I don’t have to go to mass to be a good person. He/She doesn’t go to church but at least they do good things.
Heard these lines before? They reflect something I hear often in my experience in evangelization—the claim that a person can be good without going to mass. Implicit in those claims is that being good is what’s ultimately important, and is all that matters. But is any of that true? Can people be “good” without having to go to mass? The question is flawed. The real question should be, “Will your good works get you into heaven without mass?”
The simple answer: Probably not!
We all have friends or family who are baptized Catholics yet haven’t set foot inside a church in years. They may be very nice people who do some very good things, and we can thank God for that. But it’s incorrect and dangerous to think that mass can be taken out of the formula of Goodness and that good works can replace going to mass. It could cost a person their salvation.
“Good” isn’t good enough.
Doing good isn’t valuable by itself. Evil people, or people who are marginally-moral can do good things, too. Jesus does not see all good works as being equal in character, nature, or in value. In scripture he distinguishes the good works of ‘sinners and pagans’ from the good works of holy people
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Do not tax collectors (sinners) do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Don’t pagans do the same? So be perfect (holy) as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Our Lord shows us here that not all “good works” are holy works and not all works of charity merit eternal reward—Heaven. He distinguishes between the good works of sinners and the good works of holy people. And in doing this he never says “be at least as good as the sinners/pagans, and that’ll be good enough” but instead commands us to be holy—to be “perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”.
Everyone is capable of doing good works, whether they’re Catholic or not, and whether or not they go to mass. But God doesn’t see all good works as equal between “sinners/pagans” and “the holy”. He rewards one, but not the other. Why would a loving God reward the good works of some but not of others?
The Necessity of Grace
Heaven is a supernatural end that’s outside of our fallen natural state. Since we are fallen natural creatures we only possess imperfect natural forces (the intellect and the will) that are insufficient for getting us to a perfected, supernatural end. And so we need God’s grace to perfect us, and to propel us beyond our natural fallen state. The state of grace avails us of God’s sanctifying grace—the “supernatural force.” See how St. Thomas Aquinas explains it:
[M]an, by his natural endowments, cannot produce meritorious works proportionate to everlasting life; and for this, a higher force is needed, viz. the force of God’s grace. And thus without grace man cannot merit everlasting life, yet he can perform works conducing to a good which is natural to man.”
(Summa Theologica: Response to Objection 3 of Question 109)
It is natural to man to perform good works. But we need supernatural force to merit eternal life—we need grace. So, can a person “be good” and do good things without being a churchgoer? Sure. But they will only achieve the finite object of that good work. It will not merit eternal life.
Our good will and good works are insufficient “forces” for getting us to heaven, because they are natural forces. For a good work to achieve its perfect object (meriting grace, and gaining our eternal reward), it requires a force proportionate to the objective.
I personally don’t believe Jesus would ignore our good works because we weren’t in a state of grace. I believe he’d consider those things in the grand calculations that take place at judgement. But I also believe they wouldn’t amount to very much by themselves, and people are overestimating the eternal value of “good works” that are separated from grace, from God, and from our union with Jesus’ crucifixion, especially through the mass. The greatest “good work” done on earth is laughably inadequate from the perspective of Heaven. It’s grace that gives them perfection and eternal merit.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a lot to teach us about grace, merit and salvation. These paragraphs are particularly illuminating and pertinent. In them we see that
“The vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative….It surpasses the power of human intellect and will (our nature).” (CCC:1998)
“Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, and to act by his love” (CCC:2000)
In these paragraphs, paired with what we read from Aquinas, we see that
1) Eternal Life is a supernatural calling; our eternal reward.
2) We will never get to Heaven by our good intentions or works, because by themselves they are insufficient for meriting grace.
3) We need God to get us to eternal reward. Grace is a significant component to how He gets us there.
So how does “good works” relate to achieving Heaven and how does mass attendance fit into it all? By good works we merit grace. By that grace—and only by grace—we are enabled to grow in holiness and to achieve our eternal reward. But if we’re not going to mass, we are not in a state of grace; we are blocked from God’s grace, and blocked from the necessary “force” by which we can achieve our eternal reward inHeaven. In short, if we are not in a state of grace our good works merit nothing. “I can be a good person without going to mass!” That may be true. But what’s the point of being good, if being good without God may cause you to lose God forever?
I may publish a second part to this post at a later date, which will cover the difference between goodness and holiness, and will also view the subject of good works without religion through the prism of Jesus’ lived example and words.
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