Is it better to be a good pagan or a bad Catholic? This is an interesting question inspired by someone I follow on Twitter. It may seem irrelevant to you because my readers would generally consider themselves “good Catholics,” and you probably are. But what’s a “bad Catholic,” and how does it contrast to a good pagan? Which is the better condition?
First, let’s address what I think makes a bad Catholic. I would offer that there are two categories of bad Catholics; Those who are immoral and those who are non-practicing. The first is a baptized Catholic who willfully lives a sinful life, while the second is a baptized Catholic who strives to live morally but never practices the faith (i.e., attends mass). The immoral Catholic is not living the Law of God, while the non-practicing (but otherwise moral) Catholic is not living the will of God. They have distinctiveness from each other, but they also have something in common with each other: They both fail to live to the full potential of their being. And that’s where the answer to this question lies.
What about good pagans? In my personal life, I’ve known several “good” pagans. They were very lovely people who were kind to others, pleasant to be around, and interesting to talk to. Some would try to mirror the moral model of what they observed in the natural world. That can be a problem, too, but let’s not go too deep down the rabbit hole.
But the good pagans may also not be living God’s will if they reject the Gospel. Also, they reject Jesus Christ (red flag!). Worse than that, they’re living contrary to God’s law by breaking the first commandment. In my experience, while the good pagans may be friendly to be around and easy to talk to, their morality is often a bit shaky or disfigured in ways more hidden than their outward personality and behavior. Their views on abortion are very secular, they are usually very liberal in their ideas about human sexuality, and while they claim to hold principles like “do no harm,” they can be vindictive. Even good pagans can be vicious and malicious.
It's easy to mistakenly observe that the bad Catholic seems to be a stain on the human order while the good pagan appears to adorn it. So, in light of that, which is the better condition? The answer is found not in the journey but in the destination. We don’t exist for life on Earth. Our lives here will end. Whether our lives here are a stain or an adornment, our condition is not set in stone because we’re on a journey (an adventure!) to our ultimate destination. (Article Continues Below)
We exist for an eternal end, not a temporal one. We’ll either spend eternity in Heaven or hell, but we won’t spend it on Earth. But to spend eternity in Heaven, we must be oriented toward it and on the path that leads to it. There’s only one path to Heaven: Jesus Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life.” The sacramental life is the means to the end. Even if a pagan (or an atheist) can exist in goodness on Earth, they may not necessarily be oriented toward Heaven because they have no faith in Christ and they live without the sacraments.
Pagans, as good as they might be, are not on that way to Heaven (Faith in Jesus). While bad Catholics may be bad at being Catholic, they are at least within proximity of the way to Heaven because they believe in Jesus Christ and have access to the sacraments (especially Reconciliation). A stain can be made clean. An adornment that rejects the decorator is further from the mark. They may become great saints between now and eternity (#StAugustine), but it would be harder for them than for even a bad Catholic.
To close, I will now seem to undo everything I’ve just said.
God’s mercy is great, and He can save anyone he chooses. The Church teaches that if a person (pagan, Jew, atheist, etc.) is of goodwill and strives to live a life of Goodness (objective morality, not subjective ethics) in an honest search for Truth, God could rescue them from damnation when they die. However, the Church does not speak to the likelihood of salvation in such cases, only the possibility.
And while bad Catholics may be on the path to Heaven, or are at least in proximity to it, they could be judged more harshly by God because they had the word of God but did not keep it (Luke 11:28). Catholics in that situation have no excuse for a life poorly lived, because they were not ignorant of God’s will or His law.
One thing that both Pagans, Christians, and all other human beings will be judged by is how they lived according to their conscience. That is a highly complex subject, and it’s one that I will be covering in my next article, published exclusively to my Substack. Please subscribe to my Substack (it’s free!) using the simple form below to be notified of its publication.
Subscribers: Ahead of the “conscience” article, participate in the Chat Thread to share your thoughts about authority of conscience and free will.