Why Faithful Catholic Priests Should Be Good Lutherans

Why Faithful Catholic Priests Should Be Good Lutherans April 15, 2014

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.

Which is why I’m not afraid to say that, in their pastoral work, faithful Catholic priests should be good Lutherans. They should stress the power of Christ’s saving work on the Cross to redeem us, and our utter inability to earn salvation through any works on our part. They should stress that Christian morality is not about handing out rewards for good behavior (or, worse, punishments for bad behavior!), it is about receiving the fire of the Holy Spirit and following the will of God out of sheer gratitude and love, responding gratuitously to His gratuitous gift of love. For 99% of Christians, 99% of the time, that’s what they need to hear about salvation. Luther was, despite everything else, profoundly right about this. This truth is at the heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

So yes, a good faithful Catholic priest should be many things; among them, at least on this topic, he should be a good Lutheran.


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  • mochalite

    Excellent! Now tell us the ways in which he should also be a good Presbyterian, and you’ll have made my day! “Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from The Lord Jesus Christ.” II Cor. 1:2

    • Baby steps! 😉

      (I don’t know if he should be a good Presby, but Tim Keller isn’t a bad role model at all.)

  • Nicholas Haggin

    Your post made me think of something a secular Dominican friend of mine said recently: “Jesuits are content to let future historians prove them right or wrong, but Dominicans need to be understood in the present.” From what I’ve read so far on your blog, I see you leaning Jesuit; would you agree with that? (When formulating his distinction, I think my friend had Pope Francis in mind, and maybe also Matteo Ricci.)

    I lean Dominican, which is why I wince at statements like “faithful Catholic priests should be good Lutherans.” Your meaning is perfectly sound, but the possibility of misunderstanding in the present does not compute for me. 🙂

    Keep up the good work. I can’t wait to read the next item in your New Distributism series.

    • That comment seems a little bit backhanded. 😉 Though indeed there are plenty of Jesuits to whom it would apply (Ricci, but also Teilhard, Rahner, Courtney Murray…). And there are some who take it too far into heterodoxy, and even heresy.

      I don’t know if that’s the difference. I don’t know enough about the Dominican charism (not that I know THAT much about the Jesuit charism) and, frankly, I think it’s a bit hard to generalize.

      I do think there’s a certain attraction for being provocative in the Jesuit charism that certainly computes for me (the prime example of the provocative speaker (misunderstood in the present), being, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.)

      As to the title of my post, it’s not just provocation. I do think we can learn from the Protestant emphasis on relying on grace alone for salvation (while avoiding their errors, of course). I think some priests might have a fear of “sounding Protestant”, and I want to relieve them of that fear: in this particular case, “sounding Protestant” is good.

      As for being misunderstood, well, obviously everyone wants to be understood, but without charity you will always be misunderstood. Yes, the post I wrote is absolutely something that you can twist into saying something it doesn’t mean. That’s not something I can control.

      I don’t know if that’s answered your question.

      • Nicholas Haggin

        Yes, that did answer my question.

        My local university’s Newman Center was once assigned a priest who preached salvation by grace very well. He was profoundly aware of the action of grace in his own conversion experience and desired to avoid what you describe as the “Pelagian habitus” in the Church. In this he was successful.

        Conversely, the former chaplain at the same Newman Center, who converted from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, once said that the synergistic Catholic understanding of salvation is liberating for him. We are saved by grace but we cooperate with that grace; we’re not completely passive, as Luther and (to an even greater extent) Calvin would have it. He’s no Pelagian though, and in his preaching he used the contrasted Law/Gospel structure popular in LCMS sermons.

        • I think the concept of cooperation is very important. As I said, Luther goes too far. But as I said, I think the problem we have right now in most cases is pseudo-Pelagianism, not Calvinism.

  • Pelagianism is defeated by a proper understanding of the Sacrament of Reconciliation- which the Lutherans don’t have. The trouble is, Catholics of a certain age don’t have it either. My son’s generation is the first to be raised with “natural consequence penance”, and the jury is still out if that helps.

  • Antiphon411

    Hmmm…I would settle for some Catholic priests who were good Catholics.

  • Frank McManus

    Agree completely. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember that Louis Bouyer’s Spirit and Forms of Protestantism explores this theme in depth, and claims this Lutheran theme of “grace alone” as Catholic, as indeed it is. I guess Catholics need Lutherans to remind us of it. My own conversion happened as a result of reading Bonhoeffer, so I’ve always loved the Lutheran mindset.

  • Kasoy

    I really recommend the book by Fr Scheeben for a better understanding of grace. Fr Scheeben was a renowned German-theologian in the 1800’s. Although I have given some explanation in my comment to an earlier article (Protestantism and a Human…).