A popular blog about Catholicism, motherhood, and family culture recently posted a list describing “Exactly How to Be a Good Catholic.” The list includes such things as believing in
in God, the Father Almighty, the first person of the Trinity, who created Heaven and earth
and the requirement to
believe in and renounce Satan, not as a concept, but as a being
as well as opposing
abortion, euthanasia, sexual activity outside of marriage (be it heterosexual, homosexual, or solo), contraception, sterilization, polygamy, divorce, pornography, unjust war, and unjust use of capital punishment.
Overall, it is an exhaustive list. The author, a woman named Kendra Tierney, admits to having no theological training. Her intention in making the list is not to be completely comprehensive (which she admits is impossible) but rather to provide a list of basic things required for all Catholics to do and believe. It is confusing to know exactly how to be a good Catholic, she reasons, since the internet often makes what is mandatory optional or a matter of individual conscience. Her list of sources includes the Nicene Creed, the Catechism, and the Bible.
And yet, in none of these sources does it say that checking off this list makes one a “good” Catholic. Or, by contrast, that struggling to believe in one of her bullet points, and I might highlight those matters of a moral nature, makes one not a good Catholic.
To be fair to Mrs. Tierney, she isn’t trying to exclude Catholics who struggle. She quotes James Joyce “Here comes everybody!” but she does insist that failure to conform to the requirements of this list puts one in the category of “not a good Catholic.” Her advice?
Inform your conscience and pray. Learn what the Catholic Church really teaches about that issue and why. Check out Catholic Answers. Read a good book. Find a faithful priest and talk to him about it. Email a faithful Catholic blogger. Pray about it. Ask God to help you understand. “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.”
I am definitely in favor of forming one’s conscience and seeking counsel, but I want to challenge the idea that failing to conform to one of the ideals on this list (or any list) makes one a “bad Catholic” or that we have the ability in the first place to claim we or anybody else is a “good” Catholic.
I think, for example, of gay people that I have known, some celibate, others not, who have remained deeply committed to the Church despite their inability to believe that the desires they experience are unnatural, or that marriage between people like themselves that is monogamous and committed fails to be true marriage. I can think of several people who have known for decades that they were gay, and for decades have struggled with the Church’s teachings on this issue without leaving.
I think of incredibly faithful and committed and involved Catholics I have known that married, divorced, and remarried, who believe deeply that their second marriage is a true marriage despite failing to annul the first.
I think of Catholics I know who struggle to raise their kids in the faith despite having an unsupportive spouse who simply cannot believe that contraception is wrong.
I think of theologians that I know who realize how complicated it all is, who know that the Church develops and who want to push the Church to develop in a certain area, and who dedicate their life to studying, challenging, doubting, and arguing without ever leaving the Church or separating themselves from the sacraments.
For many Catholics, the struggle to form their conscience is very real and often doesn’t result in easily being able to check off Mrs. Tierney’s list. For those Catholics who struggle (and if we look at the data on contraception, we are talking about a lot of Catholics), the last thing they need is to be branded as “not good Catholics.”
But more importantly, I would argue that the impetus to identify the “good” Catholic is itself anti-Catholic. Biblically, we have the official asking Jesus “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus responds “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18:18-19). Then Jesus lists the commandments. There is a moment of relief as the official says “I have kept all of these since I was a boy.” But then Jesus points him onward: “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor. . . Then come follow me.” And the man goes away sad. He has kept the commandments. But he isn’t good.
Then we have Augustine in the City of God arguing from the parable of the weeds that the visible Church itself is a mixture of both believers and unbelievers and that “many who seem to be without are in reality within, and many who seem to be within yet really are without.” Judgment of goodness is reserved for God.
We might also look at the works of Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy, whose heroes are almost always anti-heroes who challenge conventional standards of goodness, piety, and faith. Catholic artists such as these point us to the reality that Augustine described in the City of God: it is not for us to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Then, we have examples of people like John Courtney Murray who were silenced because they seemed to be teaching something that was against Catholic teaching, who nevertheless persisted in pushing the Church towards a new ideal, a new recognition in what was good. Murray, whose views on religious liberty were once seen as heterodox, became one of the chief architects of a new view of religious liberty at the Second Vatican Council.
Finally, and most importantly, we have the teaching on conscience articulated in the Catechism itself, that we are always called to obey our conscience even if our conscience is in error.
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed (1790).
I intend to write a little more about conscience and disagreement with certain moral teachings soon, but for now I simply want to point out that some people who have worked to properly form their conscience may still disagree with something on Mrs. Tierney’s list. While the formation of conscience is a life-long task and we should never rest assured that our judgment in a particular circumstance is absolute, we should nevertheless reserve judgment on those Catholics who, in good conscience, find themselves in disagreement with the Church they remain committed to. Far from being bad Catholics (or “not good” Catholics), people like these remind us of the pilgrim nature of the Church which journeys together towards ever more perfect realization of the fulness of truth.
To be clear, it is not a problem to list things that Catholics are called to believe or practice. But lists are deceptive. They can create and perpetuate prideful feelings of self-satisfaction and dangerous tendencies towards judgmentalism. Finally, and this is particularly the case with moral matters which really involve so many more contingencies than matters of faith, lists tend to make us forget how complex some things really are. Is a woman who is using birth control because she has an atheist husband who has promised to divorce her if they have another child and has adamantly refused to consent to any form of NFP suddenly not a good Catholic because she simply can’t believe that use of artificial contraceptives is always wrong? Is someone suddenly a bad Catholic because he tries to advocate for a form of public policy that would allow for (but significantly decrease) what constituted legal direct abortion? Is someone a bad Catholic because they disagree on what matters are of greatest moral significance when trying to vote for a candidate who is in line with the Church’s teachings?
In the end, a list like Mrs. Tierney’s is best for those Catholics who might be tempted to call themselves good to turn inward to see if theirs is a faith that really works through love, a faith that doesn’t stop with the rich young man or turn back at the difficulty of following Jesus. This is what our current pope has reminded us of: the danger of being “whitewashed tombs that are beautiful on the outside but filled with filth and rot.” And for those who might be tempted to conclude from such a list that they are bad Catholics, let them instead be reminded that the opportunity to develop one’s own faith and conscience is never completed but the pilgrim church invites them to journey with her, a pilgrim church that awaits the separation of the wheat from the chaff by the only One who is able to truly judge. In the end, the best Catholic ecclesiology is not one that separates the “good” from the “others,” but one that with humility and charity says “here comes everybody.”