Goodness, Like Truth and Beauty, is a Powerful Thing

Clearly, goodness, like beauty, is a powerful tool for the evangelization of the world.

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), “Virgin and Lamb”
William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), “Virgin and Lamb” (photo: Public Domain)

Interpreting transcripts is a special skill that I have picked up over my years as the academic dean of the seminary division of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy. It can sound mind-numbing, but, in fact, it is often like solving a mystery!

From attempting to understand the difference between an American grading system (i.e., A, B, C, etc.) and an Australian one (“D” and “HD” which, incidentally, means “Distinction” and “High Distinction”) to figuring out if the history of philosophy covered in three semesters instead of the usual four is sufficient, my spring semester and part of the late summer is spent pouring carefully over grades and transcripts of potential seminarians. At the end of the day, my eyes are strained, my academic evaluation is complete, but in some cases, the mystery is only beginning!

Course titles can be the bane of my existence at this time of the year. For every straightforward title like “Introduction to Metaphysics,” I can receive a transcript which reads that the student has taken “God, the Universe, and Everything,” which, to me, sounds like a Douglas Adams’ novel. (By the way, “God, the Universe, and Everything” IS a class in metaphysics!) One course title really stood out recently and it took me a while to figure out what the content of the class actually was. It was titled “Living the Good Life.” Before reading the actual course description, I thought it was a class on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with Robin Leach!” In fact, it was a class on ethics.

“Living the Good Life” is not just meant for this world — no, it is meant for us to live a life of goodness so we can be with the Lord in the next. So, a question then: What does “goodness” mean, especially in light of the transcendentals? How can goodness, as a transcendental, be used to assist in evangelization, especially in light of what one of the Church’s primary evangelists, Bishop Robert E. Barron, has to say about it?

By way of a reminder, allow me to restate the definition of the transcendentals, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 40, 41):

Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking. All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. the manifold perfections of creatures — their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures" perfections as our starting point, "for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”

John L. Allen, Jr., in his interview with Bishop Barron (To Light a Fire on the Earth, 2017), states:

In Christian tradition, beauty, goodness, and truth are known as “transcendentals,” linked to the three core human abilities to feel, to wish, and to think. Jesus refers to them in the Great Commandment when he talks about the mind, the soul, and the heart, and inducements formed the core of his temptation scene in the Gospels.

What does “living the good life” mean, according to Bishop Barron. In To Light a Fire on the Earth, the Bishop states:

In the earliest days of the Christian movement, when both Jews and Greek looked upon the nascent faith as either scandalous or irrational, it was the moral goodness of the followers of Jesus that brought many to belief. The Church father Tertullian conveyed the wondering pagan reaction to the early Church in his famous adage, “How these Christians love one another!” At a time when the exposure of malformed infants were commonplace, when the poor and the sick were often left to their own devices, and when murderous revenge was a matter of course, the early Christians cared for unwanted babies, gave succor to the sick and the dying, and endeavored to forgive the persecutors of the faith. And this goodness extended not simply to their own brothers and sisters but astonishingly, to outsiders and to enemies. This peculiarly excessive form or moral decency convinced many people that something strange was afoot among these disciples of Jesus, something splendid and rare. It compelled them to take a deeper look.

As someone who has been involved in seminary formation for many years, I have discovered that actually encountering the joyfulness of religious sisters, brothers, and seminarians is the very best recruiting tool. When my own family and friends visiting me in Rome encountered the seminarians at the Pontifical North American College, they could not help but be impressed by the genuineness, the faith, and the generosity of these young men. When they met the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma who bless us with their presence in this seminary, my family and friends have told me that the joyfulness, intelligence, and dedication of the sisters made them want to be better Christians and better people. Encountering genuinely good and kind believers helps make the world a little bit better! Bishop Barron notes that this is true in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the rise of the great mendicant saints, Dominic and Francis, and in our own lifetimes, with Teresa of Calcutta and John Paul II. For Bishop Barron, we need to look to our “legendary role models of holiness and goodness,” the saints.

According to John R. Allen, Jr., Bishop Barron believes in the power of goodness to evangelize, with the Bishop stating: “Show, don’t tell.” Allen writes:

Barron is convinced that the moral teachings of Catholicism are true, and that people who strive to practice them will live healthier, happier, more fulfilled lives. At the same time, he knows that in a postmodern, secular world, “rule-talk” often comes off as an attempt to limit people’s freedom, not to free them to become the persons God intends them to be. Therefore, the right way to deploy “the good” as a missionary tool is to start by showing people what a genuinely Christian life at its best looks like- and then, gradually, to lead people to appreciate the principles and norms which make that kind of heroic life possible.

The ultimate credibility to Divine Revelation, as Bishop Barron notes, comes in the example of the martyrs. Previously, in the Register, I had written concerning the martyrs, commenting on the Roman Basilica of San Stefano Rotondo and the frescoes of the martyrs on the walls of the Church:

I urge you today to examine these paintings. They are brutal, they are grotesque, and they are disturbing, but, then again, so too can life be, especially life in our contemporary world. These images are meant to shock us, to wake us up from our this-worldly slumber to the reality of what the world is for Christians, those who are in the world and yet not of the world. As Flannery O’Connor commented : “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” The world, by and large, does not hold the same beliefs as you and I do. It does not speak the same language as the Christian does. So, this Basilica of San Stefano serves a powerful purpose- to scream at us Christians, urging us to wake up! The martyrs depicted here are meant to inspire courage in the hearts of Christians, imploring those who are able to do so to perceive beyond the values set by this world, begging us to grow in an openness to the supernatural in our all too natural, fallen world.

These martyrs depicted here speak to us today. These martyrs make the faith credible. They are the ultimate expression of the credibility of Divine Revelation. This was true in the past and it is true in the present. To give a contemporary example, when ISIS savagely murdered 20 Egyptian men and 1 Ghanaian man Jan. 15, 2015, and then later had the audacity to release the video Feb. 15, 2015, stating that “Rome is next,” their plan backfired. Instead of provoking fear into the hearts of the Christian world, for those that believe, these 20 Coptic Christians and one Muslim, were and are inspirations. The Muslim man, Matthew Ayariga, was, by his actions, baptized in blood, convinced of the truth of the Christian faith due to the witness of his fellow workers. “Their God is my God. I will go with them,” he uttered even when he could have been pardoned by his executioners.

Bishop Barron speaks about teleology being essential. Bishop Barron mentions that the reason that the saints and martyrs are such examples of goodness is that they have a proper teleology. He states: “Classic moral thinkers considered the ethical act in terms of its purpose or finality.” (75) I add to this concept that one of the biggest factors mitigating against morality is the loss of our “eschatological edge.” People have lost sight of the reality and urgency of the Four Last Things — death, judgment, heaven, and hell. What do I mean? Namely this (please note that I had previously written about this “eschatological end” for the Register):

As we well know, the sense of the eschaton was greater in the early Church. What is the eschaton? It is the end time. Eschatology is the study of the reality of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Sadly, the four last things are not preached about very often today. and, when they are, there seems to be some confusion concerning them. But the early followers of the Way, who daily were risking their lives because they believed in Christ, who were considered enemies of the state due to their faith, truly believed that, at any moment, Jesus, King of Glory and Lord of the World could descend, just as he had ascended, to judge each man according to his deeds.

When Jesus didn’t come back after a year, after 10 years, or even after 50 years, perhaps the early Christians, facing death for their Faith, began to lose heart. Perhaps some even fell away. Evidently, Saint Paul felt that the best way to bolster the young Church was to exhort it to hold tight to hope in Christ’s coming. Hence 1 Thessalonians. Christians, over time, began to forget that, at any moment, the Bridegroom could come again, like a thief in the night, and they could be caught wallowing in the mire of their own fear. Saint Paul wanted to remind them what a great reward lay in store for their perseverance amidst persecution.

Using a theologian with whom Bishop Barron is particularly familiar (note that the Bishop completed his doctoral dissertation in Sacred Theology on a comparison of the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Paul Tillich), I noted in the aforementioned article:

The systematic theologian, Paul Tillich, asked what our area of ultimate concern is. What did he mean? It’s a theological term for something actually pretty simple. In our lives, we have plenty of real concerns: health, career, and so many other aspects of the daily grind. But, if we were asked, what is really our ultimate concern, on what really do we base our lives, what would we say? Tillich stated that our religion has to be our ultimate concern. It will be the only thing that will survive when this material world passes away. According to this Protestant theologian, offering us Catholics some good advice, our faith, the daily living out of our religion, has to truly be the area of our ultimate concern. It has to be that which animates us, that which we think about when we consider our life’s decisions. Do we really believe that our actions and attitudes lead us towards the Lord or away from the Lord? Are we aiming for Heaven or heading directly away? Do we know that the Lord, who is Savior and Redeemer, who is the Lord of Mercy, but also the Lord of Righteousness and the Just Judge, is coming at a time when we do not know? This should not frighten us but should make us realize that all this stuff—death, judgment, Heaven, purgatory, and hell—is very, very real. What is our ultimate concern? If it’s not the salvation of our immortal soul, then we need to reevaluate our lives.

We can never forget the purpose of goodness. Often, campus ministers begin with goodness. We all want to do good for others. We all, deep down, have a great desire to serve. This is great, but we cannot ever forget precisely why it is we do the good we do. We love our neighbor as ourselves because we see the imago dei in them. In and of itself, any outreach to the less fortunate, can be done, and quite successfully, in a secular context. What makes it religious is that we have first experienced the beguiling beauty of Christ, encountered in prayer (especially in the Mass) and in the faces of our brothers and sisters. To do otherwise, to begin with goodness, might lead us down a path to secular service.

Clearly, goodness, like beauty, is a powerful tool for the evangelization of the world. In the next piece on the theology of Bishop Barron, I will conclude this series on the Bishop’s thought on the transcendentals with an exploration of truth, and prepare us for us for a deeper exploration of two of Barron’s classic texts, And Now I See (1998) and The Priority of Christ (2007), which are my personal favorites among his work.