God Is Good
“I was at your first Mass, Father, fifteen years ago when I was only six, but I still remember the first words of your sermon: ‘God is good.’ ”
When one hears such comments one is tempted to wonder if all the trouble given to preparing sermons is really worth it. At any rate, these words must have a certain power if they impressed themselves so forcefully on the mind of this little girl that she could remember them so many years later. Yes, God is good: and it is an extremely important lesson to learn because it is the basis of our whole lives, that is, our lives in so far as they are properly human, our moral lives. For no one ever does anything except in order to attain the good, either real or apparent. It is absolutely essential, then, that we understand that God is good, so that we will make Him the object of our acts and not something else which is only an apparent good. This is especially important for children, so that they understand from the beginning that Catholic morality is not just a matter of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” but rather a pathway, and the only pathway, to happiness.
To understand that God is good we have first to understand what “good” means. Aristotle tells us very simply: “Good is that which all desire.”1 Now God is the first cause of all things,2 and therefore the forms of all things resemble Him because every effect has a certain resemblance to its cause. “Omne agens agit sibi simile,” said the ancients: “When anything does something, what it does resembles itself.”3 This form, however, in things, which is a certain resemblance to God, its cause, is the perfection of these things, and all things desire what perfects them. Thus, says St. Thomas: “All things, in desiring their own perfections, desire God Himself, in so far as the perfections of all things are certain resemblances of the divine being” (I, q. 6, a. 1 ad 2).
And so we can say God is good, since all things desire Him.4
God, however, is not just good: He is Super-Good. For, as we just saw, He is good in so far as the perfections of all other things, which they desire, resemble Him. But this perfection that is in them is in Him in a way that infinitely surpasses the way it is in them, and the resemblance they bear to this perfection as it is in God is less than paltry.
Nothing Is Good Save God Only
St. John of the Cross speaks of this in the first book of his Ascent of Mount Carmel where he explains that to attain union with God one must be utterly detached from creatures because love causes resemblance,5 and thus one cannot love God and creatures simultaneously because one cannot resemble simultaneously two things which are infinitely distant.
“By the mere fact that a soul loves something, it becomes incapable of pure union and transformation in God: for the lowness of the creature is far less capable of the height of the Creator than is darkness of light. All creatures of heaven and earth are nothing when compared to God....All the beauty of creatures compared to the infinite beauty of God is the height of ugliness. ...All the grace and elegance of creatures compared to God’s grace is utter coarseness and crudity....Compared to the infinite goodness of God, all the goodness of the creatures of the world can be called wickedness. Nothing is good save God only (Lk. 18:19).”6
There is, in fact, no comparison between the perfections of creatures and these same perfections in God except to say that the perfection (that is, then, the good, since it is the perfection that is desired and the good is what all desire) as it is in God is “above,” that is, in good Latin: “super.”7 Thus God is, literally, Super-Good.
Good by His Essence
Finally, one must also say that God and only God is good by His essence, while all other things are good by participation in this essential Good which is God. This is because all things are good in three ways:
1. Firstly, in so far as they exist. Now only God exists by His essence; in all other things, their essence is distinguished from their existence.
2. Secondly, in so far as they possess the accidents8 necessary for their perfection. For example, it is not enough for a car to have the perfection of its essence in order to be a good car: it must also perform the actions that belong to its essence (which is the accident called “action”). A car that exists but doesn’t run is not a good car. It may have the perfection of its essence, but until the perfection of the accident “action” is added, the car is not “good.” God however, alone among all beings, does not have any accidents, He is perfectly simple (as we have already seen) and thus He has no need of anything to be added to His essence in order that He be good.
3. Thirdly, in so far as it attains its end. A watch, for example, that does not tell time is not a good watch because that is what watches are for. God, however, has no other end than Himself, and He is the end of everything else. And so He alone is good by His essence, while other things have to attain their end in order to be good.
A very important application of this point is seen in the question of religious liberty. Traditionally, the dignity proper to men was considered to be a moral dignity, that is, a dignity that follows from the moral choice a man makes of the good. In modern philosophy, especially in personalist philosophy, man is considered to have an ontological dignity that comes, not from his moral choice, but from his being, from the very fact that he is a man. That is why the Second Vatican Council, in its document entitled Dignitatis Humanae, taught that men cannot be impeded from choosing and even publicly propagating their doctrinal errors and false morality because of their inherent human dignity that does not depend on the objective goodness of their choice but upon the very being of man.9
Man Is Not Good by His Essence
The doctrine of St. Thomas here permits us to refute this error. Man is not “good” by his essence, by the simple fact of his possessing a human nature, for the reasons mentioned:
1. Firstly, he does not even have his being by his essence, it comes to him from outside of himself.
2. Secondly, and more pertinently, he does not have his goodness just by his essence because he has to become good by certain actions which complete his essence and bring it to its perfection. Man is not, like God, in possession of his good by the mere fact of being: he has to act in order to attain it10 and that is precisely what his moral action consists in. The free will of man is a potential good, which becomes actual if he uses it to attain his good, but if he uses it to do evil he is not a good man but an evil man and worthy of punishment, not honor and praise.
3. Thirdly, similarly, man does not possess his end automatically, like God, but must attain it by his good actions (which are “good” precisely because they make him attain his end and thus make him good).
In his commentary on this article,11 John of St. Thomas, with his usual clarity, explains:
“A created substance cannot have through its own self all the perfection that is due to it in a consummate and ultimate manner, unless it comes to it accidentally through something else....For the perfection that belongs to a thing is threefold: its being, its operation, and the end to which it is ordained. Now all of these perfections are accidental and not essential to the thing, and without them nothing is said to be simply perfect. That these are not essential is obvious, because existence is an accidental predicate of created things; and similarly operation as well, for it issues from the nature itself which is already constituted, and therefore does not constitute it; and similarly the end is something towards which the nature itself of a thing tends, like a rock to its centre, and so the end does not pertain to the constitution of its essence....God, however, has all these things as essential predicates; being and operation and all things; and thus by His essence He is said to be good and perfect, even without any order or dependence on anything outside Himself.”
No wonder, then, that Archbishop Lefebvre called the adepts of this doctrine of religious liberty antichrists, for the sign of this “son of perdition,” St. Paul tells us, is that “he gives himself out as if he were God” (I Thess. 2:4). Man’s “dignity,” that is, his “worthiness,” his goodness, does not consist in his mere being: he must attain it by his good actions. Only God is good by His essence.
1 I Ethics, 1094a3.
2 Cf. I, q. 2, a. 3.
3 This is just common sense, because one cannot give what one does not have. Anything given by a cause to its effect, then, must pre-exist in the cause, or it couldn’t have given it, and so every effect resembles its cause and every cause causes something similar to itself. Who says philosophy is difficult?!
4 For, as Cajetan finely remarks here: “If its resemblance is desirable, the agent itself will be much more desirable.”
5 As the prophet Osee says: “They have become abominable like the things they loved” (Os 9:10).
6 Book I, chapter 4. The list goes on: “All the world’s wisdom and human ability compared to the infinite wisdom of God is pure and utter ignorance, as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: ‘The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight’ (I Cor. 3:19)....All the sovereignty and freedom of the world compared to the freedom and sovereignty of the Spirit of God is utter slavery, anguish and captivity....All the delights and satisfaction of the will in the things of the world compared to all the delight that is God are intense suffering, torment and bitterness. Etc.”
7 As St. Thomas says, it “is compared to other things by excess: per excessum” (I, q. 6, a. 2, ad 3).
8 An “accident” in the philosophical sense of the term is something that exists, not on its own, but in another thing that can exist on its own (called a “substance”). Color, for example, is an accident because, although it certainly exists, you will never find it existing all alone on its own, but rather as modifying something else that does exist on its own. You will never see a “brown” or a “blue” going down the street, but rather a brown or blue car or bird or flag, etc.
9 The article published recently by Fr. Gleize on the question of the magisterium of Vatican II mentions this point: “By adopting the investigative methods of modernity, the Council assumed this inversion (of subject and object) as the Declaration on Religious Freedom, for example, makes manifest: the principle and foundation of this declaration is nothing else than the primacy of ontological dignity over moral dignity, that is to say, the primacy of the subject over the object.” Courrier de Rome, December 2011, §6.
10 Thus we see that his perfection is not essential to him but an accident, because “action” is an accident.
11 I, q. 6, a. 3.