Father Dwight Longenecker
Can You Be Good Without God?
Unfortunately, both the lapsed Catholics and the atheists misunderstand what the Catholic church means by "being good." We declare that it is not only possible for human beings to do good, but also to be good.
Catholicism is about a supernatural transaction between an individual and God. God's power, which we call "grace," works on the person's whole being to effect a transformation from the inside out. We call this "divinization." The ancient church of the East calls it "theosis." This transformation allows a human being to live in a new dimension of power and glory unimagined by most of us. The second century theologian Saint Irenaeus wrote, "The glory of God is man fully alive" or as Jesus Christ himself said, "I have come to give you life—life more abundant!"
This "abundant life" means something greater than just doing good. It means being good. It means every cell and muscle, every sinew and particle of soul, every part of us being transformed with the radiant power and glory of God. It means the individual lives in a new, more dynamic dimension of reality. He or she begins to display even in this life a "god-like" quality.
The critic will reply, "If this is true, please explain the Catholic priests who rape little boys, the bishops who cover up their deeds—and not only the monsters, but the mediocre—please explain the bland, hypocritical and miserable Catholics I meet day to day who, I must say, don't seem to be transformed into beings of light by the stupendous power of the Creator."
The answer is that we are all a work in progress. This transformation is the work of a lifetime. The seed of this divine goodness is planted in our lives, but there is a real risk that it will wither and die for lack of care. It is up to us whether we live the abundant life we have been given. And while the power of God is given to enable this transformation, it is still required that we cooperate with that power. This work is at once the simplest and most difficult task of all.
We admit that many Catholics have failed or have not yet reached the mark, but we also insist that many others have succeeded beyond the realm of human imagination. If anyone doubts that such a transformation is possible, let them read the lives of the saints, for in the saints we do not find what we expected to find.
We thought the saint's story would be one of exclusive piety, sweet suffering and a sort of rose-scented limp through life. Instead, we find what the church calls "heroic sanctity"—amazing stories of ordinary individuals who achieve extraordinary things because they have become extraordinary people.
The life of the Polish priest Maximillian Kolbe is just one example: a physically sickly man living on one lung because of tuberculosis, in the 1930s he led thousands of young Polish men in a renewed Franciscan order. He started a printing press, a national newspaper with circulation in the millions, and pioneered radio broadcasting to spread the faith. Then he went to Japan as a missionary, learned the language and lived in extreme poverty, enduring persecution and misunderstanding. He built a monastery and started a seminary, wrote and printed a Japanese language paper, established a printing operation and radio station, before being summoned back to his country because of the outbreak of war.
Because of his passive resistance to the Nazi regime, he ended up in Auschwitz where, witnesses say, his wasted body was physically radiant with light. Giving up his own meager rations, he finally also gave up his life—stepping up to take the place of a man with a wife and children who had been sentenced to death. Even in the death cell he radiated a love and goodness beyond imagining—lasting far longer in his slow starvation than anyone thought possible until he was finally dispatched with a lethal injection.
Maximillian Kolbe is just one. Should anyone doubt that this power has been released into the lives of ordinary people, let him read the real stories of more saints, for each one (in a vast variety of people around the world and down through the ages) exhibits this same unimaginable heroism—this same supernatural transformation.
So can a person be good without God? One can certainly do good deeds without God, but why settle for so little when it is possible to be utterly transformed by the ultimate power and glory into a being of unimaginable and eternal splendor?
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is Catholicism Pure and Simple. Visit his blog and sign up for Faith Works! his free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith here.