140. Is the Roman Catholic Church Now Committed to “Grace Alone”?

August 1st, 2017

Many commentators with good intentions, even on the evangelical side, have rightly given attention to what seems to be the heart of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation. No. 15 solemnly says:

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 and calling us to good works.

If read out of context and in a theologically naïve way, this sentence could be a relevant and pointed summary of the biblical message concerning the mode of justification (by grace only and not based on merits), the means of justification (by faith alone), the grounds of justification (the saving work of Christ), and the consequences of justification (divine adoption and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the renewal of the heart and the activation of the Christian life). However, every sound exercise in theological hermeneutics, including the reading of the documents of the ecumenical dialogue, must take into account the immediate and more general context, the meaning of the words used, and the consequences of what is being claimed. Taken out of context, No. 15 would make much sense from an evangelical perspective. Yet it must be considered as an integral part of the JDDJ and therefore must be understood in relation to the whole document.

Sacramental Grace

Presenting the various aspects of the doctrine, the Catholic and Lutheran Churches agree on a sacramental understanding of grace. It is this sacramental framework that qualifies the reference to the expression “by grace alone” contained in No. 15. Together, in fact, they declare that “by the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they (the sinners) are granted the gift of salvation” (No. 25), thus undermining the idea that it is only by grace that God saves sinners through faith alone. Lutheran theology, with its theology of regenerational baptism, actually runs this risk. Later, in No. 28, the JDDJ states (always with both parties affirming this together) that “in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person”. It is not surprising, however, that the Catholic clarification on this point forcefully underlines that “persons are justified through baptism as hearers of the word and believers in it” (No. 27). On the one hand, then, JDDJ wants to affirm the importance of the declaration of the righteousness of God received by faith. On the other, though, it reiterates the need for sacramental action through the mediation of the church as essential for justification and, therefore, for salvation.

The Catholic point is further reinforced through the claim that Catholics hold that the grace of Jesus Christ is “imparted” in baptism (No. 30). According to this view, grace is not received by faith alone, but is granted by God through the Church that administers it in baptism. This statement cannot be reconciled with the view according to which salvation is by grace alone apart from works, even sacramental ones. So for all the good intentions expressed and the admirable effort in dialogue, the result is below expectations and beyond an obedient adherence to the biblical Word of God. In contemporary Roman Catholicism we see a total consistency with respect to the traditional doctrine, that is, that justification occurs at baptism by a sacramental act.

Stretching Trent Rather than Reforming Rome

For the Catholic Church, the “by grace alone” of No. 15 means that grace is intrinsically, constitutionally, and necessarily linked to the sacrament, and thus to the Church that administers it and the works implemented by it. In this view, salvation cannot be by grace alone, unless “by grace alone” is understood as the same grace being organically incorporated into the sacrament of the Church. We are evidently in the presence of a different concept of grace. In JDDJ there is an attempt to re-describe this theological understanding of salvation in language that looks like the Lutheran one (which the Catholic Church appropriates through the use of such expressions as “by grace alone” of No. 15 and the recognition that works “follow justification and are its fruits” of No. 37). However, this new description does not give the impression of changing the theology of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), according to which grace is sacramental and seen inside of a synergistic dynamic of the process of salvation. This understanding of grace appears to be more in line with the Catholic heritage of the Council of Trent, in an updated form, than with classic Protestant theology. In this sense, JDDJ is a clear exercise in an increased “catholicity” (i.e. the ability to absorb ideas without changing the core) on the part of Rome, which has not become more evangelical in the biblical sense.

You may want to read my comments on the endorsement of the World Communion of Reformed Church to JDDJ, posted on the website of the World Reformed Fellowship.

70. Trent, 450 Years Later

December 16th, 2013

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the closing of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the most important event of the Roman Catholic Church in the modern era. A special commemorative event took place in the city of Trent with the presence of an official representative of Pope Francis.

Trent in a Nutshell

The Council of Trent was the official response of the Catholic Church to the XVI century Protestant Reformation. The issues of the Reformation (grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone) were rejected as they were affirmed by the Reformers (mainly Luther) and recast in a sacramental framework that highlighted the contribution of human works and the mediating agency of the church. Actually, Trent declared the incompatibility of the Reformation with what became then the official doctrine of the Church of Rome and the unwillingness of Rome to undertake a process of radical revision in biblical perspective. In order to do that, Trent solidified the theology of the sacraments, hitting with a series of “anathema” those who held Protestant beliefs. Trent intervened in clarifying the Roman position (through decrees and canons) and in launching a series of changes that would impact the life of the Church.

Trent was not an isolated event. The post-Trent phase of the Church was marked by a staunch polemical attitude, first against Protestantism, and then against modernity. If Trent was the Roman response to the Reformation, the season of the Marian dogmas (1854: immaculate conception of Mary; 1950 bodily assumption of Mary), and papal infallibility (1870) were responses to the ideological challenges of Modernity.

Trent’s Heritage

Five centuries later, the Roman Catholic Church has definitely adopted a different pastoral and ecclesial “style” than that of Trent, but it has not substantially changed it, nor denied it in whole or in part. There is no point in which Vatican II moves away from the dogmatic teaching of the Council of Trent. At Vatican II, Trent was kept in the background and remained within the framework of Roman Catholicism. The “Tridentine paradigm” was put, so to speak, in historical perspective, but not forsaken nor forgotten. Vatican II has metabolized Trent but in no way abandoned it.

With the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation, Trent was updated in its language and emphases, but reiterated in its substance. The two positions were juxtaposed and held compatible, thus working with a “both-and” scheme that is quintessentially the Roman Catholic way of developing its doctrinal system. The Tridentine “anathemas” were lifted for those who hold the doctrines of the Reformation if reinterpreted ecumenically, but the theological core of contemporary Catholicism is still steeped in its Tridentine content: it is the institutional church that mediates the grace of God through its sacramental system. Grace alone was and is still rejected. A clear indication of this is the case is that nothing has changed in important areas like indulgences, Purgatory, the sacramental prerogatives of the Church, the cult of the saints, etc.

Pope Francis on Trent

On the occasion of the official celebration in Trent (Dec 1st), Pope Francis sent a special envoy to Trent together with a letter. In it he says that the anniversary “behooves the Church to recall with more prompt and attentive eagerness the most fruitful doctrine which came out of that council. Certainly not without cause, the Church has for a long time already accorded so much care to the Decrees and Canons of that Council that are to be recalled and observed”. “No doubt,” the letter continues, “with the Holy Ghost inspiring and suggesting, it especially concerned the Fathers not only to guard the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine, but also to more clearly enlighten mankind”. The same Spirit, according to the Pope, now guides the Church “to restore and meditate upon the most abundant doctrine of Trent”.

Quoting Benedict XVI, Francis ends the letter by saying that (the Church) “is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remains the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God”. It is the Pope that affirms the continuity between Trent and the present-day Roman Catholic Church. It is not a static continuity in that the Church “develops” over time, but is a continuity in which the Church changes, while always remaining the same. Both-and, again!