“It is not an uncommon experience for people to talk and argue a great deal about something without anybody bothering to define precisely what it is.” ~Ross J.S. Hoffman
When talking things over with Protestants, I often find that at the root of a disagreement is a difference of definition. Catholics and Protestants alike believe “saved by faith through grace”, yet we have different definitions not only of “faith” but also of “grace”. Turns out, these un-noticed and assumed definitions have a huge impact on the whole of theology, how we practice our religion, and what is acceptable to us. So the key to understanding, maybe even the key to agreement, depends on defining what we say. Yet, as Hillaire Belloc notes, “We must begin by a definition, although definition involves a mental effort and therefore repels.”
With respect to good and evil, Catholics define “good” as God, or nearly so. All good things have their source in God, because His essence is perfect goodness, the very definition of good comes from Him. Goodness then, in created things, is seen as an adherence to God’s good purpose for them. All created things have good in them, because as created by and sourced from God Himself, from which no evil can be found, we find a good purpose for all things. Evil is then a “privation of perfect goodness”. Evil is only found in creatures as a departure from God’s good purpose and rejection of His Will, existing as a result of corruption of free will, not sourced from God nor an alternative demi-god, nor does it have any substance itself. Much like darkness is a lack of light, evil is a lack of goodness.
Although Saint Thomas Aquinas defined and explained these concepts in detail, he can hardly be said to have merely invented them philosophically. Anyone who reads his works will find them absolutely saturated with references mainly of Bible verses, but also of the Early Church Fathers. Drawing from his photographic memory, he doesn’t just juxtapose sound bites and create a meandering and flawed proof from them. He instead clarifies non-negotiable main concepts (such as “God is good”), using that to better understand more obscure passages, and brings it all together in a coherent philosophical system. This system is not of his own invention, nor does it depart from Biblical or Church teaching, but uses reason to better understand the necessary consequences of truths of the Faith. Because of this use of reason, Luther banned Aquinas, saying he imposed human understanding on divine revelation. This rejection of the philosophy that underlies Catholicism is where the faiths begin their divergence and is what must be overcome in most cases for Protestants and Catholics to understand each other.
When asked what evil is, Protestants may answer similarly to Catholics, that it is going against God’s will. However, here is a critical point, Protestants believe that evil has substance. When pressed as to where evil comes from, however, you may not get a coherent answer. Protestants who believe that Divine Providence acts directly in everything (not merely permissively) might say that God uses evil to achieve a good end, but that He is not the source of evil in order to adhere to the Biblical concept that God is perfectly good. Consequently, if God is not the source of evil, yet evil has substance, then it must come from an alternative source. Considering a created thing from a source other than God, out of necessity we have introduced another creator. This cannot be true, since Christians do not believe in multiple gods. If however, evil has its origins in our one true God, then He would be lacking in perfect goodness, a thing we already know He cannot do. The only rational conclusion is that evil is a lack of goodness, without substance. But those who reject rationalism may just accept this quandary of the nature of evil as a mystery of the faith, albeit one that has not been divinely revealed, but conjured up as a rejection of Catholic reasoning.
As a result of believing that evil has substance, many Protestants believe that some things are inherently evil and others inherently good, as opposed to the Catholic belief that everything is inherently good, but may become evil if abused or misused. This misconception as to the nature of things invariably leads to wrong attitudes and actions regarding them. For example, although the Bible clearly encourages a time for feasting throughout and holds as holy the union between a man and a woman, puritanical sects believe that our flesh is strictly sinful by nature and so they destroy the good pleasures that God has given us. Often Catholics are criticized for this Biblical delight in material pleasures, as if it is less holy to take joy in God’s creation than to make yourself miserable with self-righteousness. Ironically, monks and nuns are also criticized for their acetic life set apart for worship and work offered to the Lord, but that’s a different story. In her novel, Villette, Charlotte Bronte writes in criticism of Catholic enjoyment of life:
“Each mind was being reared in slavery; but, to prevent reflection from dwelling on this fact, every pretext for physical recreation was seized and made the most of. There, as elsewhere, the CHURCH strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning. ‘Eat, drink and live!’ she says. ‘Look after your bodies; leave your souls to me. I hold their cure – guide their course: I guarantee their final fate.’ A bargain, in which every true Catholic deems himself a gainer. Lucifer just offers the same terms; ‘All this power will I give thee, and the glory of it; for that is delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will, I give it. If thou, therefore, wilt worship me, all shall be thine!'”
Charlotte Bronte’s character, Lucy Snowe, bases this criticism on a common false conception of what it means to be holy as well as an assumed disconnect between the physical and spiritual world, believing that the only thing of value is spiritual good, all pivoting on the definition that evil is a thing in itself and things in this world are either good or evil. You can see then, how different definitions leads to different understanding, different understanding to different actions, and different actions to deep divides. Even if we disagree in these essentials, it is imperitive to be aware of them, to define the real difference between Catholics and Protestants, in order to understand what these faiths are really about and therefore what we are really about.