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The idea that being good is enough is the most persistent and pernicious heresy within Catholicism.
By Father Dwight Longenecker, Catholic Education Resource Center
The problem with being good is that you think that’s good enough. But being good is not good enough. Jesus Christ looked at the Scribes and Pharisees — who were very good and nice and respectable people and he said to his disciples, “You see them? You’ve got to be better than them.” In other words, their goodness wasn’t good enough.
If you think being good is good enough, you’re not good enough. The problem with being good is that it is putting the cart before the horse. We see people who are holy like Mother Teresa and we notice that she does good. She feeds hungry people and rescues babies from the trash heap. So we are inspired and we decide to be good too. So we get involved in the local soup kitchen and we busy ourselves helping the needy and that’s all well and good, but we forget that before Mother Teresa went out on the streets she spent an hour in contemplative prayer. She was more than good. She was holy.
Her goodness and compassion was of a different order than mere human virtue. When we put being good first instead of being holy first we are replacing sanctification — the process by which God makes us holy from the inside out — with mere human virtue. The problem with mere human virtue is that it is — well, merely human virtue. It doesn’t change us on the inside. “Jes ’cause ya wear a ten gallon hat don’t mean you’re a Texan …” Just because you do good doesn’t mean you’re being transformed into the image of Christ Jesus.
The next problem with being good (and only being good) is that you are proving the atheists’ point. They like to observe that you don’t need to be a Christian and go to church in order to be good. They’re right of course. People are dumb. When we as Catholics stress good works and brag about all we’re doing to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, they conclude that the main thing about Christianity is helping poor people. But are they dumb? We’ve told them that this is the main thing. We’ve skewed the priorities. In fact they’re not dumb. They’re smart. They’ve drawn the conclusion from what we’ve told them. They think the main thing about being a Christian is to feed poor people, and they then conclude that you don’t need to go to church to do that.
Then we wonder why no one goes to Mass anymore.
The idea that being good is enough is the most persistent and pernicious heresy within Catholicism. The ghost of Pelagius still haunts our hallowed halls, and we need to hear again and again that we shouldn’t just be good, we should be better, and not just better, but best.
This is what the church calls the “universal call to holiness” — that each one of us are called first and foremost to be holy. To be holy is not to be extra pious and prudish and prayerful, but to become who God truly intended us to be. Through prayer and sacrifice and devotion we draw nearer to God, and as we draw nearer we become more like the One we worship. This is the primary work of the Christian, and as that work is done we are driven out to do the good works that are the mark of our calling.
Father Dwight Longenecker. “The problem with being good.” Patheos (Standing on My Head) (June 5, 2013).
Reprinted with permission from Father Dwight Longenecker. Standing on my head is the blog of Father Longenecker on Patheos.
Father Dwight Longenecker is the chaplain of St. Joseph’s Catholic School, Greenville, South Carolina. He also serves on the staff of St. Mary’s, Greenville. Father Longenecker studied for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and served for ten years in the Anglican ministry as a curate, a chaplain at Cambridge and a country parson. In 1995 he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is the author of books on apologetics, conversion stories and Benedictine spirituality including: Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing, Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers, More Christianity, Challenging Catholics: A Catholic Evangelical Dialogue, St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule & the Little Way, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, and The Path to Rome. Visit his website here and his blog here where you can listen to his podcasts of his lectures and homilies and read regular updates.