“Most people are good,” I reassured my three-year-old son who was convinced that a stranger was about to harm me. Over the past few weeks, the toll that the pandemic has taken on his social-emotional development is becoming more apparent: since we taught him to keep away from people for most of his life, it was probably inevitable that he would start to fear them.
My statement was meant to soothe him and to begin to repair the damage that COVID-19 has wrought. However, even as it left my mouth, I began to wonder if I really believed it to be true. Certainly, I did not anticipate being injured by anyone that night, but considering everything that has happened recently in our world, our communities, and the Church, I wondered if I still believed that most people are good? So many of the people I once esteemed as models of faith – both lay and religious members of the Church – have done and supported things in the past few years that are totally opposite of what is good and right. If I hesitate to say that even those faith warriors are good, then who is? As I thought about this, I began to question if the belief in human goodness that I was imparting to my son aligns with what I believe as a Catholic. My journey through the penitential season of Advent and my reflections on my own sins also came into stark focus reminding me that I did not even consider myself to be good.
What we believe about the goodness of most people has a profound impact on the way we live and how we understand our relationship to God. When we believe that most people are not good, then we risk losing our motivation to be better. An example of such thinking appeared in an article about a July debate among members of the Ohio State Board of Education over a resolution to review its curriculum to ensure that racism and bias were adequately addressed. The resolution would also require Department of Education employees and contractors to receive implicit bias training. Board member Mike Toal commented on this training, which he had already received, saying, “I found it disturbing because I could never be that good. Being a Christian, I’ve learned over many, many years that none of us reach that level of purity.” Frankly, if people are bad and there is nothing we can do about it, then he is right to argue that such training is nothing more than disturbing because it simply reminds us of what cannot be. The same could be said of any number of efforts we make to improve ourselves and our world. This negative view of human nature leaves us in a helpless position spiritually as well. Without goodness, what is left for God to redeem?
On the other hand, the belief that people are good flies in the face of what we know about ourselves. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church correctly points out:
“What Revelation makes known to us is confirmed by our own experience. For when man looks into his own heart, he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evil ways from his good creator.” (CCC 401)
Of course, one must only glance at a few news articles to see that this is true. The idea that people are basically good leaves us vulnerable to many mistakes. The Catechism itself states that “ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action, and morals” (CCC 407), and we see this borne out in our own world. Whenever we rely on the goodness of humanity, it invariably fails. The abuses of the trust placed in the goodness of Church leaders (as manifested in the sexual abuse scandals and mistreatment at Canadian residential schools for Indigenous children) are tragic examples of this within the Church. The refusal of many in the Church to comply with public health recommendations during the pandemic, even within our local parishes, is another.
Viewing humankind as simply good or bad is an incomplete understanding of human nature. It sets us up for errors in our thinking and way of life. However, the Church, in her wisdom, has offered us an alternative understanding of the state of humanity: the doctrine of original sin.
This doctrine begins with the creation story. The good God made people and since He is all good, His creation is also good. In a fundamental way, then, all people are good. However, through the sin of Adam and Eve, sin corrupted God’s creations. The Catechism is quick to point out that the way that this happens is a mystery, however, it describes our human condition after sin in this way:
“By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.” (CCC 404)
In other words, the goodness we all have by nature of our status as God’s creation is corrupted. Our Baptism cleanses us from our original sin, but “the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist” (CCC 405). As a result, even those of us who have been cleansed by the waters of Baptism are engaged in a spiritual battle of good and evil throughout our lives. Far from justifying us giving up and settling for our sinful state, it is our obligation as Christians to do everything we can to fight for the victory of good. Pope Francis’s challenging social teachings have made this clear throughout his papacy and I wonder if some of the resistance he has faced stems from a poor understanding of our fallen human nature.
The good news is that while the battle we face is fierce, we are not left to fight it alone. Instead, God Himself fights with us.
“The whole of man’s history has been the story of a dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity.” (CCC 409)
Ironically, it is by facing our own corrupted, fallen nature and our own daily battle with sin that we truly recognize our need for the Savior whose birth marks the end of this penitential season. For if I was wrong in what I told my son and our goodness has been corrupted, then what hope do we have? None save a Savior whose nature has not been similarly marred.
The glad tidings that the angels proclaimed on that first Christmas night were that the good Savior has come! As St Paul tells us: “So then, just as one trespass brought condemnation for all men, so also one act of righteousness brought justification and life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18-19). The Catechism reminds us, “The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the ‘reverse side’ of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ” (CCC 389). That is wonderful news to us who, facing a world that is often so far from good, feel deep within our souls the longing for a Savior and the knowledge that He is our only hope.
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