Works Without Faith is Dead

The old debate still rages in which Catholics dispute with Protestants who say that salvation is by “faith alone.” Yes, we like to pick out the verse from the epistle of James which says that “faith without works is dead.” If we’re going to talk the talk we have to walk the walk. Action speak louder than words and the old saying of St Francis (not) that you should “preach the gospel at all times- use words if necessary.”

While it is true that faith without works is dead I’d like to stand that on its head and remind readers that it is also true that “works without faith is dead.” Yesterday I commented on Cardinal Maradiaga’s speech on the new evangelization which Rocco Palma posted here on Oct 28. I want to listen to more of the Cardinal’s teachings in order to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I found this particular speech very discouraging. I agree with the points where he was affirming the need to be the church of the poor, to minister to the needy and to show the compassionate face of Christ. I agree that the best evangelization is when people see the love of Christ in action through the lives of saintly people.

What was disturbing was the lack of emphasis about the core of the gospel itself. While there were inspiring thoughts on the need to serve the poor and be the church of the poor, and while there was a reflection on the need for the structures of wealth and power to be overturned, there was nothing about the what I call the “old, old story.”

The “old, old story” is the simple message of mankind lost in the wilderness of selfishness and sin–alienated from God and the sworn enemies of god. There was nothing in the Cardinal’s message about the God who so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him might be saved. There was nothing there about the saving mystery of the cross of Christ an the power of the resurrection. Nothing there about the saints, the sacraments or the salvation offered by the church. There was not even a hint or a mention to remind us that this is the core gospel and that the primary work of the church is to proclaim that gospel in words and works for the salvation of souls.

I have to be honest. I smell the sweet old intoxicating fragrance of Pelagianism…the seductive heresy that reduces the subversive and dangerous mystery of the gospel to good works. I can’t avoid the conclusion that the Cardinal’s message sounded like “let’s all feed the hungry and be nicer people and overthrow those nasty rich people and then everyone will want to be Catholics.” That doesn’t work. We’ve already learned for the last fifty years that it doesn’t work. People aren’t dumb. If that is all we do they conclude that you can be a perfectly nice person without religion, and they’re right. They’re right! Why do you need religion at all if all it consists of is being a nicer person and “We can make a difference, yes we can!”

As faith without works is dead, so works without faith is dead. Works without faith is never more than an ideology. It’s the false religion of trying to make this world a better place rather than trying to make our way to a Better Place. When religion is reduced to an ideology it is actually worse than a secular or atheistic ideology. At least the secular ideologues know that they are following an ideology. Religious ideologues believe they are doing God’s will in the world, and that is truly a frightening thought. Good morning Taliban–like Caliban–another monster who inhabited a primitive and brutal place a naive girl thought was a brave new world.

The Pelagian mistakes the fruit of faith for faith. Because the truly sanctified person of faith serves the poor, loves his neighbor, eschews riches and lives a radiant life of witness the Pelagian thinks that faith consists of doing those things. He thinks that if he does those things then that is the faith and that people will be drawn to the faith through his example of doing those things. Wrong answer. Those actions are the result of faith. They are empowered by faith. The person of faith truly wants to do those things because they have been transformed by the saving action of God.

This is why the core ministry of the church is not social action. The core ministry of the church is to save and sanctify souls. As a consequence of this first ministry the saved and sanctified souls will naturally and of their own transformed desire love their neighbor, feed the poor, minister to the needy and transform the world. The FIRST commandment is this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The second commandment is like–namely this–you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

The second commandment hangs on the first. You cannot truly love your neighbor unless first you have learned to love God, and likewise you cannot truly love God unless you love your neighbor, but there is a priority. Loving God comes first, and that brings the transformation which empowers the proof in that you soon learn to love your neighbor.

Furthermore, “loving your neighbor” is more than simply feeding and clothing him. Yes, these things are necessary and they are part of loving one’s neighbor, but to truly love another is greater than simply being kind to them. It means having a true heart of compassion and wishing to be with them and share life with them. This kind of love is heroic and it is more, much much more than simply running a food kitchen. This is why the atheists are right when they say that they can do that sort of thing without God.

The kind of love of neighbor I’m talking about is the kind we see with Mother Teresa, when her eyes light up with passion and a supernatural love as she embraces a leper. It is the love of St Maximillian Kolbe who not only steps in and offers his life for a fellow prisoner he doesn’t even know, but as he starves in prison he leads the other dying men in hymns, jokes and stories to keep their spirits up. It is the love of St Isaac Jogues who tortured and mutilated by the Hurons, dumped penniless and nearly naked on the shores of France, asks to return to the Huron….because he loved them, and then was tortured again and finally martyred…because he loved them.

This kind of love is more, much more than simply helping the poor. It is a supernatural love which overcomes the world, and it only comes through the powerful transaction between a soul and Jesus Christ the Lord. It is this faith which overcomes the world, and it is the proclamation of this faith which is the primary mission of the church.

Much of Cardinal Maradiaga’s speech was good and inspiring and as a Cardinal in our church I hope and pray that the fullness of the gospel message is proclaimed in the rest of the Cardinal’s preaching and teaching. I’m sure it is, and I will listen and watch to hear this fuller message as he continues to serve the Lord in his church.

However, based on his speech on the New Evangelization published last week I cannot deny the worry I feel that what we are being fed is just more of the same old “social gospel” that has been a disastrous failure. It is not that what he proposed is wrong. It is that the gospel is  more, so much more than that.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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