Well, I hope I’m a nice guy (more or less, on a good day), but it’s a question here of thinking clearly through things. What does it mean to be ‘good’? That is the question. When we say something is good, we mean that the thing is everything that thing should be. Goodness is possessing all the desirable qualities a thing should possess. A good hamburger is juicy, flavorful, just the right size, and so forth. A good dog is happy, loyal, affectionate, and obedient.
And a good human being is a human being who is everything a human being should be. And we are made by God, for God. We are made and our entire human vocation consists in having a relationship to the One who made us, who loves us, and who wants to fill us with Himself eternally in a free gift of love, the response to which gift of love is the obedience of faith—believing in Him and so doing what He asks of us.
And we believe that He has revealed what He wants of us in Jesus Christ. And that Jesus Christ has saved us and as an essential part of that work of salvation has established us as a ‘people’, a community that comes together to receive the grace of God in the sacraments and to embody the love of God by working to form a community of love among ourselves.
So we cannot be ‘a good person’ without possessing those necessary qualities—relationship with God, obedience to His plan, membership in the community of believers. Not because everyone who lacks those qualities is a depraved fiend lacking in any good quality (that is an utter non-sequitur) but simply because to lack those qualities is to be a hamburger full of flavour but dried up and crumbly. It is to lack what we need to be what we are supposed to be, the kind of ‘thing’ that we are.
Now where this FB meme does have a point (and I suspect it’s the point the author was going for) is that simply professing faith in God and simply showing up in church weekly does not suffice to make one a good person. It is necessary, but not sufficient. Part of the reason I knew immediately that Pope Francis never said these words is because they are a banal observation—everyone knows that lots of ‘religious’ people are total jerks. We who go to church regularly are actually the most aware of this, since we are rubbing shoulders with said jerks constantly! Furthermore, on any given day, we may be those very jerks.
And of course there are many atheists or unchurched theists who are kind, generous, truthful, and a host of other virtues, and thank God for that. But that too, while necessary, is not sufficient for 'goodness', because we are made by God, for God, and without God and our obedience to His plan for humanity (the Church) we are not being what we are made to be, and so we are not really good. And that is the Catholic answer to that particular cultural meme.