Dear Fr. Joe: What do I say when people ask, ‘Are Catholics really Christian?’

Q. My friend is a fundamentalist. She says that Catholics aren’t Christian because they say that you go to heaven if you do good works. She showed me Scripture passages that show that you can’t “earn” heaven – you need a personal relationship with Jesus. What is the Catholic answer to this?

A. This is a great question and, the answer is going to go a lot of places, so stick with me and let’s dive right in!

First off, let’s take a look at the two seemingly conflicting ideas about how to get to heaven: you need good works and you need a personal relationship with Jesus.

First, we’ll take a look at the idea that you need a personal relationship with Jesus. Do you need a personal relationship with Jesus? Absolutely. The simplest way to think of it is this: In the parables where Jesus talks about people not going to heaven, he uses the line, “I do not know you.” (Luke 13:24-25) As Christians, we absolutely have to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and maintain a close, personal relationship with Jesus.

How do we do this? First and most important is prayer. We should spend time each day in prayer: talking with Jesus, listening to him, sitting in silence in his presence. If we don’t do this, then we can’t have a relationship with him.

Where works come into play is in the communal element to this relationship. Our faith can never be only about “Me and Jesus” – it is about “We and Jesus.” God made us in community and for community. Community worship refines our personal relationship with Jesus. It affords us a great opportunity to learn from each other and challenge each other.

Right now, it seems that we are neglecting this area of our spirituality. I hear people talk about the evils of “organized religion” and describing themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” I will address this topic in a future article, but, for now, let’s just say that describing oneself as “spiritual but not religious” is like describing oneself as “in love, but alone.” It just doesn’t work.

So, we discovered that we need a personal relationship with Jesus, lived out in a community of believers, but what about works?

Turns out we need good works as well. (Surprise!) I can’t say it better than the Book of James. Check out these passages from James Chapter 2:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

See what the Scripture is telling us there? If we claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus, then it should translate into works, or it’s not a personal relationship with Jesus!

The good works we do are not so that we can get to heaven – the good works we do are because we are going to heaven.

There’s a big difference there! This is where we Catholics can and should be challenged. We often talk as if simply by “doing the right thing,” we are going to heaven. We forget that heaven is a gift that we can never earn.

So where does this all leave us? Right where it should lead us: into total dependency on God. No matter how deep our personal relationship with Jesus, no matter how numerous our good works, no matter how perfect our belief, it will never be enough and that is a good thing. Heaven is a gift. A gift we receive by fostering a personal relationship with Jesus, lived out in a community and expressed by good works. This shows the world that the true gift we give is not ourselves alone, but ourselves in love with, and dependent on, Jesus.

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!