Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Making light of sin, Roman Catholic style

Bryan Cross said:

But as explained above (in comment #213) the person coming out of the baptismal font is already righteous, already completely justified. If he were to die at that moment, he would go to heaven. And if he remains in a state of grace, he remains righteous, because he retains agape within his soul. Aha, says the Protestant. See, that’s where he doesn’t know whether he is in a state of grace, and must jump back on the performance treadmill for an indeterminate length of time.

Again, however, that’s a caricature of the Catholic position. It is not difficult to determine whether one is in a state of grace. A simply examination of conscience is sufficient to determine whether one is in a state of grace. Mortal sin is not something one does unaware, because it requires full knowledge and complete consent. If upon an examination of conscience one determines that one is not in a state of grace, then one simply needs to make an act of contrition — being sorry for having offended God, not merely for fear of hell — with the intention of making use of the sacrament of penance as soon as one can, within reason, to know that one is immediately restored to a state of grace, and to the inheritance of eternal life. Thus a good daily practice, for a Catholic is an examination of conscience by which one examines one’s actions and motivations, and confirms that one is in a state of grace.

Meriting eternal life does not mean moving from a condition in which one will not receive eternal life to a condition in which one will receive eternal life. Meriting eternal life is moving from a righteous condition (itself a gift of grace through Christ) in which upon death one would receive eternal life without having done anything at all, to a more righteous condition in which by God’s gracious plan and grace working within oneself, and one’s cooperation with God’s grace and agape within oneself, it is true that the rightful reward for one’s actions is eternal life. Even a cup of cold water given out of agape merits eternal life.

So the performance treadmill picture in which one never knows whether one has one enough merit to be justified, is an utter caricature of the Catholic doctrine. It confuses righteousness (which is by infusion of agape) with merit, by mistakenly supposing that some unspecified amount of merit must be accrued in order to be justified. In that respect the objection presupposes the list-paradigm. But although merit is possible while in a state of grace (i.e. while justified), and while growth in justification accompanies merit (because God rewards acts done in agape with a greater participation in agape), the notion that from a condition of being unjustified one could merit justification would be Pelagianism, which the Catholic Church has always condemned. So the performance treadmill picture is a form of Pelagianism, not Catholicism.

Bryan misses the severe disjuncture -- Roman Catholicism seems to have all the right doctrines of grace, up to the point of baptism. But after baptism, the "sacramental treadmill" chart accurately represents what must be done -- and done and done and done -- in order to retain "justified" status, in the life of the Roman Catholic, after he has been baptized.


  1. Catholicism seems to lower the bar in order to merit eternal life. One doesn't need to actually fulfill the law in its entirety to obtain entrance into heaven.

    While in the Evangelical point of view, Christ's active obedience perfectly and completely fulfilled the requirements of the law so that believers don't have to. His imputed righteousness makes us worthy of eternal life. That's how we can enter heaven even though the standard is that we "must be perfect just as our heaven Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). Jesus said, "But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments." (Matt. 19:17b, cf. Mark 10:17ff.; Luke 18:18ff.).

    In Catholicism, imperfect (albeit grace empowered) works can merit eternal life. And though, Christ endured the eternal punishment for our mortal sins, we have to endure the temporal punishment for our venial sins in purgatory. Hence Christ is a partial savior in 1. dying for our sins and 2. merely infusing grace into us to enable us to merit salvation by our works.

    1. They definitely seem to pay less attention to "the work of Christ". They think of it less highly (and less biblically) than we do.