Let’s talk about a big problem, guys. Let’s talk about Pelagianism. Pelagianism is the doctrine of salvation by works which was condemned by the Church about a thousand years before Luther was born. But while the Church never doctrinally confessed Pelagianism, if we’re honest we have to realize that in the day-to-day trenches of faith life, practical Pelagianism or pseudo-Pelagianism is a disease we never got rid of.
I don’t think it’s a disease of Catholicism. I think it’s a disease of the human heart. The reality of the full force of grace and our need for total dependence upon it is too hard, too radical. As most honest pastors will admit, even in those denominations that loudly and repeatedly proclaim salvation by grace alone through faith alone, you will find many people in the pews who think the way to heaven is basically to work hard at being a good person. Salvation by sheer grace is so otherwordly–in every sense of the term–that we can only believe it with the help of, well, grace.
But it’s true that there are many elements of Catholicism–true as they are–don’t make it easier to fight the disease. The Church has always proclaimed the need for a total surrender to grace, but there’s always been a Pelagian habitus in the Church. And the Latin bent towards legalism can often obscure this.
Which is one of several reasons why I regard the Joint Lutheran-Catholic statement on justification to be such an important document. Yes, we as Catholics, can hold our head high and say that we are saved by grace alone through faith. Yes, there are some asterisks there (and they are important! And I will defend them as hard as anyone!). But, at least in my experience, in the everyday pastoral world of the parish, the problem is not an overemphasis on the need to cooperate with grace. The problem is a lack of acceptance–of surrender to grace.
So yes, a good faithful Catholic priest should be many things; among them, at least on this topic, he should be a good Lutheran.