This is probably the one statement or question I hear most often in my experience in evangelization and apologetics. Coming in several forms, wrapped in a variety of moral claims, it goes something like this…
“I don’t have to go to mass to be a good person.”
Alternatively, “Yeah, I/He/She/They don’t go to mass, but I’m/They’re still a good person, so it isn’t a big deal. At least they’re good people”.
So is it true? Can people be “good” without having to go to mass? I’m going to cover this through three prisms: Jesus’ words and example, the meaning, and meaninglessness of what we call “good”, and finally the question of whether good people who don’t go to mass can get into heaven.
We all have friends or family who are baptized Catholics yet haven’t set foot inside a church in years. They may be exceedingly nice people who do some very good things. And thank God for that, it’s fantastic. But it’s incorrect, and a risky miscalculation to think that mass can be taken out of the formula. It could cost a person their salvation.
“Good” isn’t good enough.
Doing good, by itself, doesn’t qualify us. Evil, or marginally-moral people can do good things, too. Some of the nicest people on earth are also people who do the most terrible things. Being nice isn’t enough, and doing good things isn’t enough, since even morally compromised people can do all of those things, too, even with some regularity. In the end, “good people” don’t get to Heaven. Nice people don’t get to Heaven. Holy people get to Heaven! And getting to Heaven is kind of the point. So the question cannot be “Can I/We be good without going to mass”, but “Can I/We be holy without going to mass?” The answer to both questions is no.
In addition, we have to acknowledge that those who we would call “good people” aren’t consistently good in all that they do. They often are indifferent to, supportive of, or partake in things that are wrong, bad, or objectively evil, even if, whether by moral ignorance, or oversight, they aren’t aware of it. Lots of good people who do good things consistently vote for the most liberal abortion laws you’ve ever heard of!
Good vs. Holy
Don’t get me wrong, I know and love plenty of people who do truly good things, have big hearts, and are nice, kind people, despite the fact that they haven’t gone to mass in years. You might ask “In that case wouldn’t you say they’re good people” No, I wouldn’t. Because that term is very exclusive by its nature, and we unjustly throw it around indiscriminately to everyone who does a good thing. People who do good things aren’t necessarily Good people. And people who speak Spanish aren’t necessarily latino. For someone to be latino, they have to come from that culture/ethnicity. It has to be what they are. For someone to be good, they can’t just do good things. It has to be what they are. They have to be people of Goodness itself or cultivators of goodness itself. Being kind, or doing good things is certainly part of the process of becoming Goodness itself, but it isn’t the end game. Holiness is the end game. Only holy people cultivate goodness itself, and that is what Jesus calls us to do. Not to simply do good things but to cultivate goodness in the world. People of Goodness itself—holy people—don’t simply do good deeds (which anybody else can do, too), but actually cultivate Goodness in the world. That involves doing good things, but it doesn’t end there. Cultivating goodness also involves combating evil, refusing to support it, refusing to be blind or indifferent to it, and making it their life’s purpose, in small or large ways, to uphold and defend the good at all costs.
To be sure, being holy doesn’t mean being perfect people. Being holy means that we are growing in perfection, trying to be more and more like Jesus, living in God’s sanctifying grace, and frequently interfacing with Him sacramentally and in prayer.
The Catholic who is holy cultivates goodness. The Catholic who has broken away from grace (i.e. the mass) merely does good deeds. But they can just as easily do deeds that are not good, or that are objectively evil, because their moral attitude is not solidified by the sanctifying grace available through the mass and the Eucharist. How many lapsed Catholics do good deeds, but also support abortion rights, are pro-contraception, do not support the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman?
What Did Jesus Say and Do?
Jesus didn’t tell us “Don’t worry about the sabbath, and don’t worry about ‘doing this in memory of me’. As long as you’re good to other people, you’re golden!” Jesus never said that. In fact it’s completely contrary to what Jesus told us. He did tell us to love our neighbor, to feed the hungry, and so on, but he also directed us to observe the ten commandments—one of them being to honor the sabbath day—to pray, to receive Holy Communion. He came to fulfill the old covenant, not to destroy it. To bring the law to fullness, not to destroy it. So “just do good things, and you’re golden” is contrary Jesus’ words. Furthermore it’s contrary to the model of his own actions and life.
Jesus himself didn’t only do good things, he was also also a practicing Jew. It wasn’t enough that he cared for others, loved others, fed the hungry, healed the sick, etc. etc. He also prayed, went to the Temple when he was required to and went to synagogue. Who are we to say “As long as I’m good to others, that’s enough” if Jesus Himself never said that, and never lived like that? Better yet, how can we claim greater authority than Jesus? If Jesus said “Do this in memory of me” and “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you”, who are we to say “Hey, as long as I’m a good person, that’s all that matters”? I say again, Jesus never said that, and Jesus never lived that model. What he said, and what he showed us by his very example, was to honor God, the Law, and Himself in religious practice. But hey if your’e higher than Jesus, let me know, because I’d love to get a selfie with you.
What about Heaven and Hell?
I said earlier that only holy people get to Heaven. So what can we say of the salvation of the lapsed Catholics in our lives who, despite never going to mass, are nice people who do good things? Are they going to hell because they never go to mass? Are they going to Haven because they’re at least good people? Only God knows that answer. Anyone who tells you that such people are definitely going to Heaven, or are definitely going to Hell is either mistaken, ignorant, or they’re lying to you. Without getting too deep into salvation theology, here’s what I can offer, which is correct and faithful to the Church’s teaching.
People who practice the faith are definitely going to Heaven. People who are not practicing the faith definitely lose the guarantee of Heaven. That doesn’t mean they’re going to hell. It means they definitely lose the guarantee of Heaven.
What I mean by “practicing the faith” is the person lives the Gospel message (doing good deeds, etc.), works to grow in virtue/holiness, to purge sin from their lives, goes to confession somewhat regularly, receives holy communion (assuming they’re able to), and attends mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. People who are not practicing the faith, but are doing some good things may get to Heaven, and they may not. They may actually go to Hell! Or they may have a very extended stay in Purgatory before eventually getting to Heaven. It all depends on a complex formula, and on factors that only the person and God can possibly know. So ultimately only God knows the person’s fate, but what we know, and can confidently say is that their guarantee of Heaven is lost, and their risk of Hell is very real…despite the fact that they do good things.
Ave Maria, virgo fidelis!