The following is part of a comment that was left by someone on a prior entry on this blog, titled, “The Religious Sense: Nietzche”
“What about your views as a Catholic? I'm sure you are sincere but unfortunately sincerely wrong as well. What do I mean? The Bible says that there is only one way to getting saved and my website will show that as a Catholic you do NOT know how to get saved.”
This fellow is talking about what the theologians call justification. On the Biblical level it is a simple, straightforward subject. As far as the theology of justification goes, I know enough to know that it is a serious, sophisticated subject full of nuances and semantics, of which I do not pretend a working knowledge.
Of justification, Thomas Merton once wrote:
“The religious genius of the Protestant Reformation, as I see it, lies in its struggle with the problem of justification in all its depth. The great Christian question is the conversion of man and his restoration to the grace of God in Christ. And this question, in its simplest form, is that of the conversion of the wicked and the sinful to Christ. But Protestantism raised this same question again in its most radical form—how about the much more difficult and problematical conversion, that of the pious and the good? It is relatively easy to convert the sinner, but the good are often completely unconvertible simply because they do not see any need for conversion.
“Thus the genius of Protestantism focused from the beginning on the ambiguities contained in “being good” and “being saved” or “belonging to Christ.” For conversion to Christ is not merely the conversion from bad habits to good habits, but nova creatura, becoming a totally new man in Christ and in the Spirit.”
- from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp 168-169.
I have a working colleague who is Baptist. We rarely talk about religion, but one of the few times that we did, I was shocked to hear him say that they (I assume he meant Baptists and other Protestants) were very relieved when Pope John Paul II made a statement that people were saved by grace and not by works. I was also surprised that he felt it necessary for the Pope to make such a statement. Apparently the Pope’s statement was beneficial although, obviously, many Protestants still haven’t gotten the message or are not convinced. I’ve also run across websites run by Protestants that simply state as a fact that Catholics believe we are saved by good works.
I also have two young Evangelical friends who, although they knew I was a serious Catholic, I sensed that they did not consider me a Christian until they saw evidence that I have a personal relationship with Christ. However, I will grant you that that attitude is justified somewhat, because a relationship with Christ is what it is all about. I felt a little strange being put to a litmus test, but I consider it as a statement of the sad state of the spirituality of so many who are Baptized Catholics.
I attended Catholic school from the first through twelfth grade and attend church regularly, and I was never taught that we were saved by good works. I distinctly remember the nuns in my grammar school stressing our relationship with Christ, and the same with my theology teachers in high school.
As well, many years ago, I attended a Bible study group composed of young adult Catholics. In one of the sessions, we were asked to discuss whether we were saved by grace or works, and we all concluded that we were saved by grace.
I also refer you to the section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, titled, Grace and Justification, paragraphs 1887-1995 (they are numbered). I don’t think that any Protestants would disagree with it says there.
For a Catholic treatment of the traditional differences in the theories of Protestant and Catholic justification (dated 1910), see the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia entry titled Justification. Note that for the Catholic point of view the author relies very heavily on teachings from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which was the official culmination of the reactionary Catholic response to Luther and the Reformation. We have come a long way since then.
The Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), while acknowledging many, big differences in belief with Protestants, gave recognition to great leaps forward on the part of the Church, towards unity, in Decree on Ecumenism. Read section 3 especially.
In the United States, there is a group called Evangelicals and Catholics Together that was organized by Charles Colson. The group has been discussing differences in belief. You can read about them here and there. One of the leaders, the former Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, and now Catholic, Fr. Richard Newhaus says that he thinks both sides are now saying the same thing.
You should be aware of the milestone joint declaration between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran churches in 1999, “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.”
The bigger problem now, as I see it, is how do we get rid of all the bigotry, prejudice and misunderstandings between us?