Friday, October 8, 2010

To Use or To Be Used: That is the Wrong Question

A student comes to me visibly hurt.  She explains the unrest she has been experiencing over the past few weeks.  For her, the pain is a symptom of her “selfishness” which acts as an abrasive agent to the wound.  You see, the young student is striving to saturate every dimension of her life with the Gospel, including relationships. She recognizes in the core of her being that genuine relationships must exclude “using” the other for one’s own pleasure.  In “using” someone, one treats the other like a consumer product which goes against the dignity of every person.  We all experience free-will which is part of our human nature.  When someone treats another person merely as a means to an end, the person using the other denies the other person’s freedom by “enslaving” him or her to their desires!  Human experience ratifies this claim over and over through the experience of shame that arises when a person is the recipient of objectification. We are never meant to be merely a satisfaction to someone else’s pleasures; we are so much more than this!

It may seem good to conclude that this particular student has a mature grasp of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how it ought to influence relationships.  If that is true, why the unsettled soul and visibly manifested hurt?  She has correctly turned away from the hedonistic lifestyle, so we must look at exactly what she has turned toward to understand the source of her pain.

I was most interested in her self-evaluation of being “selfish.”  When I asked her to comment on her feelings she responded she was having a difficult time disregarding her own needs/wants for the sake of “the good of the other.”  When I asked her to give an example, she immediately spoke about a particular friend who was constantly “needing help” but that this friend would never be there for her in times of need. Instead of talking to her friend about this, she simply suppressed the “negative feelings” calling them selfish and sinful since a Christian “ought to give without asking for return.” It was at this moment that I discovered the source of her pain. The source of pain was not due to the Gospel being lived out in her life, but rather from living a distorted view of the Gospel commonly referred to as radical altruism.

Radical altruism is a belief that one ought to deny one’s own values and pleasures for the sake of the good of the other.  While this sounds Christian at first glance, it is as deadly of a belief as hedonism.  All one needs to do is look to Peter Singer, an “ethicist” at Princeton University, to recognize this danger.  For Mr. Singer, the idea that an individual would push his or her own personal value systems and beliefs on to a suffering person is outlandish.  For Singer, the solution is simple: sometimes you should kill the suffering person and end their misery and don’t worry about what you think about it.

While Peter Singer may be an extreme example of radical altruism, it is an example nonetheless and it illustrates the pitfalls of such a belief.  Thankfully the young student had not taken her radical altruism that far.  Rather, the source of her pain came from allowing herself to be used by others.  The irony of it all was that she established relationships with others that expressed the very thing she denied: that no person may be an object of use … except for herself apparently!

If hedonism and radical altruism both lead to the same grave end (a person being used), then is there any alternative? The answer is yes!  The wisdom of the Church has maintained a philosophy that has given birth to the most passionate people in the world and the most giving people in the world.  We typically call these people saints.  They neither live a life of hedonism nor feel compelled to suppress the desires of their heart for the sake of the good of the other.

The late John Paul II has given this philosophy of life a name: The Personalistic Norm.  In short, this norm speaks of the need for each relationship to subordinate the value of ones own pleasures to the value of the person you are in relationship with.  John Paul is adamant to note that this does not mean to eradicate ones own pleasure, but to subordinate them.  In other words, while the value of pleasure is real and good, those pleasure should not exceed (in value) the value of the actual person in front of you. Once that happens, the relationship risks turning into a relationship of utility (or mutual utility).

This is precisely what Christ speaks of when He speaks of the life He is about to offer for the sins of world. He does not offer His life merely for the good of the world, but rather He offers his life to the world feely and in accordance with the desires of His own heart (cf. Jn 10.17-18).  How often do we ignore our own desires for the “sake of the good of the other” or how many times do we listen to our own desires over that of the needs of the others? Both experiences are twisted and in need of redemption. 

How often do we, like the student I spoke with, give to the point where we are on the verge of breaking? This is a sign of a life lived in radical altruism.  How often do we consume to the point that we feel like we no longer have control over our own life? This is a sign of a life lived in hedonism.  Ideally we are called to seek the good of the other in such a way that it is always in accordance with the desires of our own heart.  Such an integrated life is rarely perfectly expressed but we must always strive to at least appreciate the value of the person more so than our own pleasures.  Only through a life submitted to Christ and His Holy Church will we be able to experience the life we were created to live; a life that perfectly integrates our passions and our love and respect for every person we meet.  May God be Praised!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why Apologetics is Important

One of my favorite quotes from John Paul II comes from his book entitled Love and Responsibility:

We love the person complete with all his or her virtues and faults, and up to a point independently of those virtues and in spite of those faults.  The strength of such a love emerges most clearly when the beloved person stumbles, when his or her weaknesses or even sins come into the open.  One who truly loves does not then withdraw his love, but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcomings and faults, and without in the least approving of them.  For the person as such never loses its essential value.  The emotion which attaches itself to the value of the person remains loyal to the human being. –p. 135

At the heart of this quote is the exhortation to love in the truth of the other.  How often do we (or at least I) pursue a relationship in-as-much as it gives me joy? How often do we (or at least I) rest safely in relationships of common interests, hobbies, ideologies, philosophies, leisure activities, or goals?  How often do we, in the name of ecumenism, pursue relationships with a “least common denominator” framework of mind?  Are these relationships love? Of course they are!  Are they expressions of mature love? I don’t think so!

But won’t “divisive topics” threaten the relationship? For the person of pride yes, but for the humble one there is no fear.  In fact, it is precisely in the divisive topics that one is able to experience mature and genuine love.  When one loves “all the more” in these circumstances they discover for themselves the bedrock of love.  This bedrock is the activity of genuinely loving that which is “other” to oneself.  In other words, it is the act of loving not for the sake of pleasure which is rooted in self-seeking, but rather loving that which lies outside of one’s own preferences, interests, and even values.  Such a love ensures one is loving not a self-reflection, although faint, but rather that which is outside of him/herself.  This may be difficult as it can lead to conflict, but genuine love calls for it.  Of course, for one to love the “other” of another person, knowledge of what constitutes “other” must be present in the person loving!  Ignorant love does not have the person as its object but rather ignorance as its object.

With the foundation laid, we may now address why apologetics (the art of defending one’s ideas, beliefs, and values) is so important.  In light of what has been addressed above, apologetics, when properly used, is the fertile ground by which mature ecumenical love grows!  To be a great defender of the faith, one must: 1) Know one’s own beliefs and be able to articulate them clearly; 2) Know the opposing views clearly so as to distinguish fairly one’s own beliefs from other beliefs.  Isn’t that precisely the foundation by which mature love is built upon?  Apologetics affords the person the opportunity to love “the other” of a person and not simply that which is held in common.  It prevents “self-reflecting” love and encourages “self-donating” love.

All this being said, I’m aware that apologetics has often been the instrument of harm rather than love.  My past is riddled with such offenses and I’m deeply sorry for the people I have offended! Nonetheless this does nothing to diminish the value of apologetics in the same way that divorce does nothing to devalue the institution of marriage.  Like all good things, it can be twisted and used for evil rather than good.

Reflecting on my days at the Evangelical seminary I attended, my most intimate friendships were those in which our differences were clearly articulated and defended.  While I was oblivious to the reasons why at the time, I now understand why they became my dearest friends.  Through a little bit of maturity and the proper foundation we were able to appreciate and love each other for who we were, not who we wanted the other to be or by pretending the other was something they weren’t.

As for the present, I currently serve as the president of RCO (Religious Campus Organizations), which is a group on campus that supervises and works with all the other religious groups on campus.  I believe it is without coincidence that my closest friend and confidant within the group is a Lutheran minister with whom I have had the most apologetic dialogue.  We both know exactly where the other stands, and we both think the other holds ridiculous beliefs yet we have a deep respect for each other even in the differences.

My deepest prayer for the community of St. Thomas and all those who read my apologetic material is that it would be used to educate on the differences between Catholics and non-Catholics.  That such an education would increase confidence in the faith and to offer tools for entering into genuine dialogue with others who do not share this faith.  Finally, and most importantly, my prayer is that this dialogue would lead to mature ecumenical love for one another: a love that is rooted in both common interests and that which is “otherly” thus forming a love that encompasses the whole person.  May God be Praised!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Justifying The Doctrine of Justification: Part VI of VI

What began nearly six months ago is finally coming to a close. For some of you this may have been five columns too many, and for others it may have barely satiated your desire to know the truth which has set you free! For the former I sincerely apologize if the reading has not been compelling enough or has come across too polemical for someone who values ecumenism. My next column will offer a “behind the scenes” look at why I recently decided to spend so much time on apologetics and the paramount importance it offers for the cultivation of genuine friendships with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. For those who have been barely satiated, I simply invite you to contact me for more information on this and other topics that may be close to your mind and heart.

In the past five columns we have covered a number of angles to the doctrine of Justification: It’s overall importance among Catholics and Protestants, the distinction between “once saved, always saved” and salvation as a process, the difference between imputed and infused righteousness, the teachings of Christ regarding faith and works, and St. Paul’s perspective on faith and works. We are now at a point to examine a couple passages outside the Gospels and the Pauline corpus with the intention to show the integrity of Scripture as it pertains to justification as expressed and defended by the Catholic Church.

It is a curious fact that while Luther believed justification by “faith alone” would be the pillar by which the Church stood or fell, the phrase “faith alone” is itself only used once in Scripture and it is preceded by ‘not.’ The Epistle of James states, “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jms. 2.24). With all due respect to our separated brothers and sisters, a belief in a doctrine that is explicitly condemned in Scripture can be a puzzling thing to the Catholic. The strong undercurrent, which forces the non-Catholic Christian to “re-interpret” such a lucid and self-interpreting passage, lies hidden in the phrase “competitive causality.” For the Evangelical, what man causes, God cannot simultaneously cause and what God causes, man cannot simultaneously cause. Such a belief makes sense out of most of life. After all, if ‘X’ is the murderer then that means all of ‘not X’ is not the murderer.

In light of this particular interpretive lens, one may be able to see why many Evangelicals are gravely opposed to a justification that includes works. If works are something the person does, that means the person has exclusive rights to those works and that God has absolutely no role in their causation. All that being said, the inferred conclusion is that a works included justification means a salvation that is earned because he/she brought its own causation without God through good works. By “reinterpreting” James they are in fact pruning a difficult passage in the name of a greater cause: That God is our salvation, not man!

For the Catholic there is no need to re-interpret James since we see no conflict with what St. James has to say and the fact that God is the exclusive cause of our salvation. The reason why there is no conflict for the Catholic is because we do not believe there is any competition between God and the human person regarding causality. In fact, the more God is actively in our life, the freer we actually become! Thus, while it is true that God causes every good work in us, it does not take away from our own causation of the good work. In truth, it is precisely because of God’s causing of the good work that we can freely cause that good work in ourselves. Thus, James need not be dismissed, ignored, or twisted for a “greater cause.” Yes, it is Christ and only Christ who saves me, and no amount of good works threatens that reality as those good works are as much His as they are mine. For more information on particular Protestant interpretations of James and for a Catholic response, see my second column on this series.

One would think the majority of Christians would exhaustively comb through the Book of Revelation searching for clues to the mystery of justification. After all, the concept of personal judgment saturates the Book of Revelation so why not turn to it as well for doctrinal assistance particularly in the area of salvation?

While the Book of Revelation has been the source of many fanciful and downright silly interpretations, there is at least one particularly cogent section that we will turn to so as not to stake a theological claim on an exegetically complicated passage. Chapters two and three consist of seven short letters to the seven distinct Churches in the region of Ephesus. Each letter consists of a particular judgment on the Church addressed, and it is Jesus Christ, while being penned by John, who personally addresses each Church. These judgments are useful as they speak explicitly for the need of good works for salvation, but with a strong implicit recognition for heart-felt faith. The first Church in Ephesus is prized for the patient endurance in suffering and persecution for the faith, but they are quickly admonished for abandoning their first love (cf. Rev. 2.1-7). Christ then encourages them to do the works they committed to at the beginning of their faith journey or else Christ would remove himself from them. Christ never says, “I know your faith” to any of these Churches but rather, “I know your works.” As I said many times in many different ways, to deny works as part of justification is to deny—or be ignorant of at best—a very large body of Scripture.

As Catholics, we are called to live a life of faith, but we are also called to live a life of service in love to our Lord. Our salvation rests on this Truth. May we continue to love and serve our Lord through faith and works, but may we do it not to gain an eternal reward but simply because God is God! May God be Praised!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Justifying the Doctrine of Justification: Part V of VI

With the end of this series in sight, it is time to address what some would say to be the Achilles’ heal of the Catholic Church’s position on justification: St. Paul. We noticed earlier that Jesus Himself spoke very little of faith as pertaining to the Kingdom of God/Heaven. For St. Paul, faith becomes a dominant theological theme which saturates nearly every letter stemming from the proverbial pen of this Apostle to the Gentiles. The question, then, is not whether or not Paul believes that a Christian is saved by faith, but whether or not he believes the Christian is saved by faith alone. As stated earlier, the Church confesses that faith is the foundation for justification but that this faith is never alone as it must be accompanied by charity/good works.

If Paul is considered the chief defender of faith alone by many Evangelicals, then Paul’s letter to the Romans is considered his magnum opus in defense of this particular non-Catholic doctrine. Due to the triteness of space I will limit the discussion to what most of our Evangelical brothers and sisters claim to be the most persuasive exposition of faith alone theology by St. Paul. Thus, I will briefly focus on the first few chapters of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

The power of the Gospel message in Romans, according to many Evangelicals, does not begin until 3:21 with the words ‘but now’ (Nuni de). It is here in the middle of the third chapter that Paul transitions into a descriptive analysis of the “righteousness of God” being revealed “apart from the law” (v. 21), being a free gift of grace in Jesus Christ (v.24), and being a reality that removes all boasting from the human conscience through this free gift (v.27). The climax of the passage comes in the following verse when the apostle boldly proclaims, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (v. 28). At this moment, it seems undeniably true that St. Paul is excluding works from salvation, thus at least implicitly expositing a faith alone theology.

When I was an Evangelical and first came across this verse, I was baffled by it. The reason for my confusion had less to do with the verse itself and more with what I had read previously as I was reading the letter from beginning to end. Before I came to 3:28, I read 2:6-11. It was in chapter two that I read that everyone would be justified by their deeds: “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2.6-8). Knowing that St. Paul was simply too intelligent to contradict himself within verses of each other, I set out on a journey to find an answer to this enigma, and this journey ultimately led me back to the Catholic Church in March of 2000.

Being an Evangelical at the time, my first pursuit was to find an answer that would support my belief in justification by faith alone. This quest led me to two explanations of Romans 2 & 3. The more popular and convincing argument of the two was grounded in a particular interpretation of the phrase “but now” in 3:21. Many non-Catholic scholars viewed this phrase as a “temporal transition.” In other words, they believed that everything before 3:21 was an explanation of the Old Covenant with God, and everything after 3:21 dealt with how one was saved in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. The problem with this explanation is that a significant amount of Christian imagery pervades 1:18-3:20 which become foreign elements if one is forced to think exclusively through an Old Covenant lens. For instance, the concept of “steadfastness” is used in 2:7 which was considered a Christian virtue by the Early Church. In addition, Paul actually speaks of the “gospel” and how each and every person will be judged by Jesus Christ in 2:15. Finally, Paul speaks of the “circumcision of the heart” in 2:29 which is exclusively a Christian teaching! In light of the strong Christian imagery, such an explanation only creates more questions than answers.

The most persuasive answer I found was to view 3:21 as a “logical transition” rather than a temporal one. The difference between what precedes and proceeds 3:21 is not one of time (i.e. Old Covenant & New Covenant) but rather of argumentation. Paul believes that God will judge everyone by his or her works, for “God shows no partiality” (cf. 2:11). This is a problem for Paul. The problem is that the Jews have a law which they failed to obey faithfully, and the Gentles have a law (i.e. natural law) which they also failed to obey faithfully. The problem is that if God judges by works, who can be saved? This is where 3:21 comes into the picture as the argumentation moves from problem to solution, not Old Covenant to New Covenant. We will still be judged by what we do, but now Christ has come to redeem us and restore our hearts so that we will be able to live according to our own dignity, living lives of excellence if only we hold fast to the prize, Christ Jesus. This theological understanding makes sense of the many other times Paul speaks of works being necessary for salvation (cf. 1 Cor. 3.12-15; Phil. 2.12; Eph. 2.10; Gal. 5.6).

What then should we make of Rom. 3:28 when the apostle explicitly states that a man is justified by faith apart from “works of law”? The interpretive key is in the phrase ‘works of law’ (ergon nomou). Thanks to a number of non-Catholic Christian scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright we now know that such a phrase was a technical phrase meaning something different than general ‘works.’ In fact, the verse following this cryptic phrase enlightens the reader of its technical use. In verse 29, Paul poses a mysterious question to the Roman community: “Or is God the God of the Jews only?” Paul’s inference is that if justification were by ‘works of law’ it would be exclusive to the Jews. Since justification is for both Jews and Gentiles, then it must be by faith. In other words, ‘works of law’ is not referring to all works, but rather those works that are exclusive to Judaism (i.e. circumcision, kosher laws, etc.). Thus, St. Paul is not saying a person is justified by faith alone, but that a person is saved by faith and not by ethnic privilege (in this case Jewish). What Paul is saying is that being a member of the Jewish community does not grant immunity to God’s impartiality. God will judge everyone by works and so without Jesus Christ, no one can be saved, for He is our font of life, our source of healing and redemption.

We all can rest confidently in the wisdom of our great Church for she has and will continue to keep the truths of our Lord and His inspired writers from without stain or dilution. May we all continue to increase in faith, hope and love as we set our face like flint on the magisterium of the Church for she is the face of Christ in truth, goodness, and beauty. Next time I will close this series with a cursory look at some of the other inspired writers in light of the Church’s teaching on Justification. Until then, May God be Praised!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Justifying the Doctrine of Justification: Part IV of VI

After so many weeks separating my previous column and this column, it may be wise to do a quick review of where we’ve come regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching on Justification. Of the two previous columns I’ve written we’ve come to see that justification is in fact a process by which a person is brought into a transformative covenantal relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This divine relationship which is established, maintained, and perfected through the process of justification, is far more than a “right standing” with God as the relationship demands faithfulness to the Creator of all that is. This “faithfulness” is nothing more than a life lived according to ones own dignity. Unfortunately, the human condition has been compromised through original and personal sin leaving the individual unable to fulfill their final vocation; namely to become partakers of the divine nature (cf. 2 Ptr. 1.4). Justification, then, is the process by which one is both immediately declared and eventually transformed into the righteous person he or she was created to be thus ushering the Christian through that threshold of hope which is intimate communion with the mystery of God! Another way of saying this, although less eloquent, is that justification is by faith and charity/good works.

Mentioning the word “works” in a doctrinal context with a non-Catholic Christian can cause some undesired tension. As mentioned in a previous column, marshaling works with faith in the context of justification appears to diminish the value of Christ’s meritorious act on the cross to the non-Catholic. To the ears of the Evangelical, such a doctrine infers that one must be saved by grace received by faith along with works which occur outside the scope of grace since the person is doing it him/herself. Thus, a misunderstanding of the Catholic position ensues by creating a false dichotomy between grace and works. Such a misunderstanding can be easily corrected by looking at how faith is viewed through the lens of an Evangelical.

Thinking about the doctrine of “faith alone” may be easy enough when it is isolated from reality, but have you ever tried to think about it as it pertains to individual persons? What does it mean for an individual to be saved by faith alone? When observing the faith of others, one is quick to take notice that there is a large range of qualities to faith. Some people have unwavering faith while others have an anemic faith that borders on skepticism. The challenge for the Evangelical is to determine which faith is “saving faith.” Those who initially had faith but fell away are deemed as not having the particular faith that saves. If this is the case, what kind of faith is acceptable to God? Doesn’t Christ ask us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mat 5.48; 19.21)? Doesn’t John tell us that nothing unclean will enter into heaven whether in thought or deed (cf. Rev. 21.27)? Clearly perfection is God’s standard for He cannot deny Himself. If that is the case, then no man can be saved since no one has perfect faith. The answer to this riddle is in the fact that man is saved by grace alone, which means that man’s feeble faith is accepted, sustained, and perfected through grace. What Evangelicals understand about the relationship between faith and grace, Catholics understand about the relationship between faith, works, and grace. It is only through grace that both our feeble faith and works are accepted, sustained, and perfected. Both Catholics and Evangelicals agree that salvation is by grace alone. Where we begin to disagree is in how grace is administered to works as it relates to the act of justification.

In light of the justification debate, one would think that Jesus Himself would have spoken often about the necessity of faith for salvation. After all, to be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Interestingly enough, when Christ teaches about the kingdom of God/Heaven He is nearly silent about the roll of faith for salvation. Rather, it will be the humble of heart and those who undergo persecution for righteousness’ sake who will enter the Kingdom of God (cf. Mat. 5:3,10). We are told that if our eye causes us to sin, it would be better to pluck it out than to live with it in hell (cf. Mk. 9:47). We are exhorted to recognize our gifts and talents and to use them for the kingdom less we risk eternal damnation (cf. Lk. 19.12-27). Christ cautions the rich not to become too attached to their material wealth if they want to live in God’s kingdom (cf. Mk. 10.23). If anything, the evangelical reader may conclude that Christ has an “exaggerated” view of works being a condition for justification. In fact, Christ takes the Old Testament laws and intensifies them, never diminishing them. While in the Old Law adultery was considered a sin, Jesus adds that even if you look at another person lustfully you have committed adultery in the heart (cf. Mat. 5:28). If Jesus is advocating a faith alone theology, He has chosen a very confusing and misleading pedagogy.

The reason why Christ spends so much time on works is because He has come to redeem the heart, the source of all moral and immoral acts (cf. Mat. 6.21-22, Mat. 15:17-20). Christ has redeemed us in His blood and has called us to live in his redemption so that our hearts may be restored, and that we may live according to the dignity that is ours in Christ. The law has been intensified not to condemn us, but to call us to excellence. This excellence is only achieved through a life in submission to Christ our Lord. Thus, salvation is ours if only we continue to strive in saying ‘yes’ in faith to Christ and His Church, and ‘yes’ in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit which affords us the opportunity to live out our dignity in holiness/good works. Both are necessary for salvation for both are gifts from God in which we will be held accountable for.

Next week we will turn to St. Paul who speaks of faith much more often than Jesus. Paul is considered the chief defender of “faith alone” so it is with all the more importance that we spend a fair amount of time exploring his writing and his understanding of justification. Until then, may we continue to strive for excellence through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit so becoming one with the mystery of God who is love itself. May God be Praised!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Justifying The Doctrine of Justification: Part III of VI

One of the most striking differences between Catholics and Protestants regarding the doctrine of justification is over the terms “imputed” and “infused” righteousness. The Protestant is adamant in believing that righteousness/justification is something foreign to the individual, something other than the believer. In other words, the believer never becomes righteous but rather receives Christ’s righteousness. This is why they call it “imputed” righteousness. Martin Luther gave a rather crude but effective illustration by comparing the sinner to a dung-heap. When the sinner repents, he or she remains a dung-heap through-and-through but what distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian is that the believer has a white coat of snow over them. This white coat of snow represents Christ’s righteousness that “cloaks” the sinner.

Catholics, on the other hand, take a different theological approach to justification. Continuing Luther’s illustration, the Catholic doctrine can be likened to the sinner being a heap of pure snow that has been covered by a layer of dung. Sin has compromised his or her original innocence but has not annihilated it. The act of justification is the act of Christ’s merits slowly removing the dung from the snow, making the indivdual pure white again. Thus, we see here that justification becomes more of an “infused” righteousness as the very act transforms who we are as a person, albeit over time.

If you have been following my previous columns on justification, you will immediately notice that this interpretation fits seamlessly with Scripture’s teaching on justification as a process.This does not mean that during this process we are only half-justified. Through baptism we are fully justified. However, sin inevitably creeps into the picture which threatens our relationship with God (like any relationship). We must continually surrender to the power of the cross through repentance whereby we receive the grace to become who we were created to be: partakers of the divine nature (cf. 2 Ptr. 1.4).

Another way to perceive the fundamental difference between Catholic and Protestant theology regarding justification is by likening the Protestant conception of justification to a law-court scene and to likening the Catholic conception of justification to a family-room scene. For the Protestant, being righteous means standing before the divine law-court and to be declared free from all crime. For the Catholic, being righteous means to be adopted into the divine family of God and to live a life that is in accord with such dignity which is only done through grace. One view perceives God as the gracious Judge while the other perceives God as the loving Father.While admitting this is an over-simplification, the analogy still retains its overall distinctive accuracy.

One of the main reasons why Protestants rebel against any notion of infused righteousness is that they believe it diminishes the efficacy of grace by making good works necessary for salvation along with grace. This is simply an error in thinking. While good works are necessary for salvation (i.e. becoming righteous), such good works are grounded in grace for we can do nothing good outside of this grace. I will discuss more about the relationship between faith and works in grace in my next column. For now, it is enough to see that the Protestant belief in imputed righteousness does not make sense of Scripture’s teaching on justification as a process, for an imputed righteousness has no room for process as it is instantaneous.

We must now turn briefly to St. Paul to provide evidence of infused righteousness. The best example comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Chapter five of the epistle focuses on contrasting the disobedience of Adam, leading to the condemnation of the world, to the obedience of Jesus which offered salvation to the world. Amidst this contrast, Paul speaks of the righteousness of God which is for all believers, but he does so in a somewhat puzzling way. In verse 18, the Apostle speaks of this righteousness as being the Christian’s acquittal from condemnation. At this moment, it appears as of the Protestant has the advantage as this is clearly law-court language. On the other hand, the very next verse appears to counter this particular notion by mentioning that what he means by this is that in the same way that all descendants of Adam were made sinners through Adam’s disobedience, all believers in Christ are in the same way made righteous through Christ’s obedience. Here we see the Catholic position come alive as Paul stresses the transformative power of God’s righteousness along with the declarative dimension of righteousness.

Confusion may abound for the reader at the moment as how could Paul advocate a declarative and a transformative righteousness at the same time? Are they not mutually exclusive realities? Either righteousness is imputed or infused but it cannot be both, right? For man, yes but for God, no. To see this we must turn to Isaiah 55:10-11. Isaiah is speaking to an Israel that believes God has forgotten His promises of the covenant. To that doubt, God says ““For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (italics mine). In other words, that which God speaks infallibly comes to completion. Thus, when God declares someone righteous that declaration will be made manifest in the person without remainder. This is why Paul can intermix both imputed and infused terminology because both result in the same end: a person who becomes righteous.

Once again, it is good to be Catholic! How thankful we should be for Christ’s fulfilled promises that His Church would never fall into error regarding the truths of Jesus Christ. My next column will address the relationship between faith and works in light of grace as expressed in the Gospels and the Pauline corpus. Until then, May God be Praised!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Justifying The Doctrine of Justification: Part II of VI

I’m confident that many of us have come across the phrase “once saved always saved” in dialogue with our non-Catholic Christian friends. Behind this denominational mantra is the belief that justification is a one-time event. As a Protestant or Evangelical, justification is by faith alone. This faith is a recognition and belief of who Jesus Christ is as both God and redeemer. Once the seeker acknowledges personal sinfulness and the necessity of Jesus Christ for salvation, one is saved. This happens at a particular moment in time, which is the answer to the common question, “When were you saved/born again?” The Christian rests on the “assurance” of his/her salvation in this particular moment in life. It is this one proclamation of faith that justifies the individual forever requiring no need to speak of a present or future justification/salvation. The Christian was saved on such-and-such day and this one moment irrevocably carries him/her till death where heaven becomes the reward of that particular day of surrender. For those individuals who initially claim faith in Jesus Christ while later on defecting, the non-Catholic Christian is said to never have had faith (i.e. “saving faith”) to begin with so he/she was never actually saved. After all, once one is saved, that salvation is forever according to non-Catholic Christian theology.

As Catholics, we believe something different. Justification is not a one-time event but a process. Viewing justification as a process flows from the belief that while faith is indispensable (and the foundation) for justification, faith is never alone as it must be accompanied by charity/good works. From personal experience, it is evident that while faith may happen instantaneously, a life defined by good works takes a lifetime to achieve. In other words, while both Catholics and non-Catholics believe good works flow from faith, Catholics make evident in their theology that such works do not flow automatically. Since good works, while associated with faith, do not infallibly flow from faith, God takes them into account regarding justification along with faith. Thus, justification is a process. I was originally justified as an infant through baptism, I am currently being justified now through grace, and I hope to be justified at the end of my life.

The New Testament’s reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham expresses the truth of the Catholic Church’s position on justification. Both Catholics and non-Catholics alike look to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans for the identification of Abraham’s moment of justification in the eyes of God. The thrust of St. Paul’s argument in chapter four of Romans is in the recalling of God’s act of justification toward Abraham which happens in Genesis 15 before Abraham is circumcised, thus showing the lack of necessity of circumcision for salvation. While this passage alone does nothing to either support or deny both the Catholic and non-Catholic position, two other reflections from the New Testament Canon quickly turn the theological tide toward the Catholic understanding.

The Letter of James appears to provide a different part of Abraham’s life for God’s moment of justification. According to the author of this letter, Abraham is justified not in Genesis 15, but rather Genesis 22 when Abraham remained obedient to God by offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God (cf. Jms. 2.21). It was Abraham’s “work” that justified him at this particular moment. Many non-Catholics will explain this passage away by saying that the author was not saying Abraham was actually “justified” but rather “vindicated” since the Greek word can have that connotation at times. Abraham simply confirmed the reality of his past justification by his obedience to God even to the point of offering his only son as a sacrifice. While such an explanation is possible, context shows that it is in no way possible for this particular passage. Three verses later the inspired writer compares Abraham’s justification to another historical character’s moment of justification. Apparently, in the same way Abraham was justified Rahab was also justified (cf. Jms 2.25)! This leaves no room for Abraham’s justification in Genesis 22 to be anything other than pure justification. Rahab was a prostitute who helped Israel spy on the military in Jericho without being caught, and through her assistance God justified/saved her (cf. Josh 2.1-21). Thus, we have two accounts of Abraham being justified by God. The Protestant/Evangelical position has already become untenable through the lens of Scripture.

If these examples were not enough, the author of Hebrews also weighs in on the moment Abraham was justified and it is neither Genesis 15 nor 22 but rather chapter 12 (cf. Heb. 11.8). We read that it was “by faith” that Abraham initially obeyed God when he was called out of his comfortable living environment to set out for a land some mysterious God had promised him. Anyone with an ounce of understanding of Abraham’s circumstances must agree with the author of Hebrews that Abraham was justified at this moment. If a faith resulting in leaving family, friends, employment, and security for an unknown territory that had been promised by a then unknown God could not lead to justification then many of us who have left significantly less for God in Whom we know much more about is in eternal trouble!

The idea of justification being a one-time event is foreign to Scripture and so it is foreign to the Catholic faith. In the same way Abraham was justified, we too are justified. Justification is a life long “yes” to God by which we surrender with grace not only our minds but everything we are and do, and we will be held responsible for what we do and say. This is precisely why St. Paul calls us to stand firm in our faith (cf. Php. 4.2) and why the author of Hebrews exhorts us not to throw away our confidence (cf. Heb. 10.35). Justification is not a one-time event so it can also be lost during the process. Next time we will explore how this process informs the material of justification. If it is a process as Scripture proclaims then it means that justification results in an actual change in the person which the Catholic Church calls “infused righteousness.” Until then, May God be Praised!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Justifying The Doctrine of Justification: Part I of VI

The theological relationship between faith and works is a divisive topic within Christianity. While other issues such as papal authority, Marian devotion, and prayers to the saints attract negative attention among non-Catholic Christians, nothing compares to the passion and zeal undergirding a theology of justification.

The great irony in the divisiveness of this doctrine exists in the fact that Christ’s message of salvation was intended to unite all of the nations under the one Lord, Jesus Christ. Israel’s covenant with God was no longer to be exclusive to Israel but rather the time had come for Israel to be what she was destined to be: a light to the nations and a means for universal salvation through the long awaited Messiah, Jesus Christ. Thus, it is with all the more sadness that we must acknowledge that humanity’s sinfulness has twisted that which was intended to unify to that which now factions Christ’s church into more than 30,000 denominations.

Luther himself acknowledged that the doctrine of justification would be the pillar by which the Church stood or fell. In a very real sense we must acknowledge that we have fallen. Such factions do more to dissuade the seeker of faith than to persuade. Countless are the times I’ve spoken with non-believers who simply could not believe the truth of Christianity since there were thousands of Christians all proclaiming a different “truth.” If we desire to make the Christian faith contagious, we must strive for Christian unity. If we want to achieve Christian unity with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters then we must equip ourselves with the tools necessary to unify all Christians in their understanding of Christ’s saving mission, which is expressed most concretely in the doctrine of justification.

Since Justification is intimately entwined with the work of Jesus Christ, one most proceed delicately with this doctrine. Any explicit ignorance or casual treatment of the doctrine will be interpreted as ignorance of the Gospel and looked upon as trivializing the very mission of Jesus Christ by a faithful Christian. In other words, such a thing is not taken lightly by any devout Christian. In light of such intense treatment to the doctrine, it is no wonder so many non-Catholic Christians vehemently oppose the Roman Catholic view of justification by faith and works. The Protestant’s objection often goes something like this: The Roman Catholic view of justification deems Christ’s merits on the cross insufficient for salvation. They believe they must do good works in addition to the grace they receive from faith. This means that Catholics believe the cross only partially saves, and that works must be added to grace for salvation.

While the Protestant’s objections are noble in that they defend the soteriological/salvific value of Christ’s death on the cross, in my opinion they are nevertheless a gross misrepresentation of Catholic theology and thus the truth. To begin, such an objection creates a false dichotomy between works and grace. Roman Catholicism does not believe salvation by “grace alone” necessitates a salvation by “faith alone.” Both Catholics and Protestants agree that salvation is by grace alone, but this agreement comes to an abrupt halt when Protestants reduce salvation to a faith alone concept.

Those who know me well know that I have a particular fondness toward this doctrine. Justification is the doctrine that ripped me away from my Catholic faith, but it is also the doctrine that brought me back into solidarity with my Catholic heritage two years later. In hope to offer a foundational—yet far from exhaustive—understanding of the Church’s doctrine of justification, I will be writing five additional columns that will address this beautiful and very complex doctrine. The next column will correct the Protestant error in thinking that Justification is a one-time event as opposed to the Catholic position that Justification is in fact a process. The third column will build upon the second by correcting the Protestant error in thinking that Justification is simply a declaration of righteousness, and show how the Catholic position is the most reasonable and biblical as it professes a Justification that is more than declarative; that it is a transformative event that actually makes the believer righteous rather that just declaring the believer righteous. The final three columns will examine the particular doctrine of justification by faith and works through the words of Jesus, the words of St. Paul, and from the epistle of James in that order.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Third Annual Great Debate

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to have lunch with a GBLT (Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian, and Transgender) teacher for CU. We had a great conversation about our particular jobs sharing both the joys and struggles they hold. Not long into the conversation I told him about the debate the AICT (Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought) is hosting on campus on the subject of same-sex marriage. I was hoping to gain his support for the debate with the anticipation of advertising our event through GBLT. While I was initially disappointed by his reaction, the conversation ended unexpectedly positive.

His initial reaction could be expressed as a polite suspicion and hostility towards the idea of a debate on such a subject. He had grown frustrated with the Catholic Church’s “incessant need to dirty their hands in politics when they should stick to religion.” His conviction was that religion and politics were unequivocally distinct from one another and that the Church had over-stepped her boundaries by inserting herself into the political conversation. According to him, the defeat of Proposition 8 in California only fueled and confirmed his convictions. Simply put, since same-sex marriage affects no one outside of the same-sex marriage circle, it makes no sense why we would make it illegal.

Before I continue I want first to acknowledge that the gentleman I had lunch with has become a dear friend of mine, and we have had great conversations despite the fact we strongly disagree with each other on many topics. When my friend had finished his charitable yet strong criticisms regarding the debate, he granted me the opportunity to respond. Not having much time to respond adequately, I quickly mentioned the fact that political societies are cultural societies and all cultural societies are born from religious ideologies. In other words, there will always be at least one thread that links religion and politics, namely morality. For a moral order to sustain itself, it must have a foundation above that which it tends to govern, namely a society. If it does not, then morality is not truly morality but rather an arbitrary set of rules that have no objective significance outside the current acceptance, and can be changed at any point in time without “negative” consequences since “negative” would imply a standard outside the sphere of society. In other words, from the pen of Dostoevsky, “Without God, all things are permissible” and deriving from the mind of Nietzsche comes the logical conclusion of an ethical world without God: a world which determines morality through nothing more than the will to power. A political world void of religious counsel will inevitably result in political disorder.

All this being said, my friend’s last remark gets to the heart of the debate we are hosting on January 25th. The debate is entitled, “Should the Government Approve Same-Sex Marriage?” which will be held in the beautiful Macky Auditorium at 7:00 pm between Jonathan Rauch and Maggie Gallagher. Both Maggie and Jonathan believe that the institution of marriage is in peril in our country and that healthy marriages lead to a healthy society and economy. The question, then, is will the legalization of same-sex marriage help our hinder our already struggling institution? Mr. Rauch believes same-sex marriage will help while Ms. Gallagher believes it will hurt the already suffering institution. When I explained to my friend Ms. Gallagher’s position his demeanor immediately changed from one of suspicion to one of genuine curiosity. The lunch ended with an openness and almost eagerness to help advertise this particular debate at CU.

I mention all this to illustrate the need for this debate on same-sex marriage. This debate has potentially grave implications for the future of our city, state, and country. We are called in scripture to be informed (cf. Mat. 22.37; Rom. 12.2) and to be able to give a defense for what we believe (cf. 1 Ptr. 3.15). I encourage you to purchase a ticket and attend this timely debate. Please visit our website for more information about the debate and how to obtain tickets. Do it sooner rather than later as it will likely be sold out shortly! May God be Praised!