Salvation by Works in the Catholic Catechism?

Salvation by Works in the Catholic Catechism? September 24, 2020

[originally posted on 8 May 2002 from public board discussions; Anti-Catholic polemicist Frank Turk’s words will be in blue; Catechism citations will be in green]


If you are suggesting that Rome does not provide a semi-pelagian view of grace and the nature of man, you have to rationalize the catechism in paragraphs 1786-1794.

This is referring to the formation of conscience and cases of ignorance, where a person has never heard the gospel. It has nothing whatever to do with salvation — not a word of it; therefore it is a non sequitur in this discussion, as Semi-Pelagianism has to do with man taking the first step towards salvation, rather than grace being the initiator (as in both Catholicism and Protestantism).

When the CCC is actually talking about salvation, or conversion (i.e., on-topic), then, of course, we see Grace Alone (over against all forms of Pelagianism):

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (cf. Jn 1:12-18, 17:3, Rom 8:14-17, 2 Pet 1:3-4). (#1996)

I agree it says that — the problem is that it comes after the CCC has already said man can be prudent enough to do good and be righteous.

The problem is that you create “contradictions” when there are none, and mix apples and oranges. I’m not convinced you know the correct definitions of Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism. That wouldn’t be the first time, by any means, that a Protestant accused Catholics of holding to Pelagianism: something which they couldn’t even define properly in the first place. But Calvinists routinely falsely accuse not only Catholics, but all Arminians of this error, because, in my opinion, they can’t escape their radically dichotomous thought patterns.

HOGWASH! If it’s your position that these three paragraphs in particular are not about man’s ability to do good,

Man does retain some ability to do good; just not enough to ever save himself. We deny the Total Depravity that Luther and Calvin dreamt up, in opposition to the Fathers and the Bible. The CCC is saying nothing more here than St. Paul says in Rom 2:12-16. God can be known to some extent by natural, unregenerate man in His creation (Rom 1:18-20). We don’t think He can be totally known (e.g., the Trinity) without revelation and grace. That’s what Thomas Aquinas taught, as I assume you know. And that is our belief.

If you think that it’s not talking about pelagianism, or taking a semi-pelagian view, I think you’re not really reading what’s there.

You are reading it in isolation, with tunnel vision and an agenda (trying to prove that we are Pelagians), and not interpreting it within the larger framework of the entire CCC, Trent, Orange, Vatican II, etc. You assume there is a contradiction where there is none.

Yes, this section does not speak directly of soteriology.

Then why are you applying it to soteriology?

But it speaks of something else: man’s ability to perceive and execute what is “good”. The subtle issue is that if man merely needs to be “prudent” to be and do good — something Pelagius would absolutely endorse — then the rest of the theology of grace begins to unravel.

That’s simply not true. Grace Alone does not require total depravity. Calvinists often regard all Arminian Protestants (which is most of ’em, even among evangelicals), as well as Catholics, as Semi-Pelagians. Why and how they can do such a silly thing is due to their espousal of the falsehood that grace alone necessarily requires total depravity and no ability to do any good, whatever; a sin nature of the fallen man, rather than a radically fallen nature which retains some ability to do good, but not enough to save oneself.

I think that, if at its base, the Catholic theology of Grace says, in effect, a man with enough prudence (not faith) can follow his conscience and do the good and shun the evil, the subsequent protestations about the grace of God alone are moot.

Prove, then, that Trent or Vatican II teach Pelagianism. Be my guest. All you can do is pick away at passages in the CCC that are talking about natural law and the nature of man, not about salvation, and then trump up a charge of inconsistency. This is special pleading and “wishful interpretation.”

The Pelagian error is not an abandonment of Grace on the back-side: it is the dissolution of the need for Grace on the front side. If man has a conscience that is the correct guidepost for his behavior (1777), and if he only has to be wise enough to follow it to do good and therefore be righteous (1780 and 1781), there is no need for Grace. Man just has to wise up.

That doesn’t follow. It’s a false dichotomy. We believe that man retains a small measure of good, and free will. Even that is dependent on God’s grace. God “wrote it on their hearts” (Rom 2:15). At the same time, we think that no one can attain to salvation without God’s grace. Trent clearly teaches this. Even you didn’t deny that when I cited Trent: “I wouldn’t quibble over those portions of Trent. I would ask how one takes those passages and also paragraphs 1786-1794 of the 1994 catechism and says they do not contradict.”

The pelagian and semi-pelagian does not say there is no grace of God: he says that God’s grace is a bonus for those who aren’t prudent enough to follow their own conscience.

Well, that is not our view; it is rank heresy, and a denial of original sin. You only think it is the Catholic view, just as you mistakenly thought I was arguing a number of things you claimed I was arguing in the other thread.

Pelagianism is not a rejection that God gives Grace: it is a rejection that God’s Grace is necessary. I think you should consider the Council of Orange’s capitula on the matter, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

That’s the classic Catholic treatment of conscience.

And compare it to this statement in the CCC:

405 Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.

That’s right. This is an Arminian, Wesleyan, or Catholic understanding of the Fall. Are you willing to go on record in saying that your Wesleyan and Lutheran and most pentecostal and independent evangelical brothers are Semi-Pelagians, who deny Grace Alone? Are they, therefore, not Christians, either, if they are Semi-Pelagians? How does that work?

I’m sure I understand what the Council of Orange was opposing, and why.

Good. Now if you could just figure out that this is dogmatic Catholic teaching, strongly reinforced at Trent, you would go a long way.

What I don’t understand is why Rome does not abide by what the Council set forth.

This false perception on your part is due, I believe, to your difficulty in interpretation, as I speculated upon, above. Something must account for it, because our documents couldn’t be more clear than they are, on this. That should come as good news to you, if only I could persuade you of it, unless you want the Catholic Church to be officially Pelagian, for some odd reason, and so can’t come to see that it isn’t at all.

The catechism says many things can help in the formation of conscience — including the Magisterium, and thereby the Holy Spirit. The problem is that it says the conscience itself is enough to guide a man in the doing of good deeds.

I’ll provide this much concession: the Catechism does say that the conscience is part of what God, in creation, gave man to be in the image of God, and perhaps one can construct an “ultimate grace” argument for the grace of conscience (something, by the way, the catechism refuses to say – conscience is not a grace but the partner of free will in the dignity of man).

I submit that the following section does this, contra your assertion:

The gift called ‘imperfect’ (or, ‘attrition’) is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution. By itself, however, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grace sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance. (#1453)

Now, if even this imperfect (not even perfect) contrition can only arise as a gift of God’s grace, a prompting of the Holy Spirit in one’s conscience, and can’t obtain absolution for grave sins (thus probably resulting in hellfire), then how can you possibly claim that we believe a man can be saved by the mere possession of conscience? Your fight here is with your liberal Protestant buddies, not with us. You have also overlooked #1776 in the Catechism, which cites Vatican II:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God . . . God whose voice echoes in his depths.

Who made the conscience? God. Who inscribed that law in our hearts? God. Whose is the voice of conscience? God’s. But who do you think the Catholic Church teaches, is the originator of conscience? Man. And CCC #1777 cites Romans 2:14-16, just as I did, before I saw it.

The problem is to what extent that “image” was changed in the fall, and whether the fall, in removing from man that initial state of holiness which Adam had per the catechism, changed man in a way which allows Man in his own power to do what is right before God.

We can do a small measure of good, and we can know that God exists, from creation and our consciences (themselves wholly derived from God). We cannot save ourselves — not in any way, shape, or form. This is the biblical, patristic, and Catholic position. Why fight about things we already agree on? There are enough real differences to occupy our time.

In Catholicism, the ultimate cause of our justification is always God’s grace — in Catholic/Tridentine teaching just as much as in Reformed. But we view grace as the Ultimate Cause, not in contradiction to works, as Luther and Calvin would say (as pertains to justification and salvation, anyway — I understand that they place works as a requirement under the category of sanctification). Catholics believe in “justification by grace through faith” (because of Christ), but we deny the notion of “justification by grace alone through faith alone” (because of Christ alone).

The latter is not a biblical concept. The difference lies in the exclusivistic, dichotomous use of the word alone. Faith alone implies that works are excluded from the formula altogether. The Catholic rejects this, on the basis of James 2 and other passages: faith and works cannot be separated in such a fashion; they are two blades of a pair of scissors, two sides of a coin.

But we can assert with you that “we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.” This is a true formula. We are justified by grace (i.e., again, contrary to Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism) and through faith (as we are not robots without free agency), and (of course) because of Christ and His shed blood and redemptive, atoning work for us on the Cross.

I have always thought (since converting) that the differences in this area largely boil down to a certain all-pervasive bent of mind in Protestantism which Louis Bouyer (a convert from Lutheranism) called the “dichotomous mindset,” or what has been described as an “either/or” way of thinking – as opposed to the Catholic “both/and.” We believe such thinking is unbiblical: James 2:24 concisely denies the formula of “faith alone.”

The fallacy and false premise on the Reformed side (apart from what I would argue is an unbiblical notion of human free will) lies in asserting that to keep faith and works together in justification somehow leads to a detraction from the primacy of God’s grace and the promotion of self-produced Pelagian works on the part of man. Calvinism cannot see the middle ground which I and my Church see here, because (in my opinion) its own system simply will not allow it as a logical and scriptural possibility.

For the Calvinist, oftentimes, free will (and the accompanying possibility of grace-produced merit) equals Pelagianism (or Semi-Pelagianism). Likewise, free will is regarded as a lessening of, and “intrusion” upon God’s divine prerogatives in Providence and Sovereignty and Predestination. What we argue is that God’s Providence is “big” enough to incorporate human free will without impinging upon Divine Sovereignty. That’s it in a nutshell.

The issue is whether we can cooperate with God in our salvation or not. Free will is not inherently opposed to free grace. There simply is no need to make that dichotomy. We assert that man’s free will and God’s sole initiative in salvation co-exist. It is difficult, paradoxical, mysterious in many ways, but it appears to be the teaching of Scripture, and is solidly backed by Christian Tradition. God initiates and empowers the seeking. Since we are not robots, we are actually freely choosing to act upon the grace that we receive through no merit of our own.

We agree with you that salvation always is caused by God, by His free, unmerited grace. Again, I reiterate that we don’t deny that God saves us, solely through the work of Jesus and His shed blood on the cross on our behalf. The official teaching on matters related to merit was set down very eloquently by the Council of Trent, in its On the Necessity and on the Fruit of Satisfaction (session 14, November 25, 1551 — emphasis added). Now I want someone to tell me how the following in any way, shape or form denies a “grace and faith-based salvation maintained by God”?:

[W]e are made conformable to Jesus Christ, Who satisfied for our sins (Romans 5:10, 1 John 2:1 ff.), from Whom all our sufficiency is (2 Corinthians 3:5); having also thereby a most sure pledge that, if we suffer with Him, we shall also be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17). But neither is this satisfaction, which we discharge for our sins, so our own as not to be through Jesus Christ. For we who can do nothing of ourselves, as of ourselves, can do all things, He cooperating who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). Thus, man has not wherein to glory, but all our glorying is in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:31, 2 Corinthians 10:17, Galatians 6:14): in Whom we live; in Whom we merit (cf. Acts 17:28); in Whom we satisfy; bringing forth fruits worthy of penance (Luke 3:8), which from Him have their efficacy; by Him are offered to the Father; and through Him are accepted by the Father . . .

In Catholicism, salvation does not originate from both God and man. That is the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism. It always originates with God. This is Catholic theology. Trent is very clear, in its Canon I on Justification:

If anyone saith that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

Protestants, too, walk the aisle, say the sinner’s prayer, accept the Lord’s work on their behalf, repent, get baptized (i.e., an adult who converts to Christianity, who had never been baptized), give witness to their changed life, etc. All of these things are doing something, even though the Holy Spirit certainly begins all of them in the person’s heart (as also in our theology).


Photo credit: Tumisu (12-8-19) [Pixabay / Pixabay license]


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