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.”
I saw her post earlier this week and thought “I should talk to Beth about this….”
I was kinda generally offended by her hauteur, but most specifically offended by the title. It was the “exactly” that did me in. I think that this attitude of “answer knowing” is endemic to a certain kind of person found all around the spiritual continuum, but is super frustrating when so rooted in your own corner.
Thanks for articulating this better than I could!
I think Kendra’s list is a reasonable place to start.
But what is required of Catholic belief is the basically the creed.
What is often lost is that there are a hierarchy of beliefs, some infallble, some dogma, some taught at a fairly high level of authority by ecumenical council or papal encyclical, others not. Some clearly taught by Christ and in scripture, but others not.
Most of the controversial doctrines today are taught at a rather low level of authority and it is is, at least in principle, possible that the Church might develop her understanding and teaching about them, even radically.
Chris, this is an excellent point about the hierarchy of beliefs, and the possibility of development. Thank you.
Shanna, I think you are right to feel uneasy about Mrs. Tierney’s desire for “answer knowing” as you put it. My husband pointed out that she is doing something similar to Protestants who articulate out of Paul a “Roman Road” to salvation. The idea is that Paul is too complicated, people disagree on what he means, and so what we are going to do is give you a bullet-point list of what is really, really important. Mrs. Tierney seems to be bothered by how complicated things can get regarding Catholic faith and morals (especially on the internet) and so here is her bullet-point list so you can know the right answers. For what it is worth, I don’t really disagree with anything on her list (though I would quibble with how specifically we can articulate her points on morality) but what does bother me is the need to have such certainty on the question of how good of a Catholic one is (and presumably what bearing it has on salvation). I expect that with elections looming ever nearer, we are going to have more lay Catholic bloggers like herself creating their own lists of what counts as a good Catholic.
I’m not saying that a lot of what she asserts a Catholic should believe is a misinterpretation, it’s that a person’s closeness to God isn’t necessarily measured by their correct beliefs. A person can do all the right things and believe all the right things but be still consumed with pride. Sometimes doubt is a product of serious engagement with the essential theological or moral issues.
Great post, Beth! One place I would push this a little is when you ask the question about whether the woman on birth control because of her atheist husband is a “bad Catholic” because she can’t believe the use of artificial contraception is always wrong. I just want to note that (in the spirit of the exact moral complexity you are pointing to), there could be a woman who actually continues to believe that it is always wrong but uses it anyway because she believes it is the best way forward in a bad situation. Your question stands as written, but I think it is important also to consider that there are people who actually assent fully to Church teaching on these and other matters, but find themselves in complicated situation where that teaching seems to them to be impossible to live. Are they bad Catholics?
I’ll add that I agree that lists can be helpful, but I find it more helpful to talk about these things (especially in the moral realm) in terms of the demands of holiness or discipleship, in a way that invites people into better, deeper, fuller embrace and embodiment of those. And lines need to be drawn to help people’s discernment, but calling that line the line between “good Catholic” and “bad Catholic” seems remarkably unhelpful.
Thanks Dana. This is a post I really want to write because I have met so many women who do find themselves using birth control because NFP just doesn’t work for their spouse. Some, like you say, fully assent to the Church’s teaching on the matter though find it can’t be practiced. Others doubt whether the teaching can be so exactly right when they can’t live it out themselves. What is, I think, remarkably unhelpful on this point is the way in which parishes and lay Catholics and even moral theologians paint the teaching on birth control in such stark all or nothing terms. It often seems like you are either for modernity and free sex and birth control or you support the Church’s infinite wisdom and believe that birth control is a grave evil and NFP (or lots of babies) is the obvious solution. Women who do find themselves in a tricky situation either in practice or belief (or both) need more support from their parishes and from online communities helping them sort out how to make a prudential judgment in situations where practicing NFP or having lots of babies is simply impossible. And I’m saying this as someone who really does love Humanae Vitae and has written in glowing terms about the beauty of NFP. But women who have spouses that are all on board for NFP are very blessed and need to realize that not every woman has their favorable circumstances. For those latter women, I really want them to not think of themselves as “bad” Catholics. (And men, because I am sure that many men would like to use NFP but have an unsupportive spouse too. Sorry gentlemen, I didn’t want to exclude you.)
Exactly. Although it is very difficult to do well, we need to give them better moral tools for discerning both the best way forward and their own real culpability (or not) in these complicated circumstances. Social (and other) factors that limit one’s full freedom to live (or, for that matter, understand) the teaching seem to me to mitigate responsibility. But these are complications that are very hard to talk about without sounding like you are rationalizing just about anything. I actually find it very helpful to keep the distinction between objectivity (an act is objectively wrong) and subjectivity (the moral impact of the act as understood and intended by the agent). It is important to attend really well to both, and to the ways they mutually construct one another. Neither can completely trump the other, which also means that neither can be ignored.
I’ve been really struggling with this issue lately, but I have some specific questions that I don’t know someone I can ask them to.
I personally don’t believe birth control is always wrong, and I do find myself using it for the time being for reasons that I consider good. But I know many conservative Catholics who say that it’s a mortal sin, and they insist that is what the Church teaches. So, I feel stuck because I don’t feel right confessing something that I don’t believe is mortal sin, and that I don’t intend to stop…but if I don’t confess it does that mean I’m not supposed to receive communion? Or worse, even if I don’t think it’s mortal sin, if I do receive communion and without confessing it, since the Church teaches it’s mortal sin, do I then somehow commit sacrilege??
Sorry….don’t know who else to ask these questions to and I don’t see them addressed anywhere on the internet at all…
Any book recommendations??
These are really tough questions and they deserve their own blog post–which I am working on now. In short, yes, the church teaches the using artificial contraception for the purpose of preventing conception is a mortal sin. Actually, the church uses the language of intrinsic evil because artificial contraception actually violates the very nature of sex which should be unitive and procreative. So it is a big deal. BUT, it is a lot more complicated than just saying “yup, that’s a mortal sin, now stay away from communion.” You mention that your reasons are good, or at least you consider them good. So I presume you act in good conscience, particularly since you don’t think you need to confess. We must obey our conscience, even if our conscience is in error. That being said, you should seek ongoing formation of your conscience. I don’t know (and feel free to weigh in here, CMTers) if the confessional is the best place for you right now. I think pastoral guidance of some kind would be useful, particularly some sort of regular spiritual direction whereby a director gets to know you, your intentions, etc. and can help in the formation and the judgment of conscience. But say you still think in your circumstance birth control is okay. I think you can receive communion in good faith.
Why? Well, maybe in your circumstances, use of contraception is not a mortal sin (that is, though a grave matter, does not include full knowledge or full consent). Maybe you have an unwilling partner (so not full consent) or maybe you don’t properly understand the nature and gravity of your action. Maybe your intention is not ultimately to contracept, but is something else. My point is that I don’t know. You are the proper judge of your conscience and you need to make a particular judgment both with regards to contraception and to receiving communion. There are so many circumstances that are relevant to making a judgment about the nature of a particular action that it can be very difficult for an outsider to judge. I know several cases of people using artificial contraception that I do not consider mortal sins (because they have a spouse that insists on using artificial contraception without exception). At the very least, you are in some way at odds with church teaching but not in violation of conscience. In a situation like this, the grace of the sacraments, particularly communion, seems to me of paramount importance. The last thing I want people like you doing is separating yourself from the body of the church because you fall short of one her teachings. If you were acting against conscience, that would be another matter. But it doesn’t seem like you are.
OK, CMTers, help me out so I can flesh this out in a larger blog post. What else do you want to add in response to Dalia’s question? And Dalia, thanks for being so honest and forthright. This is the stuff of moral theology that is so exciting, and so important.