Good and Evil – Protestant vs. Catholic Definitions

September 28, 2009

“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.

In Need of Encouragement

September 11, 2009

I read a few amazon reviews of books aimed at “saving Catholics” who are sadly without knowledge of the gospel. It’s amazing how people resort to rhetoric snatched from the blurred edges of their memory, mindlessly repeated half-baked lies and flipping from one learned talking point to the next when challenged. I knew a girl when I was young who although her faith was sincere, she didn’t think about it much or question what she was told. She instead memorized and repeated “spiritual” language like a pro, neatly boxed up for every occasion. It really used to annoy me. When I read the lingo-ridden block paragraphs lamenting the dead faith of Catholics, flippantly deriding the Catholic “works driven” salvation, tossing a bone in the form of a half-hearted “God help them” prayer, the voice in my head is always the one of the girl I used to know. Bizarre.

I get discouraged when it seems like no one listens, no matter how many times you repeat that you do not worship Mary and the Saints and that the Pope is not the Anti-Christ (Seriously, have they read the Bible? Do they even know how the Anti-Christ is described?). I wish that I could explain things better and help people understand what the Catholic Church teaches and see her for the beautiful and spotless Bride of Christ that she is. I can’t stand the insults and blind hatred; people throwing her human failings in her face, abandoning her when she adamantly calls sin a sin, criticizing and deriding her. People call Catholics idolaters and morons. They call the Church at best an obsolete antiquity or at worst the whore of Babylon. A raging war is constantly swirling around the Catholic Church, and at times that’s all there seems to be. I feel helpless to even lift my voice in protest, since “they have ears but they do not hear”.

When your eyes have been opened, it’s hard to remember what it was like to be blind, and there’s no chance of forgetting the truth you’ve seen. Chris has told me, while I anguish over the attacks on the Body of Christ and the stubborn souls who lack understanding, not to forget where I was five years ago. It’s hard to keep in mind. My journey to Rome has been unpredictable and fraught with landmines. I was so stubborn, so lost, so ignorant and willful. Neither Chris nor I ever imagined my conversion, and the only explanation is the grace of God. I thank God that Chris obeyed Him and married me. I thank God for answering my desperate prayers throughout my life and showing me His truth. It truly was an act of God that my ears were opened, that I heard the corrections to my misconceptions after the five hundredth time.

I remember the flip in my mind, when I saw that succession from the Apostles was important, and I was angry that I had been wrong. I didn’t want to admit it, or listen further. I told Chris, “I’ll be so mad at you if you’re right.” and he said, “Why?? Don’t you want to be united as a family?” I didn’t really. I wanted to be right and for him to change his mind. But more than that, I wanted God’s honest truth. After so many arguments, repeated over and over, God touched me that I might hear, and there was still a long, hard road to go down, accepting the authority of the Church and its many hard teachings. What do I expect from my family and friends and strangers on the internet? Do I expect after I was so mired in the Protestant paradigm that they can easily hear the words “Catholics believe we are saved by grace and we can’t earn our way to heaven!!!”? (My mom has finally assented to that in conversation. Thanks be to God!)

Looking back, I wasn’t convinced of the truth in Catholicism, I was drawn into it. I told Chris I would marry him only three days after meeting him because his faith drew me. He was assured of its truth, but more than this I saw from the way he spoke that God carried weight with him. I knew Chris was someone who would seek the heart of God, face His truth, and follow His will. I wanted a husband like that. Chris continued to surrender to God’s will and live a Catholic faith that was attractive and very different than any stereotypes I had heard passed around. That was the reason I listened, and maybe that is all that we can really do. We can’t convince anyone with a good argument or change their minds by showing them how every Catholic belief has Biblical support. We can live a life committed to doing God’s will and allow Him to draw people through His work in us. Maybe that’s why Mother Teresa didn’t try to coerce anyone into converting. Doesn’t work anyway.

The battle rages and silent victories are won. Non-famous people join the Church in obscurity living quiet lives of servitude and piety. But I have to thank the commenters on this blog and writers of others for not being so silent about their faith. When I’m up against a wall of resistance, I am encouraged thinking of the evangelical professor who cared more about the truth than his career, the one wife who also listened to her husband, the other wife who prays for hers, the pilgrim who visits area churches with his daughter, the cradle Catholic who proves the stereotype wrong with a well-informed and fiery faith, and everyone who shares a glimpse of their Catholic heart for Christ. It’s good to know that not everyone is crazy and to witness these small miracles.

Becoming Catholic

September 4, 2009

I registered for RCIA last night. It was only an informal setup to meet the people running the classes and to fill out forms, give them your baptism certificate, find out how the program works, when classes start (in two weeks), etc. I talked to the lady who does the organization part of RCIA for a while. She asked all about my family and why I was there, initially very carefully and diplomatically, probably in case I was a skittish Protestant. So I ended up going through the whole story of how Chris and I met, and how he was able to convert after moving to America, how I became convinced of the truth of the Catholic Faith, etc. She was very excited by it, and said this story topped any she’s heard. At one point she used the phrase “become one of us” and I almost laughed. At least I know there is a Church-faithful Catholic involved in RCIA at our parish. It’s a fairly liberal parish, in a rather liberal city, so I’m wondering how this is all going to go.

I’m looking forward to joining the Church. I’m most looking forward to my first communion, which is one of the things that has moved me to go ahead rather than give this any more time to percolate. I really want the life that Christ has promised in his Body and Blood. I’m nervous though, and feel a little like I’m rolling down a steep incline uncontrollably toward my inevitable future. I dread telling my parents, on the level of when I told them I was pregnant before we were married, although I’m sure I’m working myself up over nothing and will get little overt response. I’ll probably get more sarcastic below the belt remarks like when I told my parents, “Hey, I wanted to ask you something.” and my dad answered, “No, we’re not going to become Catholic.” It’s not like they don’t expect it. I’m sure they’ll just take every opportunity to remind me of the “truth” and as my dad says “go back to the basics” that we agree on. He almost chants “saved by faith through grace” sometimes. I want to say “Yes, dad, but what exactly do you think that means?”… “saved by surrender to Christ through the gratuitous gift of God enabling us to do His will.” I’m not sure he’d agree with that understanding, but what fault can he find with it?

As a side note, I’m considering getting a Masters in Theology from the Augustine Institute, part time and long distance. I read so much already, it’d be nice to have some instruction and direction. Yet, I’m not sure that a physics/math B.S. is a sufficient preparation for it. And I really don’t know what I’d do for a recommendation letter. My astronomy professor I interned for and keep in touch with would write a letter, but has no idea what they’re looking for. Neither do I, really. Thoughts?