‘It doesn’t matter what you believe . . .’ Print
Word on Fire
Written by Fr. Robert Barron   
Thursday, Dec. 04, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

A team of sociologists, led by Catholic University professor William D'Antonio, published a survey a few years ago that received quite a bit of media attention, for it showed that many Catholics disagree with core doctrines of the Church and still consider themselves "good Catholics."

Forty percent of the respondents said that belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not essential to being a faithful Catholic. Perhaps the most startling statistic is this: 88 percent of those surveyed said "how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is a Catholic."

Cavalier attitude is rampant

This sort of cavalier attitude toward doctrine is rampant, at least in the West. I dare say that most people in Europe or North America would hold some version of the following: as long as, deep down, you are a good person, it doesn’t much matter what you believe.

The intellectual pedigree of this popular idea can be traced back to the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who held that religion is fundamentally reducible to ethics. All other forms of religious life and practice — dogmas, rituals, liturgies, sacraments, etc. —are meant simply to contribute to upright moral behavior.

In the measure that they fulfill this purpose, they are acceptable, but in the measure that they contribute nothing to ethics, they become irrelevant, even dangerous.

Splitting of doctrine, ethics

I would argue that what is truly dangerous is the bifurcation between doctrine and ethics that Kant inaugurated and that has become so ingrained in the contemporary imagination.

For though our culture rarely admits it, so many of the ethical norms that we take for granted are deeply rooted in very definite doctrinal claims of the Judeo-Christian traditions. When the dogmas are ignored or declared irrelevant, the normativity of the moral claims is, sooner or later, attenuated.

Most people would characterize "being a good person" as treating others with love, honoring the dignity, freedom, and inherent worth of their fellow human beings. Most would agree that ethical violations -- stealing, lying, sexual misbehavior, infidelity, cheating, doing physical harm, etc. -- are correctly seen as negations of love.

What is true love?

But what is love? Love is not primarily a feeling or an instinct; rather, it is the act of willing the good of the other as other. It is radical self-gift, living for the sake of the other. To be kind to someone else so that he might be kind to you, or to treat a fellow human being justly so that he might treat you with justice is not to love, for such moves are tantamount to indirect self-interest. Truly to love is to move outside of one’s egotism.

But this means that love is rightly described as a "theological virtue," for it represents a participation in the love that God is. All of the great masters of the Christian spiritual tradition saw that we are able to love only inasmuch as we have received, as a grace, a share in the very life, energy, and nature of God.

Human beings created by God

Why, precisely, are we convinced that our fellow human beings are in possession of rights, dignity, and inherent worth? This conviction has become so ingrained in us, so taken for granted, that we forget how theological it is.

Every human being -- regardless of considerations of race, education, intelligence, strength, or accomplishment -- is a subject of inestimable value because he or she has been created by God and destined by God for eternal life. Take God out of the equation, and human dignity rather rapidly evanesces.

Denying belief in God

If you doubt me, I would invite you to look to societies in which belief in a Creator God was not operative. In classical Greece, only a certain handful of people -- aristocratic, virtuous, propertied, and well-educated -- were seen as worthy of respect. Everyone else was expected to do as he or she was told. Infants deemed imperfect could be exposed, and a startlingly large number of people were consigned to slavery.

In the secular totalitarianisms of the last century, human dignity was so little respected that the piling up of tens of millions of corpses was seen as an acceptable political strategy.

In our commitment to love and human dignity, we are, whether we know it or not, operating out of a theological consciousness. When the doctrines and practices that support religious consciousness are dismissed, the moral convictions born of that consciousness are imperiled.

This is the massively important point missed by those who so blithely say, "It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you're a nice person."


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org