Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
How Catholics Understand Grace
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
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.
BOOTSTRAP THEOLOGY BEFORE BOOTS
The question of holinessthe root
of a 600-year-old debate between Catholics and Lutheransis
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 graceGod's
free giftplays 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
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 establishmentwhich was surely reigning over
a Church in need of reformthere 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 justificationa central aspect of the doctrine of
gracethe rapprochement centered around justification.
CORE OF THE AGREEMENT
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 gracenot 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 Sundaythe 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.
A LOOK FROM THE CATHOLIC SIDE
"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
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,"
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
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."
Next: A Prayer-a-Day for Advent
(by Michael J. Daley)