Swimming the Tiber 39: The Buffet Line

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: the Amen, the witness–the [one] faithful and trustworthy–the beginning of the creation of God says these [things]:

[I] know thy works, that [thou] are neither cold nor hot. Would that [thou] were cold or hot! Thus, because [thou] are tepid and neither hot nor cold, [I] am about to spitlit. [I] must have spit; Jerome: [I] am beginning to spit thee out of my mouth. Because [thou] say that, “[I] am wealthy and [I] have been wealthy and [I] have no need,” and [thou] do not know that thou are the [one] suffering and piteous and a beggar and blind and naked, [I] advise for thee to buy from me a golden [thing] having been burned out of fire in order that [thou] may be wealthy and that [thou] may wrap white clothes [around yourself] and [that] the shame of thy nakedness may not be revealed, and [I advise for thee] to anoint thy eyes with clay in order that [thou] may see. As many as I love, [I] test and teach; be zealous, therefore, and repent. Behold, [I] have stood at the door and [I] knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [I] will go in unto him and [I] will dineor make a meal with him and he himself [will dine] with me. The [one] conquering, [I] will give to him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat with my father on his throne. Let the [one] having ears hear what the spirit says to the churches.

– Revelation 3:14-22 (my translation)

To be tepid (or lukewarm) is to be neither here nor there; to sit on the fence; to pick and choose what we shall follow from the mouth of the Lord. Woe to the church in Laodicea, and to all who resemble them, who do not choose one side or the other–who warrant neither tenderness nor correction, but say to themselves that they have no need of anything! We should want to dine with him and he with us, but if we consider ourselves good enough, he must spit us out. What more would we let him do in our lives? How else can he grow us, strengthen us, empower us, if we say that we have enough?

I am reminded of the professor who introduced himself to his class by saying, “There are two kinds of students that I can do nothing with: those who already know everything, and those who think they do.”

The Catholic Church has a fairly significant problem in that her members do not always obey her. But this isn’t news and we already knew that. And many people reject the Church because so many people–so, so many–start political or moral comments with, “I’m Catholic, but…” It’s a flawed approach for the flawed people of the Church. We pay lip-service to the Church, like we’re strong adherents to her teaching, and then we spout off our own opinions.

Newsflash, America: The Catholic Church isn’t Democrat. She isn’t Republican. She isn’t Libertarian. She isn’t from the Green Party. She isn’t a capitalist. She isn’t a Communist. She isn’t deeply into mercantilism or monarchies. And more than likely, she doesn’t teach what you personally believe; you’re not her mouthpiece, and neither am I.

And that’s okay. As long as we acknowledge it. Because that’s the way it should be. You and I don’t speak for the Catholic Church–nor should we. She isn’t a democracy at all. We don’t elect representative bishops who then elect a representative pope who makes representative changes to doctrine. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is quoted as having said in 1953, “Moral principles do not depend on a majority vote. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong. Right is right, even if nobody is right.”1 The Catholic Church does not bend to the times; she does not “catch up to modern society.” She has a top-down hierarchy, with God at the head, and his timeless teachings on faith and morals do not change to suit the whims of whatever our culture has dreamed up for today.

So how do people disagree with the Church? Well, if you look long enough, you’ll find someone who disagrees with her (yet still claims to be a part of her or even represent her) in every single aspect of her teaching. The most common, probably, are related to the morality of one’s sexual life: “How dare a bunch of old men tell me how to spend my time in private and what to do with my own body?” etc. Almost as common is the morality of economics: “I don’t appreciate the Church telling me to give my money to poor people; it’s charitable of me to give them advice, to pay my taxes, to make sure taxes are cut for companies that might try to employ them,” etc. Or the morality of ecology: “I bet the Church agrees with me that using up this forest for my paper factory is just good stewardship,” etc.

But it always, always comes down to this: someone holds an opinion that they deem more important or more accurate than the teaching of the Holy Catholic Church established by Christ himself. Either the Church is wrong (and should therefore change to match my opinion), or she is simply not my highest priority. Both positions rely heavily on the superiority of self; “I have evaluated the scientific evidence and therefore I deem this behavior moral”; “I believe with all my heart that this behavior is okay, so it doesn’t matter what those old fogeys preach from their ivory tower”; etc. The final arbiter of every decision is not God, but Man–and me in particular. It is Protestantism hidden inside Catholicism, the Enlightenment wrapped in revelation.

But why do people do this? Why call yourself Catholic and then prove by word and deed that you disagree with the Church so vehemently? These are the arguments I’ve seen, followed by my counterpoints:

  1. It’s perfectly normal to ask questions. It’s fine to have doubts. I don’t think anyone should have blind faith, or believe in something without testing it out.
  2. The Church is slow. It will catch up eventually.
  3. I’m following my conscience.
  4. I adhere to Church teaching in so many other ways; it’s unreasonable to expect people to adhere to all of it. No one does that.

In response:

  1. It is perfectly normal to ask questions and have doubts. I wish I could be more like those with the spiritual gift of faith, never needing to question why, but I feel obligated to trust my own reason the most, so I must work through every doctrine, every proclamation, until I understand the teachings of the Church. But this doubting must be done with an eye toward agreement, not schism. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2), a sense that is informed by a holy fear of God’s wrath (Hebrews 12:21) and power (Mark 5:33). If we fail, or fall short, and we choose to stay that way, we are not merely “in disagreement,” but we are in schism, and what stands at stake is not polite conversation at the dinner table but our immortal souls.
  2. This suggests that you are moving in an inevitable direction, but not all schisms are that way. Is the Church about to catch up with Henry VIII? This “divorces should be allowed” thing has been going on at least that long, and the Church still hasn’t “caught up.” Maybe we’re close to Martin Luther–a declaration that members of religious orders should be allowed to abandon their vows should be right around the corner. Perhaps we’re close to catching up with Pelagius and about to say that original sin isn’t a thing; you know, because we’re all basically good and capable of being moral on our own. Maybe we’re about to catch up to Arius and say that there was a time when the Son was not. Any day now.
  3. Well, at least you’re not defying your conscience. But that doesn’t mean you’re always right. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1783-1794.)
  4. The saints did that. Many of the faithful do exactly that. Adhering to one teaching does not absolve you of the responsibility to adhere to the rest; you cannot say, “I believe in the eternal nature of the Son, so I’m allowed to believe in modalism.” Faithfulness is not a balancing act of orthodoxies and heresies, but a strict adherence to orthodoxy.

I think the most basic reason for this disagreement is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Church works. It’s typical of Americans because we cling to this notion that democracy is the best of all possible governance, but the Catholic Church does not rise up from the people and their opinions. Rather, it was handed down to us by God himself, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, through his chosen apostles and most especially Peter. The Catholic Church teaches the Word of God, not the word of Man. But many who were baptized Catholic make no effort to accept this framework.

Okay, but why doesn’t this happen so much elsewhere? Why do I meet more Catholics who cling to their own opinions over the Church than, say, Baptists or Pentecostals? Well, the main issue here is how the label gets applied. If you’re baptized Catholic, you’re Catholic; that’s a lifelong sacrament with lifelong grace. The label doesn’t get removed without excommunication–and in many cases, an excommunication is appropriate to people teaching heterodox views, but it’s out of vogue to excommunicate people. Protestant labels like “Methodist” or “Baptist” are chosen by the individual and self-applied for as long as they are appropriate; if a person’s faith changes, they change labels or drop them altogether. Even so, Protestant churches are full of people who only attend because they feel obligated, but who hold no shared opinions with the rest of the congregation; they’re just less likely to use the labels. Catholics are so attached to that label of Catholicism that I would not be surprised to hear someone say, “I’m Catholic, but I don’t think God exists.” This is the origin of the phrase cultural Catholicism–to be Catholic becomes so ingrained in people that they forget what it actually means. Instead, they take it on as a sort of ethnic identity; no one would bat an eye if I said, “I’m a white guy, but I don’t think God exists.”

You may have noticed that I have been careful not to use the phrase suggested by my post title, the derogatory term “cafeteria Catholics.” In part, this is because some are now championing the term because they think it makes them greater saints to defy where the Church is “wrong.” (Of course, if the Church could be wrong, she wouldn’t be the Church.) It’s also not a charitable term; most people to whom it applies really are following their consciences. But our consciences are imperfect, because we are imperfect. We should follow the Church precisely because God has given her to us for this grace, to have her at the ready to correct our concupiscence and cure us of our sin. The true danger of “cafeteria Catholicism” is not teaching error–the Church can survive that, as she has well proved–but it is the trivialization of sin and schism.

I have no doubt the Church will weather the storm as she always does, but not every soul aboard will be saved. Let us strive always to join the crew, obey the captain, and follow the will of God; every time we veer off-course, we risk losing more souls–especially our own.

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Footnotes:
1 I’m not saying Abp. Sheen didn’t say this, because it’s certainly in keeping with what he has said, and he has said the “wrong is wrong” and “right is right” bit in multiple places. But the most specific any source gets for this quote is the year 1953, which was certainly a full year for which I was not present, much less Catholic. It’s possible he said this during a homily or a speech that was not recorded, and someone noted down the words as being particular poignant (for that they are). But these words in this phrasing do not seem to appear in printed or recorded material that I can find, so I’m being as honest as possible about the source.

Good Theology, Weak Conclusion

A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in ScriptureA Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture by Scott Hahn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another solid addition to Scott Hahn’s repertoire of theological works. The subject of the book is covenantal theology, that is, that God’s relationship with humanity is based in a series of covenants, beginning first with Adam and Eve and culminating in the new covenant through Jesus Christ. The book covers this full range, starting in Genesis and wrapping up in Revelation.

I like this, first of all, because it has a lot of useful information packed in here. It’s even better when you read the accompanying Scripture references; that can really ground what Dr. Hahn is saying and help you keep the right frame of mind. (It’s tempting with works of theology to get lost in the details or high-mindedness; more than some of Dr. Hahn’s other works, this book is prone to that temptation, but refocusing on the Bible passages, taking notes, and keeping a dictionary handy can solve that problem for the average reader.)

It also presents the cohesive story of Scripture in a way that reconciles easily with the traditional view of the Church, but isn’t something you hear in every pulpit. (It’s hard to tell the entire history of the world in this single book, much less in a single homily or sermon.)

Some things to watch out for:
(1) Puns. As with all of Dr. Hahn’s non-academic works, there are puns throughout (mostly in section and chapter titles). If you are deeply unnerved by dad jokes, steel yourself before reading.

(2) A small number of minor typos (I think I can count on one hand the number of books that did not have at least this, though, and my books are not on that list).

(3) The final chapter and especially the final few pages. In my opinion, a book is made or broken by its conclusion, and this book fell pretty hard at the end. It’s almost as if Dr. Hahn had a prescribed limit, and when he reached it, he ended the book, even though he wasn’t finished. The conclusion here is rushed at best and sorely lacking at worst.

Let me explain what I mean: the final chapter takes for granted that the Book of Revelation is about the Mass. There is a lot of evidence for this (not the least of which is in the Mass itself, where liturgy aims to resemble John’s vision of heaven), but Dr. Hahn glosses over it quickly. In part, he’s not aiming to answer that question right now (he has at least one other book about that, and this chapter is supposed to be about the Church), but I think it’s a shortcoming that he doesn’t address the elephant in the room for any Protestant that worships without the liturgy: Revelation as a prognosis for the end of the world. Even a brief amount of detail here would put more minds at ease, I think.

The final few pages in particular are where the real let-down happens for me. Up to this point, Dr. Hahn has been describing a powerful image of the eternal Church, the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem. In the last couple of pages, he turns to the question that I think should be the climax of a theological work (rather than the afterthought): how then should we live?

He writes, “It may seem that the Church John envisions is a far cry from the Church that we have experienced. We see scandal and hypocrisy, bland liturgies, false teaching, broken families, sin and sinners everywhere. Down the street a new ‘nondenominational’ fellowship may be serving up the Bible hot and spicy; its members are more rigorously observing God’s law and more devoutly praying to him. Millions of Catholic have joined so-called Bible-believing churches because in them they see greater fervor. What do we do?” (260-261)

At this point, I thought, “Alright, let’s do it! Let’s talk about the beauty of the Church, the power and transforming grace of the sacraments, the wonder of embracing the divine, the authority of Christ and the Church, the richness of our traditions, the truth of our teaching, the healing of our fellowship, and the depth of God’s mercy (even if only for a moment, since we’re almost on the last page)!”

Instead, the last page and a half can, I think, be summarized like this: “Well, the Church is the True Church, so you’ll just have to set aside your reservations and stay Catholic. Sometimes we see bad things, but we need to ignore those and focus on becoming saints.”

As a conclusion, I think it gets it about half-right: We definitely need to become holy in our whole lives, and that is a critical element in the Church. But even before we’re saints, we can work at the local, diocesan, national, and Church-wide levels, wherever we are, to continually transform hearts and conform ourselves to God’s desire, to renew a right spirit within each of us, to convert the sinner, forgive the sin, and save people.

“Don’t focus so much on sin and become a saint” sounds like very private advice, given to a private person intending to stay private, but the Catholic Church needs to embrace again her deep and abiding community. We are all united in the Mass, which is celebrated continually, every hour of every day, somewhere in the world; we should embrace that community, and as we join together with the saints and angels in heaven, we should strive always to be counted in that number–and not just ourselves, but the person next to us in the pew, in the parking lot, in class or at work, and on the street. Yes, absolutely, become a saint–but do whatever you can to make your brother a saint, too.

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Swimming the Tiber 10: Judging Your Sins

Happy new year! I’m not going to talk about New Year’s resolutions, I promise. (Well, at least not outside that sentence.)

Last week, I talked about virtue and vice from the perspective of Catholic philosophy; the week before, I talked about how we are justified and, more crucially related to this topic, how sin and salvation interact. Please keep both topics in mind going forward.

When I was younger, I had a particularly egalitarian view of sin. Basically, I told myself that all sins are committed equal. Whether you murdered someone, robbed them, flipped them the bird on the freeway, or gave them an uncharitable thought, you had sinned, and that was all it took to condemn you (lacking God’s grace, of course). Nazis were on an even playing field with schoolyard bullies.

A simple logical appraisal tells us that this is ridiculous, but it cemented itself in my mind for a reason: it was a reaction against moral relativism. In a sense, moral relativism tells us not only that we can define “good” for ourselves, but more importantly, that there is such a thing as “good enough.” Secular philosophy says that if we’re mostly good, then that’s fine, and we can do a few bad things here or there (errare humanum est, am I right, Seneca?) without endangering our souls (or being “Bad People,” depending on the particular flavor of secular philosophy we’re talking about).

Even as I child, I knew that was hogwash; we can’t be good enough (that would make us practically Pelagian!), because that would invalidate the sacrifice of Christ, and that would make God not just extraordinarily cruel, but unjust. (After all, if we can achieve perfection and salvation without divine intervention, then Christ’s death was unnecessary, and in such a case, the execution of Christ as propitiation for sin is excessive rather than normative. In short, if we can choose not to sin, or if we can be saved in spite of our sin without repentance, then Jesus died for no reason.) So I said that all sins were equal, basically so that I could refute anyone who said that little white lies wouldn’t send them to hell.

But I didn’t make that conclusion from logic, I made it from convenience. Saying the first part made saying the second part easier, it didn’t make it truer. The former doesn’t prove the latter, and the latter doesn’t necessitate the former. Here’s what I mean: I can say that all sin is sin, and that any sin (whether the taint of original sin or the commission of any sin small or large) is enough to separate us from the presence of God, without once suggesting that genocide and mild deception are on the same level. And so I should.

Because obviously not all sins are equal.

But all sins are sins.

Which brings us to the main point of this week’s post: the Catholic concept of “mortal” and “venial” sins. Recall that two weeks ago I talked about the idea of losing our salvation through sin, that by sinning, we separate ourselves from communion with God. In the Catholic Church, sins are put into two classes: mortal sins and venial sins. Mortal sins are the big ones–the ones that cause that fall from the state of grace. Venial sins are the small ones–the ones that are bad, the ones that helped to condemn our souls in the first place, the ones from which we need to be purified, but that do not reflect an evil or unrepentant heart (just a frail human one). This is even Scriptural:

If someone sees his brother committing an errorlit. erring an error not toward death, let [the one seeing it] prayhere and throughout, lit. ask, and he will give to him [the one sinning] life, for the [ones] erring not toward death. There is error toward death; not about that do [I] say that [he] should pray.a purpose clause as a kind of indirect speech; literally, this sentence is something like “not about that do [I] speak in order that [he] may pray [about that]” Every injustice is an error, and there is error not toward death.

– 1 John 5:16-17 (my translation)

Let me be clear: classifying sins is not about judging people, just about judging sins. It’s okay to call yourself the foremost of sinners, but you shouldn’t go around saying it about other people. If a Christian is sinning openly, respond as exhorted by Scripture and the Church (Matthew 18:15-35; Galatians 6:1-10; cf. 1 Corinthians 5), but whether in the Church or out, final judgment is reserved to the Lord. (Again, as I’ve written before, the Church does not keep a list of “anti-saints” who are in hell, but does keep a list of saints who are surely in the presence of God even now.) Judging your sins is about examining your own conscience, so that you know what to confess and where to improve.

In fact, proper judgment of sins is crucial to a good confession. I will talk in more detail about the Sacrament of Confession/Penance/Reconciliation in a few weeks, but here’s the short version: since Christ gave the Church the authority to bind and loose sins (see Matthew 18 again), the Church engages that authority through private confession to a priest. In general terms, in such a confession, you should identify your mortal sins by kind and number, and your venial sins more generally (though as accurately as you can). This isn’t about doing “spiritual accounting” or keeping a detailed log, but it’s about identifying all the areas in your life where you are still broken and to what degree you are broken.

(By the way, I should note that these two classifications, “mortal” and “venial” are not the entire spectrum of sin severities; there are some mortal sins which are so heinous that a regular priest does not have authority to loose them, and even a few–five, last I checked, and most of those can only be committed by priests–where only the Pope has that authority.)

So how do you judge your sins? Well, the Church identifies sins as mortal if they meet the following criteria:

  1. The sin must be a grave (serious) matter.
  2. The sin must be committed with full knowledge.
  3. The sin must be committed with deliberate consent.

Grave matter is defined as the Ten Commandments, in short. Stealing, killing, committing adultery, etc. Grave matter has been more fully defined, especially in light of “modern” sins that may or may not have been spelled out in Scripture; there are a wide range of books that are useful for the examination of one’s conscience (i.e., the judgment of one’s sins). (I find this one very helpful, but there are even apps for that.) Full knowledge means knowing that something is a sin and doing it anyway (pretending not to know makes it worse). Deliberate consent means that it is a personal choice (claiming hardness of heart is not an exemption, but compulsion may be, in the determination of the Church). If any of these criteria are not met, then the sin is venial, not mortal.

For some more detail on these subjects, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1854-1864.

Next week, I’m going to drop all the sin talk and focus on one of the virtues–not one enumerated, nor one universal, but a virtue nevertheless: virginity.

Swimming the Tiber 8: Justification by Faith

Ah, yes, the war of faith and works! That great debate between St. Paul and St. James! Where even the apostles disagree, surely we will find no common ground!

I hope this is not the case. It may be said that more ink has been spilled on this topic than almost any other since All Hallows’ Eve in the year of our Lord 1517. As you well know from this very series, we have now recently had the 499th anniversary of that day, and from the time of Luther up to now, in nearly half a millennium, Protestants have declared again and again the fallen nature of the Catholic Church on this doctrine: that Catholics believe they are saved by works, a sure-fire recipe for damnation.

A lot of Scripture deals with this question directly, and there is always a danger in this discussion that it will devolve into fruitless proof-texting back and forth until we run out of Bible pages and have come no closer to an understanding of each other. But my view of this false dichotomy came much earlier than my conversion to Catholicism: when I really began to study the Scriptures, the truth of the matter became clear to me.

My goal, then, is to communicate what I believe: that St. Paul and St. James do not disagree and, in fact, share in a common understanding that permeates the Scriptures. Let me first put forward this notion logically, and then I will point out how Scripture supports (and does not oppose) it.

We know (and do not doubt) that our salvation is by God’s grace above all else. The main point of contention between Catholics and Protestants is how that salvation enters our lives. Soteriology (the study of salvation) is often broken into subgroups, especially justification and sanctification. Justification is the legal declaration by God that we are freed from sin and preserved for righteousness. Sanctification is the actual process of making us holy (“sanctification” is from Latin sanctus, meaning “holy”), that is, righteous (so that we are not only freed from sin, but free of sin, meaning we are not only absolved of wrongdoing, but also never do it again).

Sanctification is a discussion for another time. The crucial matter in the question of faith vs. works is justification.

Now, we all know that justification is by God’s grace. Without His grace (that is, without the atonement accomplished through Christ on the cross), justification is impossible, regardless of what else is true about ourselves or our circumstances. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1987-2005, and pretty much any Protestant declaration of faith.) But how do we cooperate with that justification? Why isn’t it just freely given to everyone?

Well, if you’re Calvinist, it’s because some people are elect and some people aren’t; just get used to it. For the rest of us, though, the question usually comes down to faith. (Faith is, of course, a gift of God from His grace, so it’s not quite that easy to untangle, but let’s try to stay focused on the issue at hand.) It is our faith which differentiates us as recipients of God’s grace; through faith, we accept the gift and we are justified. Simple as that. Right?

But what does it mean to accept the gift? What does it mean to have faith? Is it merely an intellectual assent? How can any reasonable Christian assert that Christ is Lord and then indulge in everything Christ has commanded us not to do? Is he really our Lord if we do not obey him? Have we really accepted his gift if we do not follow his commands? Can a person offer intellectual assent at the existence and authority of a commanding officer, but refuse to obey the orders given by that officer? Perhaps, you say, if the officer is corrupt or has given bad orders, but do we say this of Christ’s commands? That they are bad orders from a corrupt official, to be disobeyed? Of course not.

This is where Protestants and Catholics fail to communicate. Because most Protestants that I know say that when justification occurs, our hearts are changed, and we are made new–but as long as we are in this world, we struggle against it. So we sin and fall short while we wait to be sanctified, but we have to keep getting back up, striving to become what God wants us to be.

And the Catholic Church says that when justification occurs, when we accept that grace, our hearts are changed (we are “converted,” literally turned together toward the doctrines of Christ), and we are set on a new path–but as long as we are in this world, we struggle against it. So we sin and we fall short, but we keep getting back up, being converted anew to God’s way, striving to become what God wants us to be.

So… why do we disagree about this, again?

(Before I continue, you may want to review the Scripture supporting this position. See the footnotes about that.)

Let’s face it: the number of Protestants who actually advocate “sinning boldly” is all but negligible. Even Luther, from whom we get that phrase, sincerely believed that genuine faith produced good works; the phrase “sin boldly,” or “let your sins be strong,” actually meant that I should not pretend that I am not a sinner, but freely admit it, and let God’s grace save me from that sin (by producing in me faith, which produces good works).

So when people object to Catholicism’s “salvation by works,” to what are they actually objecting? I think that most people who complain about this have long since twisted the truth (or had it twisted for them), and they don’t know what they’re talking about–but I’m a firm believer that most misunderstandings started with an incomplete understanding somewhere along the line. In this case, I think the Protestant objection to Catholic “works” comes down to two things:

  1. The Catholic Church “forces” its members to do certain things, and that’s Bad. Whereas for Protestants, being good and going to church are important and advocated, for Catholics, missing Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (!!) are sins. And you know what? I work hard, I try, and sometimes, I just can’t get to church–what’s the big deal?

    Well, think about it like this. If God is our Father and Christ is the King and the Church is his Bride, that makes the Church, mystically, our mother. And it is a mother’s duty to raise her children in the faith, in order to save their souls. So when the Church tells us to stop sinning and go to Mass, is it really any different from when I tell my son to stop hitting his brother and share the toys? It’s about moral development in an immoral world. It’s about raising Christian people, whether they’re 5 or 65. All Christians call bad behavior “sin.” Why should the Church, which has the God-given authority to bind and loose sins (see Matthew 16:19; 18:18), not do the same?

    So when we don’t do as the Church tells us we should, we have committed a sin. And that means we have to repair the relationship between us and the Church and God. Which brings us to point number 2.

  2. Catholics don’t believe in the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints.” The phrase you have probably heard more often is “once saved, always saved.” This is a very common Protestant doctrine, and the theological term for it is the perseverance of the saints, though that term is most often associated with Calvinism.

    Perseverance of the saints is intrinsically linked to two other doctrines, and usually, if you hold one of these, you hold perseverance of the saints (even if you don’t hold both).

    One is the idea of irresistible grace. “Irresistible grace” is the notion that God chooses the elect (cf. Matthew 24; Mark 13; Romans 11:7-8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 2 Peter 1:10) and we have no say in the matter. Who could resist the grace of the Almighty God, anyway? And if grace is irresistible, then there is no way to escape it, no matter our sins.

    The second is the idea of total depravity. “Total depravity” is the notion that we are completely incapable of genuine righteousness without God’s grace. It frequently (though not necessarily always) maintains that, even after receiving God’s grace, we necessarily cannot stop sinning until after this life has passed (that is, complete and thorough sanctification is impossible on earth). If we cannot be wholly purified from sin–that is, if we are incapable of becoming sinless regardless of God’s grace–then any denial of salvation because of sin refutes the idea of salvation altogether. Since God says that He has, does, and will save us, we must not be able to “lose” our salvation.

    The Catholic Church doesn’t teach either of these doctrines. First, Catholicism is a champion of free will. See Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1730-1748; consider especially Sirach 15:14 (recall that the Book of Sirach is canonical); John 8:31-38; Romans 8:21; 2 Corinthians 3:17; and Galatians 5. (This is not, I will admit, a thorough refutation of the doctrines of predestination, but let it serve as a primer; I may return to it sometime later.)

    In the second place, the Catholic Church teaches that God’s omnipotence exceeds our fallenness. To be sanctified in this life is beyond difficult, but nothing is impossible with God (cf. Luke 1:37). We are, in fact, called to sanctification by Christ and the Church: cf. Matthew 5:48; Romans 6:15-23; 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 13:5-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17; Hebrews 6:1-2; 7:11-28; 10:1-14; 11:39-40; James 1:22-27.

    Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.

    Lumen Gentium (The Light of Nations), paragraph 11.

    And how do we achieve this sanctification? Several of these verses indicate it, and the Catholic Church affirms it: Virtue is like a habit, or a muscle. Only by repetitive use does it improve. In common parlance, we call this repetition “work,” and whether our work is material or spiritual, it contributes to our holiness, provided we do all work in right communion with Christ (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2427).

    But of course, we admit that complete sanctification is, at best, very unlikely. Are the rest of us damned? Of course not. The Catholic Church teaches that, after death, we are purified by God’s grace and sanctified unto holiness, that we may enter into his Presence. (I can limit myself to just a few tangents each post, don’t worry; there’s a whole post dedicated to Purgatory coming up later.) Nevertheless, we know that some can lose their place by God’s side, though the Church has never insisted on the damnation of any particular soul (unlike her assertions of the salvation of particular individuals, whom we call the saints).

    How do we know that some can know Christ, have faith in Christ, and still fall away? Scripture is pretty adamant about it.

    Listen! Behold, the [one] sowing came out [in order] to sow. And it happened in the sowing [that], [the seed] which fell upon the road, also the winged [things] came and wolfed it down.1 And another fell upon the rocky [places] where [it] did not have much earth, and [it] sprang up [and] out straightaway on account of not having a depth of earth; and when the sun sprang up, [the seed] was scorched, and on account of not having a root, [it] dried up. And another fell into the thorns, and the thorns mounted up and pressed it closely, and [it] did not give fruit. And another fell into the earth, the beautiful [earth], and [it] was giving fruit, mounting up and increasing, and [it] was bearing [fruit] in thirty and in sixty and in a hundred. … And these are the [ones] sowed upon the rocky [places], who, whenever [they] hear the word, [they] seize it straightaway with joy, and [they] do not have a root in themselves, but [they] are temporary; then, with pressure or persecution having come about [on a particular occasion], [they] stumble on account of the word.

    – Mark 4:3-8, 16-17, my translation; cf. Matthew 13:3-8, 20-21; Luke 8:5-8, 13

    Not every [one] saying to me, “Lord, lord,” will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the [one] doing the will of my father, [who is] the [one] in the heavens. Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, lord, were [we] not prophets in your name, and did [we] not throw out demons in your name, and did [we] not do many powers in your name?” And then [I] will say the same [thing] to [each of] them, that, “And [I] never knew you; go away from me, [you ones] working at lawlessness.”

    – Matthew 7:21-23, my translation

    Wherefore, having sent forth the word of the beginning of Christ, let us bear [down] upon the perfection, not again throwing down a foundation of a repentance from dead works, and of faith upon God, of a teaching of baptisms, and of an application of hands, and of a resurrection of [the] dead, and of an eternal judgment. And [we] will do this [thing] especially if God yields [it to us]. For [it is] an impossible [thing] [to renew] the [ones] once having been illuminated, and having tasted of the gift, the heavenly [gift], and having become partakers of a holy spirit, having tasted both a beautiful saying of God and powers of a destined age, and having fallen aside, to renew [them] unto repentance, [with them] crucifying for themselves the son of God and making a spectacle [of him]. For earth, the [earth] having drunk the rain coming many times upon it, and having begotten a well-arranged plant for those on account of whom [it] is also cultivated, [the earth] partakes of a blessing from God; but the [earth] carrying out thorns and thistles [is] counterfeit and near [to] curses, of which the end is burning.

    – Hebrews 6:1-8, my translation

    Translation Footnotes:
    1 Idiomatic reflection of the actual verb. Whereas we say “eat up,” the Greeks said “eat down.” “Devoured it” is an acceptable translation also.

    Though these passages, too, can be debated endlessly, I think they are clear: seek perfection, as your heavenly Father is perfect, and do not hold back, but run the race as if to win (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Hebrews 12:1-2). Do this out of love for God, but at the very least, do it out of fear of hell, where the wicked and the lawless are burned, no matter how many times they may say, “Lord, lord.”

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< The Church Is One

Swimming the Tiber 7: The Church Is One

Ecclesia, however, ought to mean the holy Christian people, not only of the time of the apostles, who are long since dead, but clear to the end of the world, so that there is always living on earth a Christian, holy people in which Christ lives, works, and reigns per redemptionem, through grace and forgiveness of sins, the Holy Ghost per vivificationem et sanctificationem, through the daily purging out of sins and renewal of life, so that we do not remain in sin, but can and should lead a new life in good works of all kinds, such as the Ten Commandments, or Two Tables of Moses, require, and not in the old, wicked works: that is St. Paul’s teaching. But the pope and his followers have applied both the name and the picture of the Church to themselves alone and to his shameful, accursed crowd, under this blind word ecclesia, “church.”

– Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church (1539), trans. C. M. Jacobs

Looking again through Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, the terms he uses in the quote above for Catholics may be the nicest things he has to say about us. But the main point of this quote is to refer to his stance on the invisible Church, which has been adopted broadly by most modern Protestants. (Many modern Protestants also, generally speaking, hold to Zwingli’s view, in that the invisible Church includes not only all Christians from all ages, but also all saved heathen, such as those without access to the Gospel, those who die in infancy, and so on. Luther would have repudiated that list.)

Luther does not deny the existence of the visible Church, but he trivializes it. The visible Church may be seen in small church congregations or in megachurches, but it always includes hypocrites and the unsaved, and so no church (whether building or group) can be considered a microcosm of the “true” Church, the invisible Church. The Catholic Church, according to Luther, is not part of the “visible Church,” but rather the “false Church,” and by 1539, he is equating Catholics with demons, generally speaking. (He only became more combative and vilifying as he aged.)

I said in my introductory post that I would spend a lot of time referring back to St. Francis de Sales’ Catholic Controversy; this is one of those times. Francis dismantles the argument that the invisible Church is the only true Church and he does it so handily that one is left confused how one ever believed otherwise. He spends four chapters on the subject in the first part of the book (1.5 – 1.8), so I’m not going to quote all of it. But for those of you who don’t want to take the time to read it right now, I will try to quote some highlights. He introduces the section thus:

Our adversaries, clearly perceiving that by this touchstone their doctrine would be recognised as of base gold, try by all means to turn us from that invincible proof which we find in the marks of the true Church. And therefore they would maintain that the Church is invisible and unperceivable. I consider that this is the extreme of absurdity, and that immediately beyond this abide frenzy and madness. I speak of the militant Church of which the Scripture has left us testimony, not of that which men put forward. Now, in all the Scripture it will never be found that the Church is taken for an invisible assembly.

– Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy 1.5, trans. Fr. Mackey, OSB

(For what it’s worth, in contrast to Luther, these are probably the strongest words de Sales has to say about Protestant doctrine.) His reasons, in short, are these:

  1. In Scripture, the Church is assembled, taught, ruled, greeted, persecuted; to it we are told to come, by it we are to be received. These are not things that can be done invisibly. Cf. Matthew 18:16-17; Acts 8:1, 3; 14:22, 26; 15:4, 41; 20:17, 22, 28; Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 3:15.
  2. In the Old Testament, the prophets describe the Church in visible terms–a glorious bride for the King (Psalm 45), the sun and moon and the witness of God’s promise (i.e., the rainbow–cf. Psalm 89:30-37), and a mountain (Isaiah 2).
  3. Likewise, that she is not only visible, but can be known. Cf. Song of Songs 6; Isaiah 8:8 (if even fools can find their way, must the Church not be plainly visible and knowable?).
  4. The pastors and teachers of the Church are visible, therefore the Church is visible. This is true of the Apostles, of the Papacy, of the priests, and also of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and your local pastor.
  5. The Church’s duties include preaching the Word and administering the sacraments, and these actions are visible.
  6. The patriarchs of Israel were visible, and the synagogue is a type, a precursor, for the Church. As I will discuss in some detail later, all types are inferior to the thing they prefigure. If Adam is human and visible, so also Christ is (at least!) human and visible; if Israel is visible, so also the Church.
  7. As the twelve patriarchs were visible and headed the Church in Israel, so also the Twelve Apostles were visible and headed the Church in Christ.
  8. As the Israelites lived visibly in the nation of God, so we live visibly in the Church of God. They had circumcision, we have baptism; they had the Levites and rabbis, we the elders and pastors; they had the paschal lamb and manna, we the Body of Christ; they were persecuted by Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, we by pagans, heretics, and radical Islam.

Goodness of God!–and we are still to ask whether the Church is visible! But what is the Church? An assembly of men who have flesh and bones;–and are we to say that it is but a spirit or phantom, which seems to be visible and is so only by illusion?

– Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy 1.5, trans. Fr. Mackey, OSB

Cf. Luke 24:37-43.

But let it not be said that Catholics believe the Church is only visible; of course, the Church is invisible, but it is visible also. The Church is one Church, as Christ prayed for us (John 17), and, like Christ, who is both man and God, and like each of us, who are both body and spirit, the Church is both visible and invisible; it has both interior and exterior, as Francis writes. The interior is even more beautiful than the exterior–look again at Psalm 45:13.

But never let it be said that the Church is only interior or only spirit or only invisible. A man is not a soul; a man is a soul and a body. On this Catholics and Protestants agree: E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary, wrote, “A soul without a body is a ghost; a body without a soul is a corpse.” (The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person 40) For the Catholics, we read: “The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that ‘then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.’ ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 362; cf. Genesis 2:7)

In the same way, the Church is not merely a spiritual gathering, but a visible one, a physical one. Thus, and only thus, can the Church really be a universal Church (a “catholic” Church) as God intended (cf. again John 17; Ephesians 2:11-22).

“But-but-but!” you may say, “Of course there’s a visible side of things, but that includes all the heretics and false teachers, and the true Church doesn’t have anyone but the saved!”

Doesn’t it? The large house of God, which St. Paul calls the “assembly (church) of a living God, a pillar and a support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, my translation)–certainly the true Church, yes?–the large house of God contains “not only gold and silver objects, but also wooden and earthen [ones], and on the one hand, the [things] unto honor, but on the other hand, the [things] unto dishonor” (2 Timothy 2:20, my translation). As I wrote in an earlier post, St. Peter is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven (surely the true Church), and thus he has the ability to loosen (remit, forgive) sins or bind (retain) them–so those in the Church, which the gates of Hell will not overcome, sin and have sinned, and some will retain their sins (cf. Matthew 16). And we can be sure that any judging done by St. Peter and the apostles is done on those in the Church, because–as St. Paul tells us–those outside are judged by God alone (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:13). Remember, too, that both the servant and the son abide in the house of God for a time (cf. John 8:35); so the damned, at least for now, are included in the true Church.

And Francis de Sales has many more arguments on this point, but I think I’ve made enough for my purposes. The Church, the true Church, the Body of Christ, the house of God, the kingdom of heaven, is necessarily both visible and invisible. It includes both sinner and saint.

Tune in next time for a discussion of one the implications of a visible true Church: how do works fit in? Most Protestants accuse Catholics of having “works righteousness” and “salvation by works”–what does that mean, and why isn’t it the whole story? Let’s find out when “Swimming the Tiber” returns.