Simply Sinners

by Ethan Mack

 

Recently, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, died of poor health. Phelps' church, mostly comprised of members of his own family, became infamous over the last few years when they started picketing the funerals of dead soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan while holding signs with such condemnable phrases as "God Hates Fags." Within hours of news of his imminent death, a Facebook event group dedicated to picketing Phelps' upcoming funeral gained thousands of likes. I heard countless people talk about how Phelps was a "bad man" and that his upcoming death should be celebrated. I could write an entire separate post about whether these expressed sentiments are misguided (I think they are); however, for the present moment I'd like to discuss the idea of labeling a man as "bad."

What do we mean when we generally make that judgment about a person? Are we saying that a person ontologically, that is, according to his or her nature, lacks good? Probably not. If that was their meaning, they would be in certain conflict with the Catholic Faith. Catholic teaching on nature holds steadfast to the idea that nature is ontologically good, and evil is the disorder of fundamentally good things. Thus, every man must be good in the ontological sense. What is probably meant by the "bad man" judgment is that he is a man that preformed evil actions throughout his life. This seems more reasonable. Men can of course perform evil actions. Certainly, no one would deny that. However, by this definition I am also a bad man. I have done evil things throughout my life, and I will continue to do so until my death. However, most people would probably be hesitant to label me "bad" in the same way they would Fred Phelps.

 

Thus, there are no bad people; there are no good people. There are sinners. Only two human beings throughout history can avoid this label. One was God, and the other carried Him in the womb. For the rest of us, it is an inescapable conclusion. We are sinful creatures, plain and simple. Why don't we just leave it at that, instead of making statements about how someone's sinfulness is greater or more notable than what we perceive to be standard? On the flip side, we should also be hesitant to use the label "good" in this manner. We should not assume that just because we aren't Hitler or Fred Phelps, we're more or less "good." This is simply false. Even when speaking of the saints this label would be inappropriate. G.K. Chesterton has a great quote about the essence of sainthood in which he states, "Saints are those who recognize they are sinners." If the holiest people who ever walked the earth were unwilling to call themselves good, then neither should we say that of ourselves.

 


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