Do Christian Virtues Exist in People Without God?
Some friends of mine have no religion whatever, yet they are honest and give generously to charity. Some practising Catholic friends of mine, who should know better, are dishonest and stingy. How is it that some folk can practise the so-called Christian virtues without any belief in God or relying on his grace? Martina
Let me take you back to the 4th century BC. The Greek philosophers, who knew nothing of God and his grace, had some sound ideas about how to be good citizens.
Every Being Acts According to its Nature
Aristotle, for example, taught that there are certain self-evident truths shared by all humanity, such as the rules of logical reasoning and the need for laws to ensure that people respect one another’s duties and rights. Every being acts according to its nature, so human beings act according to the rational nature which governs their moral life.
We must do good and avoid doing evil. This is one of his self-evident truths which Christian scholars have embraced.
Human behaviour has a natural tendency to do good and seek harmony, even without any explicit desire for God and his support.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church points that this “natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties” (1956).
When you observe or admire others who are upright and genuinely concerned about helping people in need, think of those ancient Greeks. There is a natural goodness in all of us.
Christians Who Fall Short
Practising Catholics who lack this kind of readiness to come to the aid of others are obviously not living up to the demands made by Christ who said: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).
We who are baptised in Christ and have faith in him enjoy the support of his grace which, though freely given, requires our commitment to take up the cross and follow him.
Do All We Do For His Sake
The difference between living a good moral life and a good Christian life is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3-11).
There Jesus emphasises that, if we want to enter his kingdom, we have to do all we do for his sake. We must be ready to be like him: poor, humble, pure of heart, persecuted. We must love others for his sake as well as theirs.
Does this mean that we are then better persons than those who do good without a religious motive? No. It means that our good works as unashamed Christians should “so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16).