“Great hope has dawned; the Catholic Faith teaches not what we thought, and vainly accused it of[.]” Confessions of St. Augustine at Book VI, [XI.], 18.
It is not true. I was wrong. The Catholic Faith does not teach, as the Apostle Paul warned the Galatians, another gospel. (Gal. 1:8-9). This is one of many answers that led me into the Catholic Church, where I discovered, as G.K. Chesterton put it, “a fuller sacrament and a mightier army”.
Working my way through the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the Spring and Summer of 2017, after a near-seventeen-year pause, except for a few peculiarly-Catholic doctrines, the Catechism was going down like cool, clear water. I had spent decades in the Scriptures. Now, oddly, the Catechism kept ringing true. With goodness and beauty mixed in. Those “peculiarly-Catholic doctrines” (Mary’s place of honor, the papacy, purgatory and the like) must be treated elsewhere. Starting off in a deep fundamentalist-then-Reformed hole, I needed special help; and would find it in the writings of John Henry Cardinal Newman. More about him later.
In addition to the Catechism, the Reformers’ central tenant, sola Scriptura or Bible-alone, occupied much of my time: books, plus uncounted hours of lecture and debates replayed on YouTube. No book made the case against sola Scriptura more than the Bible itself. History reveals heresies, from the first centuries, born of private interpretation of Scripture. When I realized this pillar of Protestantism was chiseled by man’s hand, it was short-lived. Adding the practical problems posed by a Bible-alone foundation, and with the Catechism ringing true, I felt a gravitational pull toward the Catholic Church. The prospect that Rome might be right was unsettling.
However, deep within the Catechism there awaited a high hurdle. Even if Cardinal Newman convincingly demonstrates how the development of doctrine accounts for those Catholic doctrines that make Baptists bristle and Calvinists cringe, there awaited the Grace and Justification section of the Catechism. Wasn’t that the real key? Hadn’t we been taught that Catholics were “working their way to heaven” or “earning” their own salvation? Wasn’t that why Martin Luther had to rescue the gospel in the sixteenth century? Rome was preaching another gospel, as Paul warned the Galatians, deserving the anathema, right?
To my shame and embarrassment, I discovered that idea to be false; born of ignorance at best, maybe anti-Catholic prejudice, or worse. Even if I had picked it up innocently, and repeated it naively, I cannot justify my own ignorance and sloth. To my surprise, I discovered in the twenty-first century what Saint Augustine discovered in the fourth: “Great hope has dawned; the Catholic Faith teaches not what we thought, and vainly accused it of[.]” Indeed, the Church has been maligned and slandered, starting not in the sixteenth-century with the Reformers, but from the beginning. Like Augustine, when I discovered the truth of the Catholic Church, by God’s grace, I could not stay away. In fact, the Catholic Faith teaches what I have long believed: our salvation begins and ends with the grace of God – – based on the life and death of the God-Man, Jesus Christ; His cross; and His triumph over the grave by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no daylight between Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Grace and Justification. For example,
1992 Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life:40
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.41
1996 Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.46
1997 Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church.
2005 Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved.56 However, according to the Lord’s words “Thus you will know them by their fruits”57 – reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.
A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.'”58
Martin Luther had legitimate complaints about the practices and discipline of the Church in the sixteenth century. However, his expressions of sola Scriptura and sola fide were error. He had no authority to break from the Church, or to set himself up against Her.
“Indeed, after Luther declared that he would base his theology on ‘Scripture alone’, the Catholic scholar Johann Eck (who previously debated Luther at Leipzig) replied, ‘Martin, there is no one of the heresies which have torn the bosom of the church, which has not derived its origin from the various interpretation of the Scripture. The Bible itself is the arsenal whence each innovator has drawn his deceptive arguments.’” Horn, Trent, The Case for Catholicism: Answers to Classic and Contemporary Protestant Objections (Kindle Locations 370-376), Ignatius Press, Kindle Edition, quoting Martin Luther, The Life of Luther, trans. William Hazlitt (London: David Bogue, 1904), 93.
Luther, at first, drank in the writings of Augustine, the saint who wrote so eloquently on the grace of God. However, within Luther’s rigid sola Scriptura framework, even the great fourth-century Bishop of Hippo had to go. Saint Augustine, revered even by many Protestants, could not abide that “faith alone” formula. As “Saint Augustine said, ‘We feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for salvation or that they need not perform good works in order to be saved.’” Id. (Kindle Location 2955), quoting St. Augustine, On Faith and Works 14.21; Cited in St. Augustine, On Faith and Works, trans. Gregory Lombardo (Paulist Press, 1988), 28. The hero of the Reformation, that solitary German monk who opened the barn door of denominationalism, was done with this Church Father: “Martin Luther testifies to the fact that Augustine did not teach justification by faith alone when he says, ‘At first I devoured, not merely read, Augustine. But when the door was opened for me in Paul, so that I understood what justification by faith is, it was all over with Augustine.’” Id. (Kindle Location 2957), quoting Luther’s Works, 54:49-50. The discovery of a secret (“the door was opened for me in Paul”) seems a recurring theme in the heresies of the Church age.
The highest hurdle was behind me. Rome does not have a works-based religion. Catholics no more “work” or “earn” their way to heaven on their own merit than the Philippians, to whom the Apostle Paul exhorted: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.” (Phil. 2:12-13, NAB, Revised Edition). It begins and ends with the grace of God.
There is no Scriptural authority to divorce my faith from my actions. You and I know each other’s faith when we see each other’s works. (Jam. 2:14-26). God bless you as you say Yes to Him today.
AS FOR ME, I KNOW THAT MY VINDICATOR LIVES, AND THAT HE WILL AT LAST STAND FORTH UPON THE DUST. THIS WILL HAPPEN WHEN MY SKIN HAS BEEN STRIPPED OFF, AND FROM MY FLESH I WILL SEE GOD: I WILL SEE FOR MYSELF, MY OWN EYES, NOT ANOTHER’S, WILL BEHOLD HIM: MY INMOST BEING IS CONSUMED WITH LONGING. JOB 19:25-27