Catholicism, guilt, and justification

Mike Liccione on guilt and justification:

...The thing is very much with us, even in the writings of otherwise sound theologians. In an article with whose main thesis I heartily agree, for example, Cardinal Avery Dulles remarks: "Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments." Hmmm. This is from a man who is not only a prince of the Church but a theologian very much involved in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue that produced the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Now I'm sure there is a way to interpret said remark so that it comes out consistent with the Gospel. I don't think it would be right to accuse a man like Dulles, to whose work I owe much, of heresy. But what is the ordinary Catholic, be they lay or clerical, likely to hear in such a remark, which sums up the import of too much Catholic preaching and catechesis even today, even in "progressive" circles that focus on social sin rather than personal sin? They are likely to hear that we're supposed to be, or become, "good enough" to get into heaven and have been given all we need for just that. That's what they've heard all their lives, even when it was not exactly what their teachers meant to say. It raises Protestant hackles—and rightly so. For sooner or later we come to realize, if we're humble enough to be honest, that we will never be "good enough." [...]

One approach is, in effect, Martin Luther's: stop imagining that anything you can do can make you right with God. Respond to the Gospel simply by accepting God's unconditional love. When you sin, pecca fortiter; just remember to repent by throwing yourself on divine mercy, in faith alone. That is the attitude of many Protestants, especially those who today call themselves "evangelicals." It is why they not only admit they will never be "good enough" but aren't much bothered by the fact. They tend to see themselves as righteous only by imputation, in faith. Not only do they not see themselves as having "earned" salvation; they don't even see themselves as being transformed by it. Such is certainly one way, indeed a centuries-old way, to avoid scrupulosity and Catholic guilt. That's how Luther did it. And it makes a certain sort of sense. If you don't think it's either possible or desirable to seek inner transformation, to cooperate in a process of being remade in Christ and thus divinized, then you won't feel bad about failing to do so.

Yet one of the reasons I could never be Protestant is that such an attitude, though not wholly wrong, is not wholly right either. The Great Tradition of both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, from which the Reformation mostly departed to its detriment, indicates that we are made righteous not only by imputation but also by transformation. That occurs for those Christians who, having reached the age of reason, choose to cooperate with what the Scholastics called "prevenient" grace: the divine activity we need in our souls order to accept all other divine gifts. And that's because the baptismal vocation, the very goal of the Christian life, is to become "partakers of the divine nature." Divinization is not something that just gets zapped into us after we die, if we happen to have chosen to "believe" before we die. It begins with baptism and, if we would have it so, continues in the here and now. We don't deserve such a gift; we can do nothing to bestow it on ourselves; to that extent, Luther was right. But for those of us who can choose anything at all for ourselves, it doesn't bear fruit without our cooperation. To that extent, Trent was right—and was consistent with what was right in Luther.

The best way to think of the process is to compare it with a successful marriage. It is often said, rightly, that marriage is not a 50-50 but a 100-100 proposition. Couples in which both parties put their all into the marriage are sanctified by their marriages. The same goes for the roles of divine grace and human will in the ongoing process of salvation. The work of salvation is wholly God's; but it is also wholly ours, to the extent we let ourselves be empowered to contribute to it. Given that Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, which is us, that could hardly be otherwise. To the extent we recognize and accept that, we will be enabled to have the attitude of beatitude. That doesn't mean we will always give our all or that the process will ever be complete in this life. Even the saints are wretched sinners. It means that God always gives us the chance, and the power, to resume going in the right direction. His mercy is what takes us the rest of the way.


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