What does it mean to be a good person?
Groups of people gather in pubs and university classrooms and announce themselves as “good persons.”
Their criteria: they are not Hitler. Congratulations, you managed not to start a world war and not murder millions of people based on their ethnic or religious backgrounds. You must have really struggled to do that. Lots of late-night cups of coffee with your closest mates trying to figure that one out, I assume. Your parents must be proud! There is no guessing about who earned the “I’m not a genocidal dictator” award in college.
Proclaiming yourself a good person because you aren’t Hitler is like saying you are proud you made a bad cup of tea because it isn’t a horrible cup of tea.
An older understanding of “good” might help in explaining why not being Hitler isn’t enough for being a good person. This older and more classical understanding of “good” runs something like the following: “fulfilling its purpose to its highest degree.” We know exactly what a good person looks like because we know exactly what a human person looks like when they fulfil their purpose to their highest degree. The Church has a name for these individuals; they are called saints.
Any genocidal dictator can be swapped for any other genocidal dictator because they all follow the same essential mode of operation, but we cannot say the same about the Saints: Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Saint Augustine, Venerable Fulton Sheen, Saint Bernadette. None of which are interchangeable because their way of being Christ in the world is different from one another: A doctor, a student, a teacher elected Bishop, an Emmy award-winning Bishop, a poor French peasant girl who had apparitions of the Blessed Mother.
We also know how to become good persons. That is, we know how to become Saints. The old Penny Catechism shed light on it for us in its second question: “Why did God make you?” The answer given: “God made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in the next.”
Then later, when asked, “What must you do to save your soul?” The answer the Penny Catechism gives: “To save my soul I must worship God by Faith, Hope and Charity; that is, I must believe in Him, I must hope in Him, and I must love Him with my whole heart.”
In other words, the secret to becoming a good person begins with God and not by comparing ourselves to the worst examples of humanity. If you only compare yourself to the worst, you’ll never be much better than the worst and might even follow in their footsteps.
There is only one way to be evil in the world, reject God. However, there are an infinite number of ways to be Christ and do good and be good in the world, and the Saints exemplify this. Yes, you might not be Hitler, but that doesn’t make you a good person.
Paul Catalanotto is researching human dignity in the writings of John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI at UNDA in Fremantle