Driving home from Mass on Sunday mornings I would sit and listen to my parents’ conversation. If they were talking about something I wasn’t particularly interested in I would just ignore them and spend the time thinking about baseball cards, comic books or other things of interest to a 12-year-old boy. But often I would focus on their conversation which usually centered on something that happened at church or someone they saw at church. And when they would talk about someone at church they would frequently use the phrase, “good Catholic.”
The use of this term always came up in relation to a person my parents had seen or talked to that morning. Dad would say to mom, “Bill Smith is a really good Catholic,” or mom would talk about the mother of one of my friends and say to me, “Bobby’s mom is such a good Catholic.” Use of the term “good Catholic” was always reserved for some third party. My dad never said to mom, “Honey, you are a really good Catholic.” And I am pretty certain no one, not my parents or my teachers at school or any of the priests at our parish, ever said to me, “John, you are a good Catholic.” So I would sometimes wonder why Bobby’s mom or Mr. Smith were good Catholics but my mom and dad never seemed to recognize that trait in each other – or in me.
The Larger Picture
From time to time over the last 50 years I have heard that term “good Catholic” and always wonder what it means. If some people are good Catholics does that mean the rest of us are not good Catholics? Exactly what do we look for when designating a person as a good Catholic? To answer the question, “What is a good Catholic?” we must start by answering the more general question, “What is a Catholic?”
There are many websites on the Internet which explain, with varying degrees of complexity, what it means to be a Catholic. The Archdiocese of Boston’s website, for example, even has a tab you can click that takes you to a page entitled “Being Catholic.” Similarly, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (“USCCB”) provides on their website information about being Catholic under such headings as “Who We Teach”, “How We Teach” and “What We Believe.” But simply listing things that Catholics do and believe seems rather dry and formulaic. It feels like once you check off all the things on the list – you are Catholic.
I don’t deny that being Catholic means we believe and do certain things, certain rituals and practices, but the believing and the doing of these things is only a part of what it means to be a Catholic. Everyone who comes into the Catholic Church – either through Baptism or by making a profession of faith at Easter – commits himself to knowing, understanding, and believing all the Catholic Church professes and holds to be true. In the case of an infant baptized in the Catholic Church this commitment is made initially by the parents and godparents. In the case of older children or adults who become Catholic by making a profession of faith, the commitment to know and believe what the Church professes and holds to be true is made personally.
The Minimum Criterion
So, if a person identifies as Catholic through Baptism or a profession of faith and participates in Sunday Mass and other Catholic practices such as saying the Rosary, attending Stations of the Cross during the Lenten Season, participating in 40 Hours Devotions, etc. it would be accurate to say that person is a Catholic.
But what about someone who only periodically attends Mass on Sunday and owns a Rosary but rarely prays it. Would we still say that this person is Catholic? The answer is, technically, “yes”. I could give different scenarios about what makes someone a Catholic, but I think it is clear that any person who has been baptized in the Catholic Church or made a profession of faith and never formally rejected his faith (or been excommunicated) would be considered a Catholic in a literal sense. Intentionally missing Mass on Sunday without a justifiable reason is always a serious sin, and serious sin always has a negative effect on our relationship with God. However, sin – no matter how serious – does not by itself cause someone to lose his status as a Catholic.
There is a broad spectrum of individuals who vary in the practice of their faith. At one end of this spectrum are those who seem outwardly to meet the bare minimum of “Catholic” qualities. At the other end of the spectrum are those individuals who outwardly display an abundance of these Catholic qualities or characteristics: they regularly attend Sunday Mass, they go to the Stations of the Cross during Lent or participate in 40 hours devotions and they have a regular prayer life, maybe praying the Rosary frequently or even daily. Once we identify the basic concept of what makes a person Catholic – namely, a valid Baptism that hasn’t been renounced through heresy or excommunication – it should be fairly easy to determine who is a good Catholic. Logic would dictate that the closer you are to the active-participation-in-the-life-of-the-Church end of the spectrum the more likely you are to be a “good Catholic”.
A Matter of the Heart
Well, not so fast. Even if there were some sure-fire way to look at an individual and tell if he is a minimal Catholic, an active Catholic, or somewhere else on the spectrum, this wouldn’t mean you could tell if they are a “good Catholic” or not. This is because what makes someone a good Catholic depends not just on what is outwardly observable but also on a certain inner quality. This inner quality is at least as important as a person’s outward behavior in determining whether or not he is a “good Catholic” because it relates primarily to one’s personal relationship with God.
We must always remember Jesus’ words that, “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Doing the will of the Father requires prayer and discernment, and only someone with an active personal relationship with God will invest time necessary to know the will of the Father. We cannot say, based solely on the observation of someone’s exterior words and actions, that a person is a good Catholic or even a better Catholic than someone else.
The Pharisee and the Publican
Perhaps the point about judging whether someone is a good or not so good Catholic is best exemplified in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). In this parable, Jesus tells of two men, one a Pharisee and the other a Tax Collector, who go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee gives thanks to God for being, well, for being just wonderful. He gives thanks that he is, apparently, not “greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” The Pharisee then goes on to remind God how he fasts twice a week and how he tithes based on his entire income. And he does this while standing in a place where everyone in the Temple can see him.
The Tax Collector, on the other hand, stands in the back of the Temple and does not even raise his eyes to heaven. In this humble way he prays asking God to show mercy towards him because he is a sinner. Jesus tells us that it is the Tax Collector who is acceptable to God while the Pharisee is not. Judging solely on outward behavior the Pharisee was the “good” man who tithed and fasted and prayed in the Temple, giving thanks to God because he was such a righteous man. But judging by the quality of the internal relationship with God, it seems the Pharisee is all about himself and only secondarily concerned with God. The Tax Collector, however, admits his weaknesses and his sinfulness and places himself in God’s mercy. His relationship with God is not externally obvious but internally it is clear that he seeks to do God’s will, to be a better, less sinful person. This is why Jesus tells us that the Tax Collector is justified (saved) but the Pharisee is not. It is the interior quality of our relationship with God that counts most in religious practice.
Why Jesus Said, “Do Not Judge”
Nor am I saying that outwardly faithful people are not good Catholics, while all those who are outwardly marginal Catholics are actually good ones. That is not my point. It stands to reason that most Catholics who attend Sunday Mass regularly, have a significant prayer life and practice the corporal works of mercy, also have a good personal relationship with God. It is quite likely that they are good Catholics. It is also quite likely that Catholics who rarely go to Sunday Mass, who pray infrequently and who do not otherwise practice their faith or think much about having a personal relationship with God are not particularly good Catholics. My point is simply this: since we cannot tell, based solely on exterior behavior, whether an individual is or is not a good Catholic, and we should not even attempt to judge. Maybe this is why Jesus cautions followers to “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1).
Being a good Catholic depends both on having a personal relationship with God and living the faith in a vibrant way. In turn, living one’s faith means following the teachings of Jesus Christ, the moral law, and the precepts of the Church He founded. When Jesus told His followers not to judge, He wasn’t implying that people don’t sin. Rather, His point was simply that we should not judge because only God can judge. A “good Catholic”, therefore, is not one who is “good” in the eyes of others, but one who is “good” in the eyes of God.