Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited

How Catholics Understand Grace

by John Bookser Feister

Grace is back in the news. When, on the eve of Jubilee 2000, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation signed a historic agreement about the nature of grace, some media, notably The Wall Street Journal, declared Lutherans the victors. Back in the 1500s Martin Luther and his followers had declared sola fide! Faith alone! That is, we are saved by grace alone. Nothing we do can earn our salvation.

Catholics have insisted all along that salvation comes to us by God's grace and our cooperation with it. That's a blend of faith and works. The Wall Street Journal suggested that by signing a declaration that states, "By grace alone..." Catholics recanted, admitting the error of a position defined at the Council of Trent.

But the situation is more complex than that. It starts with the question, what must I do to be holy? If I do everything right, will I be assured of holiness? Can I earn salvation? In this Update we'll take a quick look at how grace's role in salvation has cropped up as a question throughout Christian history. Then we'll see why the issue remains a hot one today and explore a contemporary understanding of the nature of grace.


The question of holiness—the root of a 600-year-old debate between Catholics and Lutherans—is as old as Adam and Eve. Christians, like Jews, have always agreed that woman and man were created in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1:26). Among Christians, though, the constant argument has been over the extent of damage done by the original parents' sin. We are born with Original Sin; what is its effect?

Put another way, we all know from experience the gulf between how fully we love and how fully God wants us to love. Evidence abounds, within our hearts and in human society, that human nature is far short of perfection, is flawed. But how flawed are we?

Some of the Church's deepest struggles have been around this doctrine of grace. Even in New Testament times we see different approaches in response to the differing situations of the local Churches. St. Paul writes of the "righteousness of faith" in Romans 1:17 and again in Ephesians 2:4-10. Yet the Apostle James writes that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Writing to the Galatians (5:6), St. Paul seems to strike a balance, speaking of "faith working through love."

St. Augustine, the "Doctor of Grace," forged his understanding of grace in the fifth century against Pelagius, a rigorist who held that humans can become perfect through their own efforts. Pelagianism, which some say, in today's culture of acquisition and workaholism, never left us, is sometimes called "bootstrap theology," referring to the notion of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If we can buy happiness, or win it on a TV game show, do we really need grace? Pelagius, in and out of favor with bishops during his life, was ultimately condemned as a heretic at the Synod of Carthage (North Africa) in 418. Bootstrap theology was roundly rejected.

Augustine had stressed that grace—God's free gift—plays the critical role in our salvation, not our actions. But the issue was by no means put to rest at Carthage. Within a hundred years a group of monks in southern France, seeking to stand out against those who were Christian in name only, adopted an extremely austere lifestyle. They saw the role of grace in salvation, but overemphasized the power of human will. Thus they became known as semi-Pelagians. Their views were rejected by the Synod of Orange in 529.

As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, the issue erupted as the central issue in the argument between the Protestant reformers and the Roman Catholic Church. By Luther's time there were many excesses in Catholic practice. Many Catholics felt that they could earn salvation in all manner of ways. Luther, probably a perfectionist in his own right, couldn't bear the pressure of having to do so many things to remain in God's grace. His confessor advised him to study Scripture, which he did with a passion. There he came to understand, especially in the writings of St. Paul, that God's grace is freely given.

As he challenged the position of the Roman Catholic establishment—which was surely reigning over a Church in need of reform—there was misunderstanding after misunderstanding, hardened positions, and mutual, long-lasting condemnations. The Roman Catholic theological response to Luther's fundamental criticisms came only decades later, in the Council of Trent. By then the rift between Catholics and Protestants was firmly in place.

Setting Catholic theology straight in more than a few areas, Trent acknowledged the freedom of God's grace but insisted that our works do contribute to our salvation, though even our ability to do good works is due to God's grace. Trent also defined Baptism's role in fully cleansing or healing us of Original Sin (though even baptized humans still tend toward sin, and thus need continual grace, especially through the sacraments). Luther's first followers described damaged human nature more pessimistically.

For 450 years, Lutherans and Catholics eyed each other with fear and suspicion. But during the 20th century, breakthroughs in biblical studies brought Catholic and Protestant scholars closer together. Then, too, the misery of two world wars showed everyone the futility of human divisions. Protestants began the ecumenical movement as Catholics watched from outside.

Then in 1963, citing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Pope John XXIII convoked Vatican Council II, pressing urgently for unity among Christians, as Jesus had prayed for his disciples (see John 17:20-21). Formal dialogues began between Catholics and other Christians, including Lutherans, in the 1960s. Three decades later, on the eve of the Jubilee celebrating the 2000th anniversary of Jesus' birth, it was time for the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue to mark progress.

The dialogue groups of Catholic and Lutheran theologians had found common ground in describing how grace works in our lives. Since the 16th-century breakdown had been over the concept of justification—a central aspect of the doctrine of grace—the rapprochement centered around justification.


The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification essentially says that Lutherans and Catholics explain justification in different ways but share the same basic understanding. The central passage reads, "Together we confess: by grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works." The declaration acknowledges that good works are a genuine response to God's grace—not the cause of it. The declaration also rescinds the formal condemnations of both the Catholic and Lutheran Churches against one another.

The ceremony took place in Augsburg, Germany, on October 31, 1999, Reformation Sunday—the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses of protest to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Augsburg was chosen because it was there that Luther was confronted by Cardinal Cajetan in 1518, and there in 1530 that reformers presented the Lutheran position in the presence of Emperor Charles V to Roman Catholic authorities in a futile attempt to mend the growing rift. These Augsburg Confessions are considered the foundational documents of Lutheranism.

At liturgy, as the congregation sang "Come, Holy Spirit" the document was signed for Catholics by Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy and Bishop Walter Kasper, with explicit approval of Pope John Paul II. Lutheran signers included Bishop Christian Krause and Dr. Ishmael Noko, representing the Lutheran World Federation, a union of 58.1 of 63 million Lutherans worldwide. Representatives of the six geographical regions of the Lutheran World Federation signed as well.


"The joint declaration is a key breakthrough at an authoritative level in our Church, from the Reformation." So says Brother Jeffrey Gros, a Christian Brother, a member of the U.S. Catholic bishops' staff who helped forge the justification agreement.

In an interview with this author not long after the historic agreement, he observes that some seeds of this breakthrough were sown in the United States. "The homework was done here and in Germany," he asserts. The U.S. Lutheran-Catholic dialogue had resulted in a joint U.S. agreement about justification doctrine in 1983 that now was being broadened into a worldwide agreement.

Brother Gros links the signing with Pope John Paul II's emphatic concern for moving unity forward, which has intensified at the millennium celebration. "We began the Reformation with the disagreement over justification," says Gros. "And we've only picked up this dialogue again in 1966. So we've begun to knit together again our faith life, or, as the Holy Father says and continues to say in Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One, 1995), 'We share more than divides us.' This is an instance where, in signing this joint declaration, we are, in a sense, able to say that this is no longer a Church-dividing issue."

Gros notes that the declaration will likely affect the way that Catholics describe some practices that have been misunderstood in the past: "We have to, for example, understand our own belief in indulgences in light of this joint declaration," he suggests.

The abuse of indulgences was, of course, the last straw for Martin Luther, then a Catholic priest. Trent addressed that abuse, and Pope Paul VI further reformed Catholic teaching in this area in the 1960s. Gros notes that indulgences are not the dominant form of Catholic piety these days. And most Catholics who are aware of indulgences don't understand them properly, he observes. Gros says you can't understand indulgences or any other Catholic practice "unless you understand the prior gift that we've received in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, mediated to us by grace."

This Catholic-Lutheran agreement, 33 years in the making, provides a new opportunity to deepen our understanding of grace: "We Catholics would be renewed by this joint declaration to understand the Council of Trent better. Because we come closer to where Luther is, closer to where Paul is, and that will bring us closer to where the Council of Trent is."

When asked how this declaration might matter to everyday Catholics, Brother Gros is quick to point out: "It matters because it has to do with our relationship to Jesus Christ. To the extent that we're concerned about Jesus Christ, grace and our own Baptism, it's central to our identity." The very fact that Lutherans and Catholics share the centrality of God's grace in Jesus Christ, and the centrality of our response, is of tremendous theological significance, he says. "Practically, it means that we need to better understand that we know how God's grace works in our lives and through the sacraments, and how it relates us to other Christians."

Grace Comes First

One practical outcome of the Catholic-Lutheran agreement will be for those Lutherans and Catholics joined in marriage. The two partners can now rest assured that they share a common faith, even though some fundamental differences are still being discussed in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.

Truly, the dialogue about grace between Catholics and Lutherans challenges all of us to deepen our understanding of grace. "The most important thing for us to think about when we get up in the morning," says Brother Gros, "is not what we're going to do, how we're going to do our job, or good works in the Church, but to recognize God's love. The reason we can do any good work is because God loves us first in grace." That's what the Lutherans mean by "grace alone," he explains. "They don't mean grace without anything else, but they mean grace at the center of everything.

"Every Catholic and Lutheran Christian ought to wake up thanking God for the grace they've received in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That's what this is all about." You can't be saved by money, he observes, and you can't please God by yourself: "It's already been done in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We respond to that gift with gratitude."

John Bookser Feister is managing editor of Catholic Update. He holds an M.A. in humanities from Xavier University, Cincinnati.

Next: A Prayer-a-Day for Advent (by Michael J. Daley)

A New Look at Grace

by Bill Huebsch

  • Grace is God's self-communication to us.
  • It's experienced as a divine loving energy (or power) which comes from God alone, is completely free and is offered to every human being.
  • Grace alone can make us whole. It lets us be precisely who we're made to be.
  • It is received and celebrated in community with each other.
  • Sanctifying grace is God's free and generous gift, sometimes called the "state of grace," that ongoing disposition to live and act in keeping with God's call.
  • Actual grace is the effect in the human personality of that gift. It is God's support for us in individual instances.
  • Do you realize what this means? It means that God's own life—a full surge of divine energy, God's grace—is with us.
  • And it isn't just with us in some abstract and artificial way. It fills our bodies and our souls to the very top, it means we are empowered to love.
  • We are empowered to forgive, to accept without judgment, to give without asking for return, to love without end.
  • This is a power that can do marvelous things! It can heal and bind people together, give comfort and peace, offer affectionate love and create new persons, rest peacefully and disturb the comfortable!
  • This is how we will live together forever, in this love.
  • This is grace: God's powerful force of love within us, implanted by God and sustained by God.
  • There's really nothing else like it in all the world!

from A New Look at Grace: A Spirituality of Wholeness (Twenty-Third Publications—used with permission)



Contemporary Teachings on Grace

from Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church

  • Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Savior wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. (#16)

    Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. (#16)

    The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God's gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received. (#40)

    By this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. (#40)

    The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. (#41)

from Vatican II's The Church in Today's World

  • For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. (#16)

from the Catechism of the Catholic Church

  • God's free initiative demands man's free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man. He has placed in man a longing for truth and goodness that only he can satisfy. (#2002)



I want to order print copies of this
Catholic Update.

Bulk discounts available!

I want to order a 12-month bulk subscription to hand out in my parish or classroom.

View the Catholic Update reprint complete list at our catalog site.



An AmericanCatholic.org Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2014 Copyright