The following comes from some e-mail in my files from Dr. Kenneth Howell (July 1996). He was a Presbyterian minister from 1978 to 1996, and converted to the Catholic Church in June 1996. Dr. Howell holds a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Seminary, and Ph.D’s in General Linguistics (Indiana) and History (Lancaster Univ., U.K.). He was Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi for seven years. Dr. Howell is currently a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and Director of the John Henry Cardinal Newman Institute of Catholic Thought, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Illinois.
* * * * *
Trent does not exclude the notion of imputation. It only denies that justification consists solely in imputation. The relevant canons are numbers 9,10,11. Canon 9 does not even deny sola fide completely but only a very minimal interpretation of that notion. I translate literally:
“If anyone says that the impious are justified by faith alone so that he understands [by this] that nothing else is required in which [quo] he cooperates in working out the grace of justification and that it is not necessary at all that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his will, let him be anathema.”
Canon 9 then only anathematizes such a reduced form of faith that no outworking of that faith is necessary. This canon in no way says that imputation is not true but only that it is heretical to hold that justification consists solely in imputation.
I am puzzled why anyone would say that extrinsic righteousness might be excluded by Trent. The only righteousness that justifies is Christ’s. But Catholic theology teaches that what is Christ’s becomes ours by grace. In fact Canon 10 anathematizes anyone who denies that we can be justified without Christ’s righteousness or anyone who says that we are formally justified by that righteousness alone. Here’s the words:
“If anyone says that men are justified without Christ’s righteousness which he merited for us or that they are formally justified by it itself [i.e. righteousness] [‘per eam ipsam‘], let him be anathema.”
Canon 10 says that Christ’s righteousness is both necessary and not limited to imputation i.e. formally. So, imputation is not excluded but only said to be not sufficient.
With regard to imputation, if Trent indeed excludes it, I am ready to reject it. But the wording of the decrees does not seem to me to require this.
How could I become a Catholic if I still thought imputation was acceptable? Because I came to see that the rigid distinction between justification and sanctification so prominent in Reformation theologies was an artificial distinction that Scripture did not support. When one takes into account the whole of Scripture, especially James’ and Jesus’ teaching on the necessity of perfection for salvation (e.g. Matt 5;8), I realized that man cannot be “simul justus et peccator.” Transformational righteousness is absolutely essential for final salvation. Once one realizes this, the entire Catholic system of sacraments, purgatory etc. fits into a coherent pattern.
But does this mean that “imputation … is totally foreign to Catholic thought?” I am not sure it does. I find it even harder to believe that Christ’s righteousness declaring us forgiven is “totally antithetical to transformational righteousness.”
Perhaps it is very important to clarify definitions at this point . . . One is the Reformed/Lutheran idea of an account with God that has no direct bearing on our real state in life. Let’s call this the strong imputation thesis. I have no doubt that this was rejected by Trent. But a softer form — call it the weak imputation thesis — is that imputation is a declaration of forgiveness of the kind implied in Jesus’s words to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Other examples are our Lord’s words to Zaccheus, “Today, salvation has arrived at this house because he himself is a son of Abraham.” Or to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you.” This declaration is what we receive when, having confessed our sins sincerely to our priests, we may be confident of the forgiveness of Christ. The words of the human priest are Christ’s words of forgiveness. We have been declared forgiven.
* * *
There can be no doubt that Trent stressed transformational righteousness as that which Christ infuses into our souls. The frequent references to baptism clearly speak of a real justice that results from Christ’s meritorious work. Furthermore, it’s evident that the idea of being thought of as righteous by God, without really being so, is unacceptable. This is particuarly emphasized in chapter 7 when speaking about the formal cause of justification. As with Aristotle’s use of this category “formal cause”, Trent meant that which shapes us (i.e. gives us form) into righteous people, not simply being thought of as righteous (“non modo reputamur sed vere justi nominamur et sumus“). To put the matter in another manner, God thinks of us as righteous only when we are in fact righteous. There is no legal fiction.
Having said that, it seems to me that there is also a place in Trent for a declaration which not only recognizes but also confers that righteousness of Christ which is the ground of our justification. In chapter 14 “On Lapses and their Restoration” Trent insists on the necessity of sacramental confession as the means of restoration and it explicitly says that sacramental absolution is the only means of remitting eternal punishment and guilt. The Latin here is somewhat convoluted and the standard English translation (Deferrari) is so literal that it is difficult to follow. So, I’ll retranslate the relevant section in a less literal but hopefully more comprehensible form:
A man’s repentance after falling … contains not only a cessation from sins by hating them (or a contrite and humble heart). It also requires a sacramental confession of those same sins, made at least in desire and at a proper time. This involves sacramental absolution as well as satisfaction by means of fasting, almsgiving, prayers and other pious exercises of the spiritual life. These pious acts do not pay for eternal punishment because that along with guilt can only be remitted by the sacrament or the desire for the sacrament. They pay for temporal punishment which is not always fully remitted (as is the case in baptism) for those who have grieved the Holy Spirit by their ingratitude for the grace of God they once received.
Here the Council Fathers go out of their way to stress that our standing before God in this life without guilt and eternal punishment comes from the declaration and conferring of forgiveness found in sacramental absolution. I am reminded of something I heard about Mother Teresa. She supposedly said when we come out of confession, we are without sin just for a little while. Belief in the objective nature of the sacraments requires us to say that the priest’s declaration confers what it signifies. And what does it signify? That Christ our High Priest is granting us pardon on the basis of his own merits.
How does this bear on imputation? The Protestant doctrine, it seems to me, has at least two sides. Imputation is the declaration of forgiveness on God’s part because of Christ’s work but it is also a legal fiction that has nothing immediately to do with real (subjective) state of the penitent. Now I think the declaration side of imputation is acceptable to Trent but not the legal fiction side. The difference between the Tridentine and the Reformation views, in addition to many other aspects, is that in the latter view God only sees us as righteous while in the former, Christ confers righteousness upon (and in) us.
There is another reason why I think imputation is not totally excluded but is acceptable in a modified form. Canon 9 rejects sola fide but, as we know, Trent does not reject faith as essential to justification. It only rejects the reductionism implied in the sola. So also, canon 11 rejects “sola imputatione justitiae Christi and sola peccatorum remissione.” Surely Trent includes remission of sins in justification. Why would we not say then that it also includes imputation of Christ’s righteousness? If faith (canon 9) and remission of sins (canon 11) are essential to justification, then should we not also say that imputation of Christ’s righteousness is also necessary? Indeed, it seems to me that this is precisely what is being emphasized in requirement for sacramental absolution in chapter 14.
What is wrong with the Reformation view then? It is the sola part. Faith is essential but not sola fide. Remission of sins is essential but not sola remissione. Imputation via absolution is essential but not sola imputatione. I remember well how this hit me one day in my journey. So much of Protestantism represents a reductionism of the Catholic faith. The Protestants added their qualifiers (sola) and thereby threw out the fullness of faith.
There is no doubt that the Protestant theory of legal fiction is just that, a fiction. That must be rejected. But the declarative side of justification does not need to be thrown out completely.
St. Paul on Justification, Sanctification, & Salvation 
Romans 2-4 & “Works of the Law”: Patristic Interpretation [2-16-01]
Justification in James: Dialogue [5-8-02]
Council of Trent: Canons on Justification (with a handy summary of Tridentine soteriology) [12-29-03]
Initial Justification & “Faith Alone”: Harmonious? [5-3-04]
Faith & Works: Oil & Water or Two Sides of a Coin? 
Catholics’ Underemphasis on Justification by Faith [3-30-06]
Dialogue w Three Lutherans on Justification & Salvation [2-1-07]
Catholic Bible Verses on Sanctification and Merit [12-20-07]
Catholic-Protestant Common Ground (Esp. Re Good Works) [4-8-08]
Martin Luther: Good Works Prove Authentic Faith [4-16-08]
St. Paul on Grace, Faith, & Works (50 Passages) [8-6-08]
John Calvin: Good Works Manifest True Saving Faith [9-4-08]
Grace, Faith, Works, & Judgment: A Scriptural Exposition [12-16-09; reformulated & abridged on 3-15-17]
Bible on Participation in Our Own Salvation (Always Enabled by God’s Grace) [1-3-10]
Monergism in Initial Justification is Catholic Doctrine [1-7-10]
Bible on the Nature of Saving Faith (Including Assent, Trust, Hope, Works, Obedience, and Sanctification) [1-21-10]
Martin Luther: Faith Alone is Not Lawless Antinomianism [2-28-10]
Biblical “Power”: Proof of Infused (Catholic) Justification [3-14-11]
Justification: Not by Faith Alone, & Ongoing (Romans 4, James 2, and Abraham’s Multiple Justifications) [10-15-11]
St. Paul’s Use of the Term “Gift” & Infused Justification 
Salvation: By Grace Alone, Not Faith Alone or Works 
Scripture on Being Co-Workers with God for Salvation 
New Testament Epistles on Bringing About Further Sanctification and Even Salvation By Our Own Actions [7-2-13]
“Catholic Justification” in James & Romans [11-18-15]
Philippians 2:12 & “Work[ing] Out” One’s Salvation [1-26-16]
Photo credit: AJ Alfieri-Crispin (10-28-06), Saint Paul Preaching, Pauline shrine in Veria, Greece [Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 license]