Thursday, March 30, 2006

Catholic Underemphasis on Justification by Faith: My Theory on Why This Is

Dr. Edwin Tait (Anglican Church historian and frequent past dialogue partner) wrote on the Pontifications blog (his words will be in green):

Of course the Fathers did not teach sola fide as taught by, say, Melanchthon . . . there was a diversity of views among the Reformers and that some of them were much closer to the Augustinian tradition than others.

Furthermore, the question of whether the Reformers' formulations are binding is only a valid one (and even then it's a question, not something taken for granted) within the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. Other Protestants have already departed from the Reformers in some way or another. Of the two traditions with which I'm currently involved, Anglicanism (or at least many representatives of Anglicanism) moved away from a purely Reformational doctrine of salvation in the 17th century (as C. FitzSimmons Allison points out in The Rise of Moralism), and Methodism (while rejecting some aspects of the "moralistic" tradition and recovering a more evangelical emphasis) built on that "Arminian" trajectory of Anglicanism.

So I see the question rather differently than confessional Lutherans or Calvinists do. Insofar as sola fide is worth preserving, it is not a formula about separating justification from sanctification but rather a proclamation of the free mercy of God in Christ. The formulas of Trent as they stand seem to leave less room for this proclamation than had existed in Catholicism previously (and this must necessarily balance the criticisms of the Reformers for departing from the Fathers). I don't think they exclude it - but the fact is that Catholics who taught an evangelical interpretation of the Augustinian tradition were increasingly marginalized or persecuted in 16th-century Catholicism. By the end of the century it was hard for a Catholic to speak of the free mercy of God in Christ without being suspected of Protestant leanings. Constantino Ponce de la Fuente and Bartolome Carranza were both imprisoned as suspected heretics even though they never contradicted defined dogma.

I agree with the Joint Declaration that differences on justification do not need to be church-dividing. But a convert to Catholicism enters a community formed by five centuries of denying or downplaying the evangelical understanding of salvation (as Fr. Cantalemessa recognized in his candid sermon). That’s a serious issue. Protestants, for all our one-sidedness, have preserved an important aspect of the truth of Christ thas has been practically speaking largely absent from post-Reformation Catholicism.

[note: I've added a little bit that was not in my response on the other blog]

Which is what, Edwin? Could you summarize what this is briefly in plain language, please? And show what it is Protestants have preserved which Catholics allegedly have not (preferably with documentation from Trent or other authoritative pronouncement)? We deny "the free mercy of God in Christ"? If that is what you are claiming, I must have missed that somehow in my understanding of Catholic soteriology.

I refer you to Fr. Cantalamessa's sermon (+ part II). He certainly thinks that in practice the proclamation of justification by faith has been largely missing from post-Tridentine Catholicism.

It depends on what one means by that, I reckon. Faith alone is the main thing we have a problem with.

This is not about official documents. It's about what people believe and practice on the local level. It's about the way particular Christian traditions are formed over centuries.

If I were arguing that the Catholic position were heretical, you'd be right that I'd need to cite official teachings. But that's not my concern at all. I do think (for this I don't claim the support of Fr. Cantalamessa, obviously) that the wording of Trent (here as with regard to the authority of Scripture) is less than felicitous as an expression of orthodox Christianity. But I have always been told by Catholics that infallibility does not guarantee felicitous language.

It is possible that my critique simply does not concern matters that interest you. It seems to me that if Fr. Cantalemessa is right (and the experience of many people, including those dreaded anti-Catholics, indicates that he is) that "the great majority of Catholics have lived entire lives without having ever heard a direct announcement of gratuitous justification by faith," without too many "buts," then this is a serious matter and something is badly wrong in Catholicism.

And I'm willing to grant the same about Protestantism on all sorts of fronts, of course. In many Protestant denominations (my wife's United Methodist Church, for instance), the official teachings have a fairly strong doctrine of sacramental grace (though not quite the Catholic one), but in most local churches this is a dead letter. On the one hand, I expect Catholics to recognize the existence of the official teaching - but on the other hand, it's quite fair for them to question why this teaching hasn't put down better roots at the local level.

If you prefer to deal with abstract "official doctrines," that's fine. But in that case you will never get to the matters that actually affect most Christians. We have to deal with both - the official doctrines and the way they are understood.

I read the sermon, and I don't disagree with any of it. It is true that Catholics have heard this message relatively less than Protestants (a lot less, in fact). I think this is because of the natural human tendency (which I've often noted) of dichotomizing things and going to extremes in overreaction to opponents. Why this happened in history is obvious:

1) Protestants went too far and adopted faith alone (sola fide), so Catholics - in practice - tended to go too far in the other direction and overemphasize the importance of works and merit (while underemphasizing the true aspects of justification by faith). Some in both camps, in their ignorance, actually taught or practiced Pelagianism or antinomianism.

2) Protestants went too far and adopted Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) as its rule of faith, so Catholics - in practice - tended to go too far in the other direction and overemphasize the importance of Church and Tradition. Thus, many Protestants have virtually ditched the latter, while many Catholics wouldn't know the Bible from a hole in the ground (which I have also written about, in a published article; chiding and rebuking my fellow Catholics a bit). Catholics are as ignorant of the Bible as Protestants are ignorant of Church history. Of course, both should be familiar with both. The ignorance on both sides (in different ways) stinks to high heaven. But we can help each other.

3) Protestants (i.e., Luther in his Babylonian Captivity) got radical and radically innovative and threw out five sacraments [see my paper on exactly how radical Luther already was by 1520], so Catholics tended to emphasize the sacraments relatively more than gospel proclamation, evangelization, etc. Of course, in the 16th century, the early Protestants did little missionary work, while Catholics were all over North and South America, so these things ebb and flow.

There are many other similar dichotomies . . .

In my ecumenical emphasis, I like to think that Catholics and Protestants complement each other and "need" each other in this practical, philosophical way, precisely because both sides - in practice - tended to go too far in one direction and to dichotomize what was always intended by God to be together. So we can help each other out a lot, and ecumenism has a crucial function in God's purposes in the Kingdom. We can explain to each other our own emphases and try to achieve a consensus insofar as possible and to avoid even more tragic misunderstanding and disunity than we already have.

Hence, my attempts to persuade Chris Jones (and any other Protestants reading) that Catholic merit is essentially the same as Lutheran cooperation and sola gratia. I've also made many attempts to try to deliberately find common ground (as you may know), e.g., in the following papers:

Catholic "Initial Justification" & Protestant "Faith Alone": Significant Common Ground?
Good News: An Evangelical / Catholic Presentation of the Gospel Message
The Catholic Understanding of the Anathemas of Trent and Excommunication
Martin Luther's Doctrine Concerning Good Works: Have I Misrepresented It?
The Pro-Catholic Side of Martin Luther
The Wickedness of Christian Division, Anti-Catholicism, & Anti-Protestantism
Trent Doesn't Necessarily Exclude All Variants of Imputation (Kenneth Howell; posted on my blog)

I think it is senseless to wrangle over areas where we essentially agree. There are enough real differences to dispute, heaven knows.

All that said, how does one talk about the issues you raise? If we say everyone has lots of problems in practice, that's one thing (no sane, conscious person would disagree). But what is it you would want to discuss? That Catholics have offered lousy catechesis for 40 years? Guilty as charged. That Trent speaks in a language considerably different from, and foreign to, the man on the street today? Absolutely; I agree (Vatican II dealt with that factor quite a bit). I'm open to it; just give some directions and guidelines and I'll follow you, if there is something to profitably discuss along these lines.

But if the goal is simply to complain about how every communion has problems in passing down its beliefs to the faithful, what is accomplished? Nothing at all, by just writing about it. It seems to me that all I can do as a lay apologist, and what you can do as an up-and-coming historian, is to teach folks the teachings of our communions, so that they can become better educated and hence, avoid the extremes here critiqued. That's what we can both do to make a real difference and hopefully a net gain, from our own perspectives.

I presume that you aren't using these sorts of considerations as any kind of primary reason to avoid conversion to Catholicism (a possibility you have candidly written about for years). I would reject that, of course, and appeal again to official teachings, which have to be accepted or rejected. If one makes such decisions and determinations based on corruptions in practice and widespread nominalism, then there is no hope to believe anything, because every Christian group is corrupt, simply because all consist of human beings, whose hearts are universally corrupt.

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