When I was ordained a Catholic priest in 1957, and went on to be a scripture scholar in Rome, Italy and I cherished two things: my beliefs and my values. Ten years later I lost one of my beliefs, but I never lost my values.
My priesthood was removed from me because I lost that belief, but my value of helping other people remained constant. I began a career of teaching executives how to lead their employees with an ethical type of charism. I counseled the confused and coached the hesitant and designed sane policies and practices. I never had the opportunity to feed the poor and clothe the naked, but I found I could bring Christ-like leadership to the people who did. And I continued that consistently for 60 years.
Back when I was a priest I believed all the dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic Church, including, (and in fact, leading the list,) “transubstantiation.” A difficult word to pronounce and an even more difficult dogma to believe. It means changing the substance of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Not just a memory. Not just a symbol. But a first class miracle, performed by every priest every morning at Mass. After 10 years, I lost my faith in this miracle, and I could no longer be a Catholic priest. I lost that belief, but I kept my values.
What if I had lost my values and kept my belief? I’d still be a priest. Yes, I could still preach vapid sermons and refuse to give the sacraments to those I felt were unworthy. I could become selfish and arrogant and mean. I could indulge in every bad habit (including sexual ones) and treat all non-Catholics as unbelieving scum, but if I maintained my belief in the Nicene creed and transubstantiation, I could keep my Roman collar.
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Now, I know our local priests keep both their beliefs and their values, and they do unbelievably wonderful work here in Macon, but it’s clear, I think, if forced to choose between their beliefs and their values, which one comes first.
And this is true for many Christians. Belief is more important. This is the only litmus test and it alone identifies who’s a Christian and who isn’t. It’s not what you do, it’s what you believe. But for me, it’s just the opposite.
I don’t care if you think miracles are magic and the Trinity meaningless — if you value love. I don’t care if your knowledge of science has invalidated Genesis or if you think Jesus is a myth — if you value helping other people, you have the spirit of Jesus within you.
All of us have beliefs of some sort, however, that’s just part of being human. Mysteries of nature surround us; phenomenon we cannot understand or explain. And for these, we build beliefs. I still believe in a First Cause, simply because I cannot understand quantum physics and black holes and dark matter which my scientific friends tell me eliminates the need for a First Cause. However, my Aristotelian/Thomistic training is too deep. So, I believe.
I do not fault those who believe in angels and devils, in heaven and hell, and in all the mystical dogmas surrounding Jesus. I listen respectfully to those who believe their God punishes the wicked and rewards the good both here and in the hereafter. But then I say to myself in Latin: “Cui Bono?” “Who knows?” Is this world a better place because you believe? Could a non-believer do the good you are doing with your family and your employees and your friends? And my answer is yes.
“Doing the good” is my core value. I think this is what Jesus taught, and Muhammed and Moses and the Buddha, and all the great religious leaders. James, the big brother to Jesus, and the man who tried to keep Christianity Jewish, said, “Just as the body without breath is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26).
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