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The Not Quite Good Enough Catholic

There are books one returns to now and again for their sheer badness, since bad writing can be as instructive, in its way, as good writing. On that principle, one of the more instructive titles on the shelves of the NOR office is The Good Enough Catholic by Paul Wilkes, a paperback from 1996, bought cheap off a remainder table in a local bookstore and worth almost every penny of a dollar-ninety-five.

Wilkes was inspired by a book called The Good Enough Parent, which informed him that a parent need not be perfect to be successful. “What was most amazing to me was the notion that being ‘good enough’ was actually being quite good, and hardly a small achievement in itself.” Wilkes hastened to apply to “a Catholic’s religious pursuit and spiritual life” the principle that “the anxiety produced by constant feelings of inadequacy or guilt was ultimately counterproductive.” The result is this book of advice for Catholics.

Being a “Good Enough Catholic” seems to Wilkes the “new kind of Catholicism that is exactly right for this spiritually hungry, morally unsure, and self-reflective time.” He means the time since the Second Vatican Council. He understands that not all Catholics will aspire to or can achieve good-enoughness. There are Catholics who in a “traditionalist reaction” opt “for a fundamentalism stripped bare of doubt or questioning.” But happily there are Catholics who can think for themselves. These are the Catholics of whom Wilkes is one. He says, “suddenly, we were given license to employ our intellects and consciences.…” The post-Vatican II period “marks a certain kind of Catholic spiritual adolescence, one beyond the time of complete parental constraint that marked the pre-Vatican II church, yet one terribly unsure of what is to be done with newfound freedoms.”

Wilkes is right. There is something adolescent, even sophomoric, about his notion of himself as a good enough Catholic. He’s like the rich young man in the Gospels who came to Jesus. Jesus confirmed for the youngster that he was indeed a good enough Jew and said that now he should give up the good enough life and come follow Jesus. The young man couldn’t do it, and we are told that he went away, but the Gospels don’t record what he muttered as he went. Possibly he was saying to himself, “I’m a good enough Jew, and that in itself is actually quite good, and hardly a small achievement.” Perhaps he went home and wrote a volume (some day to be discovered in a clay jar in Jerusalem?) called The Good Enough Jew. A major theme in the Gospels, in fact, is these repeated encounters between Jesus and believers who felt sure they were good enough and couldn’t understand what more Jesus wanted. Wilkes would fit right in among them. Like them he is sincere, thoughtful, religiously inclined, contentious, and pretty darned pleased with himself.

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