Irreconcilable Doctrines on Justification

An article I came across recently quoted a very high-ranking churchman saying, not in so many words, that Martin Luther was right about the doctrine of Justification. It was alarming to see, though not entirely surprising in these days when ecumenism is the tail that wags the dog of Catholic thought.

What we might call the “classic” Catholic-Protestant controversy on justification was very clearly outlined for hundreds of years, and on both sides. That is to say, informed Catholics and informed Protestants generally agreed in saying that the other party was wrong. There was therefore a clear, certain, and bilateral agreement that what Catholics and Protestants believed on the subject was different — and by that I mean that Catholic and Protestant beliefs on the issue are contrary and logically irreconcilable. That clarity and certitude, along with other certitudes, has been obscured in the last half-century. This is especially the case since the signing, on October 31 of 1999 (Reformation Day), of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.

Writing with a decade’s worth of hindsight, the Lutheran, Paul T. McCain, calls the Joint Declaration “a betrayal of the Gospel,” and goes further in claiming that, while the Catholic side made no concessions, the “mainline liberal Lutherans” (his words) sold out to Rome — which claim I find to be comical, but understandable, given the man’s perspective. Traditional Catholics, of course, also condemned the thing when it came out, and are still doing so — as indicated by a fairly recent traditionalist polemic that mentions the Declaration.

Further details about the history and reception of the document may be found at Wikipedia.

I bring up the Declaration only because its very existence would seem to be a contradiction of the thesis I advance in this Ad Rem. In response to that objection, I offer one solid refutation: whether it actually did so or not, the Declaration had no authority to contradict the Council of Trent in the matter; indeed, nobody could have invested it with such authority. As Mr. McCain informs us, Cardinal Cassidy confirmed this very fact:

Asked whether there was anything in the official common statement contrary to the Council of Trent, Cardinal Cassidy [who represented the Catholic side of the dialogue leading to the Joint Declaration as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christianity Unity] said: ‘Absolutely not, otherwise how could we do it? We cannot do something contrary to an ecumenical council. There’s nothing there that the Council of Trent condemns” (Ecumenical News International, 11/1/99).

After a brief review of salient parts of the Church’s doctrine on grace, I would like to conclude this little offering with what Saint Thomas Aquinas says about “operating and cooperating grace,” for it is my conviction that both the Catholic and the Protestant of good will can find in this theology a highly satisfactory reconciliation of what is apparently in tension here: the doctrines of free will and merit one one side, and the doctrines of the primacy and absolute necessity of grace on the other. These lay at the root of half-millennial Catholic-Protestant polemics on justification and the related question of Faith and good works.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Grace (in general) is “a supernatural gift of God to intellectual creatures (men, angels) for their eternal salvation, whether the latter be furthered and attained through salutary acts or a state of holiness.” This definition allows for both what we call “actual” and “sanctifying” grace. Actual grace is defined as “a supernatural help of God for salutary acts granted in consideration of the merits of Christ.” It is transient in nature, and terminates in the performance of a salutary act, either leading us to faith and justification, or (once in justification), leading us to merit. “Act” is the operative word here, since actual grace terminates (or is “spent”) in our performing a salutary act — or not, as we could fail to cooperate, in which case that grace did not achieve its purpose. In the technical language of theology, actual grace that does not achieve its purpose would be called merely “sufficient” and not “efficacious” grace (a distinction we cannot go into here).

Sanctifying Grace, or “Habitual Grace” in Saint Thomas’ lexicon, is defined as “a quality strictly supernatural, inherent in the soul as a habitus [habit], by which we are made to participate in the divine nature.” Sanctifying Grace is also called “justification,” but it is important to note that in Catholic theological parlance, “justification” has a distinct but related meaning, which I will explain shortly. Regarding sanctifying grace being a habit, what we mean is that it is a permanent (or “semi-permanent” as it can be lost by mortal sin) supernatural quality that inheres in the soul, which beautifies it, making it truly pleasing to God. The Council of Trent teaches that justification (meaning here the transfer into the state of sanctifying grace) “is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend, that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.”

This definition of justification was contrary to the Lutheran notion of “forensic justification,” which is also called “imputed justice.” According to that view, Christ’s justice is merely imputed to the sinner who is no different interiorly now than he was before. It is called “forensic” because it is a legal judgment — more of a legal fiction, really — by which a sinner is declared to be just and sentenced appropriately. Whether or not Luther actually compared the justified Christian soul to a snow-covered dunghill, that grotesque image is perfectly consonant with both Luther’s depraved ideas on imputed justice, and his scatological way of expressing himself.

The reader will hopefully see that the Catholic and Lutheran views on justification (in the sense of sanctifying grace) are mutually exclusive and logically irreconcilable.

That other meaning of the word “justification” is the “process of justification,” i.e., that succession of steps from the first utterly unmerited actual grace (often called prima gratia vocans, the “first grace of calling”) up to the actual translation into the state of sanctifying grace. So “justification” is both a state (as described above) and the process to get us into that state. The Council of Trent masterfully describes this process (go here for the source and the footnotes):

Now, they [the adults] are disposed to that justice when, aroused and aided by divine grace, receiving faith by hearing,[21] they are moved freely toward God, believing to be true what has been divinely revealed and promised, especially that the sinner is justified by God by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus;[22] and when, understanding themselves to be sinners, they, by turning themselves from the fear of divine justice, by which they are salutarily aroused, to consider the mercy of God, are raised to hope, trusting that God will be propitious to them for Christ’s sake; and they begin to love Him as the fountain of all justice, and on that account are moved against sin by a certain hatred and detestation, that is, by that repentance that must be performed before baptism;[23] finally, when they resolve to receive baptism, to begin a new life and to keep the commandments of God.

At last, we come now to Saint Thomas’ doctrine of operating and cooperating grace. In response to the question, “Whether grace is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating grace?” he says:

I answer that, As stated above (I-II:110:2) grace may be taken in two ways; first, as a Divine help, whereby God moves us to will and to act; secondly, as a habitual gift divinely bestowed on us.

Now in both these ways grace is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating. For the operation of an effect is not attributed to the thing moved but to the mover. Hence in that effect in which our mind is moved and does not move, but in which God is the sole mover, the operation is attributed to God, and it is with reference to this that we speak of “operating grace.”

God is the sole mover here. The human mind is “moved and does not move.” In other words, man is passive (but receptive), while God is active. Here God operates in us, but we do not operate at all. Saint Thomas continues:

But in that effect in which our mind both moves and is moved, the operation is not only attributed to God, but also to the soul; and it is with reference to this that we speak of “cooperating grace.”

Here, the human soul both is moved (passively) and moves (actively). Because the motion of grace moves the soul to the good and the soul thus assisted moves itself, it now cooperates with God. Yet note, our grace-influenced motion is itself called a grace: “cooperating grace.” Saint Thomas goes on to explain this:

Now there is a double act in us. First, there is the interior act of the will, and with regard to this act the will is a thing moved, and God is the mover; and especially when the will, which hitherto willed evil, begins to will good. And hence, inasmuch as God moves the human mind to this act, we speak of operating grace. But there is another, exterior act; and since it is commanded by the will, as was shown above (I-II:17:9) the operation of this act is attributed to the will. And because God assists us in this act, both by strengthening our will interiorly so as to attain to the act, and by granting outwardly the capability of operating, it is with respect to this that we speak of cooperating grace.

What the Angelic Doctor is saying in that last sentence is that even our cooperation with grace is a grace, because God both assists and continually sustains us in the supernaturally salutary act. Here, it might be good to bring in what he elsewhere says about efficient causality, for it provides us with an illuminatingly analogous way of looking at nature and grace together. For Saint Thomas, to regard God as the efficient cause of things refers not only to His activity in the six days of creation (after which, no new natures were created), nor even to His bringing each new thing into existence. For Saint Thomas, God’s causing things to exist is a continual divine activity comparable to the presence of light in the air resulting from the sun’s continued illumination of the atmosphere. This, in fact is how Saint Thomas explains that God is “in all things.” The Catholic philosopher, Dr. Edward Feser, describes this sustained divine causality as a “deeper efficient cause” whereby God keeps all things “in existence here and now” (Five Proofs of the Existence of God, pg. 55). All that is in the order of nature. A fortiori, in the order of grace, we are radically dependent upon God to sustain us in doing the good.

Saint Thomas cites a passage from Saint Augustine to back up his doctrine of operating and cooperating actual grace:

Hence after the aforesaid words Augustine subjoins: “He operates that we may will; and when we will, He cooperates that we may perfect.” And thus if grace is taken for God’s gratuitous motion whereby He moves us to meritorious good, it is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating grace.

Now Saint Thomas goes on to explain how habitual grace (sanctifying grace) can be divided into operating and cooperating:

But if grace is taken for the habitual gift, then again there is a double effect of grace, even as of every other form; the first of which is “being,” and the second, “operation”; thus the work of heat is to make its subject hot, and to give heat outwardly. And thus habitual grace, inasmuch as it heals and justifies the soul, or makes it pleasing to God, is called operating grace; but inasmuch as it is the principle of meritorious works, which spring from the free-will, it is called cooperating grace.

As a “form” of the soul, habitual grace gives it a new, supernatural mode of being, but it also becomes the principle of operation in the supernatural order, the principle, that is, of supernaturally meritorious good works. Thus we see our radical dependence on grace before and during our performance of a good work. Thus are reconciled human freedom and the necessity of grace. This radical dependence upon grace before and during a good work is found in the Church’s lex orandi in many places, especially in her liturgical collects. Here is an oration from the Litany of the Saints:

Direct, we beseech thee, O Lord, our actions by thy holy inspirations, and carry them on by thy gracious assistance, that every prayer and work of ours may begin always from thee, and through thee be happily ended.

The Protestant heresies on grace have numerous disastrous ramifications. For one, they are contraceptive of any notion of growing in love and intimacy with God. This implies another result, one that actually becomes blasphemous: Because of their denial of free will, human cooperation with grace, and merit, adherents to the errors of Luther and Calvin fail to see anything special in the saints, and, especially, in the Blessed Virgin Mary.

May the Mother of Divine Grace lead these erring souls to the Catholic truth.