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Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

On Tow Trucks and the Vision of the Good

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 04, 2013

As I watched my car being towed away for repair today, I did what any Catholic would do in the same circumstances: I contemplated the Good. What I saw initially was a young man, perhaps no more than a third of my age, going through all kinds of extra work to get my vehicle onto the truck, because the ignition cylinder was frozen and the wheels were locked. It was hard to get it into an alignment with the truck which would permit it to be winched onto the bed. This young man was unfailingly cheerful, remarkably creative, commendably resilient, and tough as nails.

I was seeing a portion of the Good.

Naturally this reminded me of Pope Francis’ answer to one of the questions asked by Eugenio Scalfari, who is, as you will recall, an atheist. The question was really something of a direct challenge: “Your Holiness, is there a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?”

Here is the Pope’s answer:

Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good…. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.

This has struck many Catholics as problematic, but in fact it is both true and an excellent starting point. Indeed, I believe it is the only possible starting point.

Objectively speaking, there IS one complete and totally correct vision of the Good, but it is not the “Catholic vision”, it is God’s knowledge of Himself. The Good is infinite, and no human person, no organization, no religion—not even Catholicism—can offer anything more than a partial grasp of it. In fact, no two persons have or even can have identical visions of the Good, because each unique personality has a particular genius for perceiving some aspects of the Good more than others, and each person’s unique life experience similarly enables him to see some aspects of the Good more clearly than others.

Note that I am certain that all the teachings of the Catholic Church are true, and true for everybody. Certainly two persons who completely accept all of those teachings will have many points—without question the most important points—in common. But note carefully: They will not therefore have identical visions of the Good.

Such identity would be possible only for clones. Instead, it is precisely because we are characterized by a finite differentiation in our perception of the Good that we can all be mutually enriching to each other. This is true not only of individuals but of whole cultures, each of which excels in some perceptions of the Good while miserably falling short in others. Not even the Church herself grasps the Good whole and entire, and this explains why our philosophy and theology can develop in very positive ways through contact with the sensibilities, ideas and achievements of other people or other times. One thinks immediately of the relationship between the Catholic Aquinas and the pagan Aristotle.

Now it is a basic reality of human nature that each person yearns for the Good and perceives some aspects of it; each person inescapably has his own vision of the Good; and each person is morally bound to pursue the Good insofar as he knows it. Moreover, it is also true that if every person would follow his own vision of the good, however imperfect it may be, this would (as the Pope affirmed) “be enough to make the world a better place.” It would certainly be better than denying that the Good exists (it is this denial, and not mere mistakes about what is true, that constitutes relativism) or preferring one’s own self-interest and desires to what one actually knows to be good.

Right and Wrong Questions

Scalfari, perhaps in an eagerness to challenge what he perceived as the “Catholic” view, asked the wrong question if he thought to box the Pope into a corner. He might have asked whether there are any aspects of the Good that we can know through reason, aspects which honest persons are bound to incorporate into their understanding. That would have been an important philosophical question. Or he might have asked whether Divine Revelation provides a certain knowledge of important aspects of the Good, or whether the Church has the authority to settle a certain range of questions about the Good once and for all. These would be legitimate theological questions. But Scalfari would have to progress beyond atheism to address them.

Catholics, including Pope Francis, know that our vision of the Good is enormously enhanced by a grasp of the natural law, by Revelation and the subsequent teachings of the Church, by the improvements in our intellectual capacity under the influence of sacramental grace, by our deepening experience of God in prayer—in other words, by the ever-increasing fullness of our life in Christ. These are gifts of inestimable value that we are impelled by Our Lord’s own command to offer to everyone. Their value is so great that there can be no person whose vision of the Good will not be immeasurably enhanced by accepting them. And they certainly create in us a distinctive Catholic vision of the Good.

But though the vision is true, it is partial. It is not the One Vision; it is not God’s knowledge of Himself. Catholics insist upon the truth of the elements of this vision which the Church provides, but they also know that each person receives these elements slightly differently, with changes in emphasis and development which enable each one to be a source of enrichment to others, even within the household of the Faith. They also distrust the inescapable peculiarity of their own perceptions enough to know that submission to the correction of the Church is absolutely necessary, lest they squander the gift. They understand that the Church alone guarantees us access to the most important aspects of the Good, those which God Himself particularly wants us—as finite beings with very limited vision—to get right.

But once again, apart from God’s knowledge of Himself, Catholics do not believe there is “one vision of the Good”, or that only Catholics have anything to contribute to the necessarily finite vision we are constrained to enjoy. Yet all persons do yearn for the Good, perceiving aspects of it which they are bound to follow, despite their imperfection. It is the task of philosophy and, above all, of evangelization to deepen and enrich that perception. Each person’s partial grasp of the Good is the only possible point of departure for that journey.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 08, 2013 7:30 AM ET USA

    It is not demonstrably true that following the good and fighting evil as each sees it is enough to make the world a better place. The implications are enormous for those who do not believe in the concept of an "encumbered conscience" as one writer has put it. (The American Myth of Religious Freedom) Craycraft. In fact many define freedom of religion as necessarily excluding any objective (and binding) absolutes or teaching authority. But these issues are not new, and neither is the Church.