[Doing good]

Dear Donagh,

…. My nieces and nephews are sound young people who seem to have an instinct to do good. Their social responsibility maybe came from the Catholic ethos in their schools, but this is not a connection they make. Do we need to be making that connection for them with Catholicism or is it enough to let them grow in their own goodness?  Miriam

Dear Miriam,

Thanks, this is a very topical question.  It is also a hard one to respond to without annoying people on one side or the other.  Let’s look very briefly at the different sides.

First, the position of someone who says that in the end, all that matters is to do good – no matter what the brand.  We’ll call this the generic position.  Here goes.  The Scriptures say that Jesus “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38).  Isn't that a good enough headline for the rest of us? – just doing good because it is good.  He went far outside the religious boxes of his time to reach people who were thought to be beyond reach.  He praised the “faith of pagans” (Mt 7:10; 15:28; Lk 7:9) – the faith of pagans: try and figure that out!  And he held out more hope for Tyre and Sidon than for Chorazin and Bethsaida (Lk 10:13, 14).  He never did much for anyone’s ego, and much less for any collective ego: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Mt 3:9).  Why would he be concerned then about whether we were Catholics, so long as we went about, like him, doing good? 

Now for the other side.  If you were about to sail across the Atlantic, you could set out with genuine good will and enthusiasm but without a compass or chart of any kind.  Everyone would wish you well and admire your courage; but it would still be a foolish thing to do.  Religious beliefs are like maps.  (It is true that many people become more interested in the maps than in the territory, more concerned with theory than with practice.  But this doesn’t diminish the importance of maps.)  Maps are not the territory; they are guides to the territory.  Before the Christian faith was so called, it was known as “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 11:26; 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22).  It was a path to God, not a destination in itself.  When you follow a known way, you are an inheritor of all the wisdom and experience of those who travelled that way before you.  St Paul told the Colossians they “shared the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col 1:12). You also have a chance to learn from the stupid mistakes many made, and so, unless you are even more stupid yourself, you can avoid making them again. 

The problem with ‘generic’ goodness is that it is like generic fruit (if there were such a thing).  The 19th-century German philosopher, Hegel, wrote, "Would anyone who wished for fruit reject cherries, pears, and grapes, on the grounds that they were only cherries, pears, or grapes, and not fruit?"  Abstract ideas can run away with us and make us downplay concrete reality.  If the only fruits you have ever eaten are cherries, pears, or grapes, all is well.  But some fruits, however attractive-looking, are toxic in varying degrees.  Likewise, ‘generic goodness’ may not be all good.  ‘Good’ is famously difficult to define; in fact, to the mind of the English philosopher, G.E. Moore, it is indefinable.  The word ‘good’ has meaning only within a field of meaning.  We need to know what field of meaning we are operating in.  To a burglar, for example, a ‘good’ burglar alarm would be a bad one.  The Christian faith can be seen as a field of meaning.  St John’s gospel begins with the words, “In the beginning was the Word.”  This is a translation of the Greek word ‘Logos’, which could equally well (perhaps better) be translated as ‘Meaning’: “In the beginning was the Meaning.”  And a few lines later, “The Meaning became flesh and lived among us.”  And several chapters later, Jesus, the Meaning made flesh, says, “I am the way” (Jn 14:6).  The Christian faith is stubbornly resistant to absorption by the abstract; it is not a generic idea, but a way. 
To set out in life “to do good,” as your nieces and nephews do, is indeed a beautiful thing – heart-breaking, in a way, because we know how treacherous and uncharted the path is, and how easily good people can be exploited.  It is the nature of young people, of course, to explore; and far from discouraging this, we ought to support them in their search.  Anything that they really find has to be fruit of a personal search.  If it is not that, it is not yet really theirs.  “Do we need to be making a connection for them with Catholicism?” you ask.  Yes, I believe.  But it has to be a connection they see, rather than one they only hear about.  In the past, teachers and preachers had assured confidence in the effectiveness of good advice, but today good advice has little power.  As someone put it, we took the Good News and turned it into good advice.  But when young people see the Good News – the Gospel – actually working, they make the connection themselves.  Let me give you an example of this. 

I once spent an afternoon in ‘Kevin’s Kitchen’.  Kevin is a Capuchin brother who has been running a care centre in Dublin since 1969, where he manages, among other things, to give a full Irish breakfast to around 250 disadvantaged people every morning, and between 400 and 500 full dinners every day.  He is helped by an army of volunteers, and many people who give financial support.  Through a half-open door I spotted a young teenage girl, all alone, washing dinnerplates – piles of them higher than herself.  She had visited with her school, and later came back regularly to do voluntary work.  When something genuine is being done, young people are often the first to join in.  This is the real connection we have to make for them: we have to live the Faith ourselves rather than just talk about it. 

I should now take my own advice and stop talking; this response has been over-long. 


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