If you did a double take at the title, then you recognize the original term. It comes from St. James and he proclaims that faith without works is dead. The title of this column is the opposite: works without faith are dead. It is a popular heresy today to believe in works without faith.
Living a moral life is not the default way into Heaven. If you do not believe and you do not practice your Catholic faith, your morality is not a key to Heaven. This is because it is our faith that drives our actions. This is what it means to live by the spirit. When we believe and seek to live in relationship with Christ and His Church, we conform our lives to His will. Our virtue will come from our desire to love God and to do His will.
If we do not believe, we may be good people, but we do not conform our lives to the way of Christ, because we do not know Christ. We may be moral people, but we are not moral people in Christ. We do not know Christ and cannot do His will.
This is why it is important to beware of living a life of works without faith. It is a common falsehood among more traditional communities. They will warn against immoral ways of living and call for a change of morality, but if we do not call people to a true relationship with Christ, then the change of morality is moot.
Let us take a stark example:
In an atheistic society the rules are based on the whims leaders of the society. There is no higher authority and whatever the highest government power assumes to be the rules, they are the rules. These rules may be high standards of morality, but they are still the leaders' definition of the rules. That is because, literally, that authority is god in that society. How? Because there is no higher authority. In such a society, the whole concept of morality and virtue will be different than in the one that believes in God. So they may live a virtuous life without God, but that is works without faith. They have no ultimate goal for their lives except as defined in that society. Even if they fight against what we would consider loose standards of morality, they have no higher authority to which they may appeal. Either they fight the authority on a different set of moral rules, or they work to form a new society underground based on their different set of moral standards.
In a society rooted in seeking to do the will of God in Jesus Christ, the goal is not to live a virtuous or moral life, it is to conform our lives to Christ in new ways of radical love for God and neighbor, which by default leads to a virtuous and moral life. Therefore, again, the role is not to form a society that embraces traditional morality, but a society that conforms to the will of Christ which is a more comprehensive and higher standard. It is to seek to know Christ and to do His will in all that we do. If we take that idea to its fullest where people form a society seeking to do the will of Christ, we enter the world of Dorothy Day who was an Christian anarchist. She believed that in a society where when everyone sought to do the will of God, government was unnecessary.
Morality without Christ makes for a relative peaceful society at times, but there is no higher authority; morality will change in time because there is no higher standard. That change will eliminate peace.
Christ calls us not to a moral life but to a relationship with Him and His Church where our behavior reflects our love for God and neighbor. This also will redefine our morality because it will be based on serving Christ, not serving the state defined definition of virtue. This is what St. Paul talks about when he says that we have to live to a higher standard than the law. We recognize that the state wants us to be a peaceful community, but Christ calls us to be a community that is radically loving. The state is happy when no one is creating difficulty, Christ is well served when everyone is loving one another, radically. He even calls us to love those most rejected by society and when we do that we are most loving God.
A good example of this may be that those in an atheistic society who refuse to live state sponsored morality are extricated from the community usually in some form of prison. They are labeled rejects and are to be eliminated from the society in many cases literally through execution. In a Christ centered society, all that is called into question. Some may be radically opposed to building a peaceful society and they may be extricated from the society but Christ calls for those people to be treated in love just as others who live freely in the society are to be treated in love. It is the way those removed people are treated that will define how much the people conform to Christ. The definition who should be removed will be radically different as well. If a society is based on safety, all who even hint of threatening safety are removed. If a society is based on love only those who refuse to love and be loved will be removed. In fact, the standard may not be hard justice but restorative justice to bring to healing those too hurt to love and that is demanded by Christ's call to mercy.
Be careful of defining living a moral life as being a good person on the way to Heaven. That is the route of those who have works without faith. It is by being in relationship with Christ and His Church that we will conform our actions to reflect that relationship then we are living. Then we are not being a good person as defined by society, rather we are acting upon the radically ways of bringing peace through love of God and neighbor. That is what James called us to do: faith and works.