Friday, May 20, 2011

The Catholic Understanding of the Saints: A Response to Jim West (Part 1)

Earlier this month Jim challenged his Catholic friends to provide some biblical / theological support for the Catholic view of the communion of the saints. Specifically, here was what he had to say in his post:
1. What biblical or theological justification is there to pray for the dead?
2. What biblical or theological justification is there for believing that the dead pray for us?
3. How is ‘praying to a saint’ different from idolatry?
4. Isn’t it idolatrous to place your faith in any for salvation other than Christ?
5. Isn’t the entire notion of the invocation of the saints idolatrous and blasphemous?
I ask because with the beatification of John Paul II there is much discussion in the media about saints and their mystical magical powers to affect peoples lives and I find it all, quite frankly, more than a little disturbing and just downright pagan. It’s almost as though the Roman Church has simply replaced the Greek pantheon with saints and that the old paganism of Rome is still alive and well in the Vatican and its outlying stations.
[NB- please don't take this to mean I have problems with Catholics. My problem is with this aspect of Catholic theology / Mariolatry].
These are fair questions that deserve thoughtful answers. So. . . here goes.

Upfront though let me say: there is a lot here to address. Make no mistake about it, this is going to take some time, thoughtful interaction, and reflection. So I have put a couple other posts on hold (my series of posts on Luke-Acts and my series on Petrine primacy) to write up responses to these questions.

I’ve already written the majority of my responses, but I’ve decided against "dumping" it all out at once in a single post. I want to think through this slowly. I’m eager to get responses from Jim and anyone else and I want to be sure I carefully respond to such responses.

That said, today offers the first post. Next Monday will feature another and they will keep coming at a steady pace after that.

Preliminary Issues

Before I give detailed answers to these questions, I think I have to make some comments at the outset.

First, let me explain that I know the Protestant objections to the Catholic view of the saints very, very well. Although I am a cradle Catholic, I spent the majority of my academic career as a student at non-Catholic institutions. I earned a B.A. in theology and philosophy at Azusa Pacific University, where I also minored in New Testament Greek. I then earned my Ph.D. in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary where I wrote a dissertation on the Historical Jesus under Colin Brown.

(By the way, I would especially love to hear from any Protestants who have received theology degrees--particularly advances degrees--from Catholic universities. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts in the com-box during this series of posts.)

In both places I was blessed with the experience of studying under and with very bright men and women who sincerely love the Lord. These individuals taught me much about what it means to live the Christian life. I am forever grateful for their example and their mentoring.

Please let me underscore how much I treasure my relationships with my non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. We share a love for Christ in common and, to my mind, that is more important than any theological differences between us. Life is a spiritual battle and I appreciate all the help I can get in the trenches.

The experience however of studying at non-Catholic Christian institutions as a Catholic taught me something else. I learned that very intelligent and very sincere Protestant academics often have a profoundly misinformed view of Catholic theology. Straw man arguments and misrepresentations are perpetuated—often innocently, that is, out of ignorance and not malice—but consistently.

Of course, Catholics also misrepresent Protestant theological opinions at times.

All of this has highlighted for me the fact that there is a real need for honest and open dialogue. That's what I am all about—not theological arm-wrestling. It's not simply a matter of misunderstanding—there are real differences. But I think we talk past each other far more often than we realize.

Catholic Doctrine Teaches Salvation by Works and not Grace?

For example, one line that you’ll hear over and over again is that Catholics hold to a “works-righteousness” view of justification that somehow nullifies God’s grace. The dichotomy between the Catholic and Protestant approach is cast in stark terms: Protestants preach a Gospel of grace, while Catholics believe they “earn” their way into heaven with good works.

This is incredibly frustrating for knowledgable Catholics . . . and we hear it over, and over, and over again. (Once I heard this from a mechanic who brought it up after finding some Catholic materials in my car!)

People who view the Catholic Church this way have either actually never read the official documents of the Catholic Church or they haven’t read them very closely.

To disabuse people of their ignorance I simply turn them to the official compendium of all that Catholics believe, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.
'After earth's exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2011 citing Therese of Lisieux).
I never tire of watching non-Catholics try to process this passage.

Many people would never think this is Catholic teaching. It is particularly strange to see this in the Catechism to those who “studied” Catholicism at a seminary. How could such a line appear in official Catholic documents? It just doesn’t compute for them. I’d submit that’s because they didn’t really study Catholicism in school, they only learned a caricature of it.

Just a Hip, New Catholicism? 

“Well, then the Catholic Church has changed its view.” That’s the response I usually get next.

Um. . . no.

Here’s the Council of Trent: “. . . we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification.” (Sess. VI, Chap. VIII).

So, to properly understand the Catholic view of the saints let me first insist: the grace of justification is not first “earned” by good works—it is purely gratuitous. It is due to God’s grace. As St. Therese of Liseieux is cited in the Catechism: The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.

Notice again that I am not “recasting” Catholic teaching to somehow make it more palatable to non-Catholic Christians. I am citing from official Church documents. And I’m doing so in their own words.

Obviously, there is much more that could be said, but the heart of the matter should be clear: for Catholics, the saints are saved by God's grace—not because they have earned it due to their own ingenuity.

Hopefully, we can put that myth to bed.

Continue reading: See Part 2.


Luke said...

Thanks for taking up the challenge Dr. Barber. I get so frustrated having to explain over and over and over again that we do not worship Mary or commit necromancy by praying to the dead. Hopefully, your explanation will clear up Mr. West's and many others confusion about what the church actually teaches and why.

Joshua said...

I'm looking forward to reading your responses.

Anonymous said...

In your future posts, I hope you say something of the idea of patronage. As a Protestant, I found that understanding this (through Brown's book, "The Cult of the Saints") helped to illuminate much of the misunderstandings that I had.


j said...

I think in my experience the reason why I -and I think other Protestants- assume Roman Catholics take a works based approach is because of the Roman Catholics I talk to, who tend not to be theologically trained. Works or "Works plus" rather than grace is the opinion they tend to express. I am curious as to whether you find the same things among Protestants who are not theologically trained, such as me. Either way what do you think is the problem behind this and is it the same for the Roman Catholic church and the Protestant churches.

Stuart eChurch said...

Being new to Catholicism – and coming from a Protestant tradition – I personally need these issues clarified.

It's my intention to link to this series of posts.

Ralph said...

I think J hit the nail on the head. Between "official" Roman doctrine, vs. the-common-catechist's lies quite a chasm. It is a bit like how historically the doctrine of penance (illustrating true contrition) became easily conflated with forgiveness--and working-off one's sins, at least among the laity. I'm seminary trained at a very conservative Reformed seminary, and, for those who paid attention... we were never taught Roman Catholicism was ever fully Pelagian (i.e. works-righteousness) rather that it is, and has been, SEMI-Pelagian....that is works PLUS grace are needed, and work together to merit (and gracefully receive) justification. The medieval "pactum" that Luther revolted against never denied the absolute necessity of grace for every human being (except Christ Jesus), rather it said, more-or-less, to: "Do your best and God's grace will do the rest." Luther's conviction that he'd NEVER do his best, is what frightened him over into full Augustine-style grace, and into the Romans doctrine of faith alone, through grace alone...

Timothy O'Keefe/The Fullness of Truth said...

In Catholic teaching, it's not that one is saved by works. Rather, one is saved by grace, which produces both faith and good works. As a cooperation between divine grace and human free will, faith is a "good work." One may resist it or one may cooperate with it. The same is true for other works.

This is why every account of the Day of Judgment in the New Testament describes it as a judgment, not of faith specifically, but of works in general, of how one lived. How can one be saved by faith alone, but then judged by works? The Catholic understanding of salvation by grace - a grace which may produce both faith and virtuous acts - makes perfect sense, while the Protestant doctrine of "justification by faith alone" makes no sense in light of the Day of Judgment.

De Maria said...


Can anyone who does not keep the Commandments be saved?

We are talking here about adults. That is the subject matter of Trent VI.

Now, as I see it, Scripture is quite clear:
Romans 2:13
13(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

I'm not saying that salvation is by works. Salvation is by God's mercy. But God will not save anyone who does not keep His Commandments.

2068 The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; the Second Vatican Council confirms: "The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord . . . the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments."


De Maria

De Maria said...

Hi Timothy O'Keefe,

You asked,
....How can one be saved by faith alone, but then judged by works? ...

I don't believe that one is saved by faith "alone". But I do believe that we, Catholics, are justified by faith apart from works, in the Sacraments.

The Sacraments are mini, pre-Judgement events, where one who is in a state of grace may participate in the Sacrament and thereby participate in the very life of God, sanctifying grace.

Before we present ourselves for the Sacraments, we must study to show ourselves approved, repent of our sins and begin to keep the Commandments. Only then are we admitted to the Sacraments where God Himself cleanses us and renews us by the Holy Spirit. No work on our part can cleanse our soul. Only God can do that. But if we do not believe that He can, we condemn ourselves.


De Maria

De Maria said...


You said,
Between "official" Roman doctrine, vs. the-common-catechist's lies quite a chasm.

I don't agree. I think it is a matter of "so to speak". Even Scripture says:

James 2:
21Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

Romans 3:28
28Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

We are not justified by anything which we do. God justifies us by His mercy:
Titus 3:5
5Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;

But God does not justify anyone who by faith does not keep His Commandments.

Therefore, I believe most Catechists and Scholars know that we neither save nor justify ourselves by faith or works. But they speak in accordance with Catholic assumptions. That is why, if you ask any Catholic, "are you saved?", they will answer, "I don't know." Because we know that it is God who saves those who have faith in Him. Not we who save ourselves by our faith or works.


De Maria