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.