Monday, July 16, 2018

Justification Across The Divide, In Brief

I was asked by a reader to compare notions of justification--the state of being in right relationship to God--across the Catholic-Protestant divide. I'm going to try to keep it as simple as I can, and I don't want to spend hours wading through sources and footnotes, but, by all means, if I make a mistake, let me know.

It's somewhat erroneous to simplify the debate to "Faith Alone" versus "Faith plus works." Indeed, that formulation is a very Protestant way of framing the question. There is an absolute supremacy of grace in Catholic theology, so much so that we agree that man is not able to save himself by his own effort.

The absolute point of departure between Catholics and Protestants is the fall of mankind, and its aftermath. For the original Protestants, man's nature has become completely corrupt. Man has lost innocence and right standing before God, such that he can't even properly desire what he lost. Indeed, the classical Protestant account of justification has God triumphing over man's nature in bringing him back to Himself, because if this account of the fall is correct, man cannot cooperate in any meaningful sense. God declares or reckons man righteous, by faith in His Son, quite simply because it could not have happened any other way, according to this view. The sinner is imputed righteous, with the righteousness of Christ by faith, and faith alone, at that. Man has no righteousness of his own, as we might say, in the course of holding this view.

With a little thought, you can imagine why people who think of faith and justification this way would begin to see the Catholic sacramental system as an enemy to a certain peace and freedom, as they understand it. If God the Father has declared me innocent in His Son by faith, why am I here wallowing in this penance ritual, as if my sins remain unforgiven? You can sense the force of this objection, can't you? I hope it begins to make a certain sense.

We might reply with a certain humor, "We wallow in this penance ritual because in fact, these particular sins I bring are not forgiven until I am absolved by the priest." In Catholic theology, the sacraments effect what they signify, that is, when the priest declares the sinner forgiven, she's forgiven. She's not reckoned as forgiven, or merely declared to be so. Christ, acting in the person of the priest, does it himself. When we renounce our sins, firmly resolving not to commit them again, this constitutes our acceptance of God's mercy, and our desire to live in that mercy. In short, God offers us friendship of a remarkable kind. He elevates us by His grace into His friendship, a friendship only lost through mortal sin. This grace of justification--a state of justice and righteousness before God--is called "sanctifying grace." The sacrament of Penance/Confession/Reconciliation, when celebrated worthily, restores sanctifying grace to the soul, if it has been lost through mortal sin.

Sanctifying grace carries with it three theological virtues, as we call them: Faith, hope, and charity. They are supernatural virtues; that is, pertaining to God and the life of Heaven. Also, that super- indicates something above nature, or the virtues or vices we might acquire through practice in ordinary life. Grace and friendship with God, the very life of Heaven, is and always will be a gift. We can't earn it or deserve it. And to be plain about it, you can only get this gift through the sacraments of the Church, the Catholic Church. There is an objection you often hear in response to this, that these realities leave the Catholic in a state of fear, as she never knows that God in Christ truly loves her. On the contrary; I am immensely comforted by the nearness of Christ, his willingness to literally meet me where I really am. God's love for me has never been in doubt; my acceptance and correspondence with His love often is.

We're leaving out a big aspect of the question of justification. Protestants and Catholics are divided over that theological virtue of charity. For the Catholic, justification consists primarily in charity, or supernatural love for God. Charity is a gift, a fruit, of the sacraments primarily and fundamentally. Friendship with God consists in charity, and is synonymous with it. So justification by faith is faith formed by love (charity). For the Protestant, this supernatural love comes with his justifying faith, but it doesn't consist in charity. It's a fine distinction, to be sure. "Faith alone" was the rallying cry of the Reformers, precisely because they believed that sinners could not co-operate with grace, any grace, while sinners. Here's where it gets interesting: the Catholic Church teaches that even a "dead" faith along the lines St. James describes, is a gift of grace. To even profess the correct doctrine--even if it won't save your soul by itself--is a fruit of grace. For the Protestant, a person with no "works" as St. James describes them is a person whose faith is fraudulent. It has no supernatural origin at all. It's a very technical discussion, since both sides agree that charity is important.

Let me back up and briefly explain the Catholic view of the fall, as simply as I can. When man fell, he lost many gifts, the most important of which was sanctifying grace. In the moments when Adam and Eve hid from God as God walked in the cool of the day, they experienced the loss of their communion and friendship with Him. They lost more than sanctifying grace; they lost preternatural gifts also. Adam and Eve lost immortality; they lost impassibility, the freedom from suffering. They also lost what we call integrity, the subjection of the passions to reason. And they had special infused knowledge from God. This loss of integrity, the experience of desiring to do the wrong thing almost continually, we call concupiscence. Hugely Important Note: The Catholic Church does not consider the experience of concupiscence as such to be a personal sin. Generally speaking, the communities of the Reformation do consider it a sin. Or, better said, they don't find it useful to distinguish "sin" (see Romans chapter 7) as an experience of the fall from the commission of a personal sin. One often hears a little phrase among Protestant Christians: "fallen nature." Be careful with this phrase, I say. Because it can obscure the goodness of humanity's creation itself, and of the individual's responsibility before God. Indeed, the critique from Catholic theologians to the basic Protestant system is that it conflates nature and grace. On the one hand, the Church through St. Augustine has always maintained that communion with God in Heaven requires grace. The beloved Augustine stood against the heretic Pelagius, who maintained that doing God's will was within the ability of a man, and simply required effort. Protestants and Catholics at least agree that this is a mistake. Martin Luther wasn't particularly persuaded by the Catholic account of humanity's fall and the loss of sanctifying grace. He compared it to losing a fancy ornament on a Christmas tree. On the one hand, he didn't think humanity by nature was capable of anything but sin. On the other, he thought man possessed grace by nature. That mistake will certainly foul some things up, when trying to operate within the Catholic system. Grace is a gift. It cannot be otherwise.

Significantly, grace is, in layman's terms, God's presence and power. It's not simply God's favorable disposition toward us, though it includes that. This is why we can co-operate with grace, or not. This is why sanctifying grace leaves the soul of someone who commits mortal sin. God cannot dwell in the presence of sin. For the Protestant, there is no distinction between venial and mortal sin. Every sin is mortal, and paradoxically in practice, no sin is mortal. Anyway, back to Luther for a moment. Luther confused the capacity to receive grace--and fellowship with God being our final end--with having grace from the start.

The great appeal of the Protestant system is that it takes the problematic sinners out of the equation. God loves you because He loves you. He gives you the gift of faith in His Son, empowering you to believe in Him, and forgives you all of your sins when Jesus dies on the cross (and rises again). The Father clothes you in the righteousness of Christ, ever and always. You can't earn it, and you can't mess it up.

What we can learn from this account is that God really does love everyone to an unimaginable degree. He really did send His Son to die for us. Jesus really did rise from the dead. The prophets really spoke to Israel by the Holy Spirit. In short, God's action of creation and redemption, especially as recorded in the Scriptures, testifies to the depth of God's "desire," if I can speak that way, to be with us, and to bring us to Him. I think sometimes Catholics underplay all this, by a lot. Go talk to a Protestant, especially an evangelical. You might begin to think, if you have been raised Catholic, that you don't understand or appreciate a tenth of the love story of Christianity, or the Person at its heart.

It hurts me to think of Luther sometimes: terribly fearful, horrified by his own sinfulness--another true word you have to be careful with--and simply searching for a personal experience of God's love. I can empathize with a man like that. But the determination of exactly what God has revealed is not done by sentiment. Being reminded of God's love for me--which should be a regular thing for all Christians--is not the same as being vivified by that love, no matter how closely they are related.

It's not hard to see why Protestants formed alternative communities: If you think the dogma is wrong, you naturally reject the authority proclaiming it. Certainly they could not foresee the disunity this would produce. And you may say to yourself, "I thought Scripture Alone was the fundamental point of Protestantism." Well, "Sola Scriptura" is an alternative method of knowing dogma, in the absence of knowing it through the mediation of the Church. Sacred Tradition was rejected by the Reformers. Sacred Tradition is, in a sense, the prayerful reflection upon the Scriptures, as we live them out in community. Protestants to varying degrees do not reject traditions, per se. Rather, they reject the binding nature of Tradition. As people of various communities re-integrate practices from older times, they find it consonant with Scripture as they read it. They may find that it is unwise to juxtapose Scripture and Tradition so sharply. The fundamental principle of Protestantism is the right to individually interpret the Scriptures, for both good and ill.

This is but a cursory examination. I tried to keep it free of technicality as much as possible. If you need sources, let me know. Sorry for the length.