A very common phrase, uttered with different variations for years by clergy and laity alike, has distorted Catholic doctrine and sapped faith from many souls: “To get to heaven, all that matters is that you be good person.”
Of course, there is truth in this statement. To be counted among the blessed in heaven, you must be good. But it is a half-truth, which makes it dangerous. This belief, which I like to call the Heresy of Good Personism, contains two grave theological errors: it intentionally distorts the meaning of “good” and it deliberately excludes faith in Christ as the pathway to heaven.
Most heresies and theological errors are shaped by the age and culture in which they appear, and the contemporary theory of the good person who is heaven bound is no exception. Relativistic and indifferent attitudes toward religion and belief, a loss of a sense of sin, an inability and unwillingness to label certain actions as wrong, and a misguided understanding of judging actions and people have all contributed to forming this pernicious shibboleth.
What, then, is a “good person” under this new dispensation? He is someone who has not committed murder or robbery, and who generally gets along tolerably well with his neighbors and colleagues. In other words, anyone who is not a convicted felon seems to count as a good person for whom St. Peter will happily open the pearly gates when his time comes, regardless of whether he worshipped God or violated any of the other eight commandments.
This may sound hyperbolic, but it is the tragic attitude of many uncatechized Catholics of the last few generations. We know God is loving and merciful, but there is no need for forgiveness – and no need for the agony of the Cross and the sacrifice of the Mass – if we are not sinners who have done wrong and seek to become good by God’s grace. By blithely assuming we are good without a correct understanding of God, morality, and all ten commandments, we become guilty of another sin that has also been lost: the sin of presumption.
A good person presumably performs good deeds, and these deeds open us to God’s salvation, a reality that was manifest to Jesus’ contemporaries. “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matt 19:16) “If you would enter eternal life, keep the commandments,” replies Jesus, who then names all of the commandments that concern our relationships with others. (And there’s this: “Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.”) (1 John 2:4)
The Good Shepherd by Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1650
The Teacher’s lesson is abundantly clear: obedience to all of the commandments is a sine qua non condition for being good and entering heaven. We are not permitted to keep only the commandments we prefer, nor may we extrapolate certain actions from their core element – murder is wrong but abortion is personal choice; adultery for the married is wrong but fornication and cohabitation for the young are part of growing up; perjury is wrong but lying in a job interview is competing in the marketplace.
But just before Jesus reiterated the commandments to his questioner, he put them in their proper context: “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good.” (Matt 19:17a) God, the ultimate good, gave us the commandments to bring us into union with him: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40)
The parable of the sheep and the goats, along with several others, articulate how the Old Covenant of the commandments is fulfilled, not abolished, with the New Covenant of Christ’s love. The prohibitions of the Decalogue are reformulated into positive commandments to love God and neighbor. Obedience is not oppression; it is the path to fulfillment, happiness, and true goodness.
By definition, therefore, we can only be good with God. This exposes the other error of the Good Personism theory: that belief in God and his incarnate Son is not necessary for salvation. The pages of Scripture are abundantly clear about the centrality of Jesus Christ as the path to heaven: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
It is of course true that the Church teaches that those invincibly ignorant of Christ and his Church can reach heaven, but their salvation is granted “not without grace” (Lumen Gentium 16), even if such persons are not consciously aware of it. The same Second Vatican Council also teaches that Catholics who fail to persevere in grace “not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be the more severely judged.” (Lumen Gentium 14)
“Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator.” (Lumen Gentium 16) Such is the case with Good Personism, which in explaining salvation has deceitfully expelled God and altered goodness into bland secular tolerance.
Good Personism may not be a heresy in the canonical sense, but it certainly has heresy’s effect: it distorts the teachings of Christ and the Church, and it leads people into moral and spiritual danger.
“One there is who is good.” When considering salvation and the true good person, “we must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)