Authentic Goods Versus Apparent Goods

February 23, 2015

An important distinction to be aware of in trying to explain the Church’s teaching on the authentic moral life is the distinction between apparent goods and authentic goods.  Unfortunately, some Christian traditions arising from the Reformation have tended to conflate the evil associated with wrongly pursing God’s created goods, with the created goods themselves.  This thinking has very much influenced Christianity throughout the United States.  The result is that even Catholics and non-Christians who grow up in this country can be influenced by this error.  We hear people calling certain foods bad or calling certain drinks bad because they can be sources of temptation to intemperance and subsequent, long-term health problems.  Indeed, in the course of history, this inclination to conflate the object of temptation with evil itself has led some people to teach that the body is evil, or sex is evil, or even that all material things are evil.  However, these doctrines are false.

God in His very being is good and He can only create in accord with His good nature.  Everything God creates is good and only God can create something out of nothing.  This means that every real, created “thing” is good or it could not exist.  Therefore, to call any of God’s creation evil is erroneous and regardless of the intention, we can never mislead people through the use of falsehoods. 

When it comes to resisting the moral life, it is this mistake (i.e. calling good things evil) that becomes a compelling defense for those who have adopted a sinful way of life against Christians trying to help them to amend their lives.  At some level, everyone knows that the body is good, that food is good, that sex is good and to tell them they are not permits them to reject our entire message as erroneous.  No one is attracted to yesterday’s trash.  Our appetites attract us to good things and at a very fundamental level we all understand this.

Moral evil is not in the thing itself; it is in the choice, a wrong choice.  Our appetites attract us to things that we need for our material flourishing but they cannot tell whether the circumstances make these apparent goods, good for us.  The circumstances that determine whether this apparent good is an authentic good can only be determined by our intellect.  Our intellect must distinguish the authentic good from among the plethora of apparent goods available to us.  A piece of chocolate cake is a good, but it may not be good for me if I have just had two pieces.  It is the same good as it was for the first couple of servings but now to take a third piece would begin to do damage to my virtue of temperance and to my physical wellbeing.  Therefore, my freedom to choose between apparent and authentic goods must intervene and say no to my appetite.

Helping those whose attitudes have been formed by a society that says to choose arbitrarily is the only real good, demands that we develop the ability to help others to see that there are right and wrong choices that can be made about the same created goods.  The starting point for gaining a hearing is by affirming the truth they already know; that is, that they are drawn to good things.  When then need to be able to help them to see that these goods are not always good for them and why they are not.

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