I finished the Catholic catechism a few weeks ago. This blog post is my informal write-up about it. Here are six points that I want to make.
A. What does Roman Catholicism believe about justification? My understanding has long been that Roman Catholics believe that justification is the process of a believer becoming practically righteous, with God’s help. Protestants, by contrast, hold that justification is God declaring the believer to be righteous, even though that person is actually sinful. For Protestants, justification is God declaring the believer righteous, whereas sanctification is God making the believer righteous on a practical level. Roman Catholics, I thought, conflated both under the category of justification.
My understanding was challenged when I went through the catechism. There were places in which the catechism seemed to define justification as a person becoming a Christian and receiving forgiveness of sins at baptism, while treating sanctification as the believer becoming practically righteous and undergoing spiritual growth after conversion, with God’s help. That sounds like Protestantism’s distinction between justification and sanctification.
My impression after reading the catechism is that it regards justification, roughly speaking, as conversion: a person officially becomes a Christian at baptism and is forgiven of sin. But the catechism adds another important element to justification: that, when a person becomes a Christian, God infuses into that person a degree of practical righteousness, an inclination and desire, on some level, to will and to do the will of God. In Catholicism, justification still entails a believer being practically righteous.
It seems also that the catechism maintains that justification—-which includes a person’s status as a forgiven Christian—-needs to be maintained, or even restored after a person commits a mortal sin. The sacraments play a role in that, according to the catechism.
The catechism, as far as I can recall, did not address the relationship of Genesis 15:6 and Paul’s interpretations of that passage (Romans 4:3; Genesis 3:6-9) to justification. Paul argued that justification comes through faith and not works: Abraham believed God, and God credited that to him as righteousness. Justification appears to be God declaring a believer to be righteous when the believer looks to God who justifies the ungodly, and that is contrasted in Romans 11 with trying to be saved by doing good works. How does Roman Catholicism reconcile that with its view that justification relates to practical righteousness?
I will add that the catechism also seems to define faith as more than simply receiving God’s free gift of salvation, which is how many evangelicals present faith. Actually, in the catechism, faith sounds more like what many Protestants define as a living, saving faith: a faith that works in love, in contrast with easy-believism.
Maybe my initial understanding of the Catholic view of justification is still an accurate understanding of the view, on some level, for I recall listening to a debate between Protestant James White and Catholic Mitchell Pacuwa on justification, and Pacuwa seemed to speak of justification as more of a process of becoming righteous. It’s just that, when I read the catechism itself, the catechism presented justification in terms of becoming a Christian, as the entrance into the Christian life.
B. Even after reading the catechism, I am unclear about the exact distinction between a mortal and a venial sin. I understand that a mortal sin is worse than a venial sin. But I do not entirely understand what makes a mortal sin mortal, and what makes a venial sin venial. The catechism said that a mortal sin was a sin against charity, and that would encompass serious sins such as murder. But it also seemed to suggest that a mortal sin is committing a sin knowingly and intentionally. The thing is, even mortal sins can be committed without full knowledge or intent, as when a person murders someone in the heat of passion. My bet is that the Catholic church would still see that as a mortal sin, though.
C. Jesus in Matthew 16:18 tells Peter that upon this rock Jesus will build his church. My understanding has long been that Catholics believe the rock was Peter, whereas Protestants see the rock as Peter’s confession of faith, or as Christ himself. What surprised me when I read the catechism was that it interpreted the rock in all three ways: as Peter, as Peter’s confession of faith, and as Christ!
D. I Timothy 2:5 affirms that there is one God and one mediator between God and man, namely, Jesus Christ. How would Catholics reconcile that with their view that Mary, on some level, is a mediatrix? In 970, the Cathechism quotes LG 60 and 62, which attempts to argue that Mary’s role as mediatrix does not contradict Christ’s unique status as mediator:
“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it.” “No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.”
The argument seems to be that Christ’s unique mediatorship makes possible Mary’s status as mediatrix. Mary shares in Christ’s mediatorship, as the church leadership and laity share in Christ’s priesthood. I can somewhat see the logic in that. It doesn’t entirely set right with me, though. It reminds me of legal obfuscation, or searching for legal loopholes.
I guess my question would be: Are there prerogatives that are truly unique to Christ, within Catholicism? Mary praying for us does not bother me that much, for people can pray for others, but does Mary do anything salvific for people, according to Catholic thought? I was not clear about this when I read the catechism. The catechism says things like this: “In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace” (968, quoting LG 61). “This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfilment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation …. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (LG 62).
Would Catholicism say that Mary could not pay for people’s sins through her death, for only Christ could do that, but that Mary can help bring us the beneficent consequences of Christ’s death? So can the church, in a sense: the church could not procure anyone’s salvation, but the church can help bring people salvation by spreading the Gospel.
E. I read a post by Steve Hays of Triablogue when I was going through the catechism, and his reference to apparent tensions within Catholic thought resonated with my own reading. Steve says:
“It’s true that Catholic ethicists can argue with great precision and sophistication, but to what end? Their job is not to ascertain right and wrong, but to defend whatever the Magisterium deems to be right and wrong. They begin with the diktats of Rome, then cast about for supporting arguments to retroactively rationalize a foregone conclusion. And it can take tremendous ingenuity to defend Catholic moral theology. Consider the hairsplitting distinctions that are required to attack artificial contraception while defending natural family planning. Or to attack divorce while defending annulment, or to attack lying while defending mental reservations.”
I’m not necessarily endorsing everything that Steve says there, but my impression in reading the catechism is that the catechism contained tensions but did not always try to iron them out. Maybe there are other sources that attempt to do that.
F. I have long struggled with New Testament passages about forgiveness and reconciliation.
There is Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”
Does that mean that I have to make people like me before I can worship God? Good luck with that!
Then there is Matthew 6:15’s statement that God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others. Does that mean that God will not listen to my prayer or have anything to do with me, if I dislike certain people?
That said, I found what the catechism said about forgiveness to be refreshing and helpful:
From 2843: “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.”
That is pastoral, understanding, and helpful, in that it presents forgiveness in the context of God working with us where we are.
From 2844: “Forgiveness is a high-point of Christian prayer; only hearts attuned to God’s compassion can receive the gift of prayer. Forgiveness also bears witness that, in our world, love is stronger than sin.”
I can identify with the idea that, in praying to God, we should, on some level, be on the same page as God. I would add, though, that there are times when we are not on the same page as God and still pray, in hope that God will help us to be on the same page as God. I also like this passage because it offers a reason to forgive: to show that love is stronger than sin.
2845 quotes from St. Cyprian, De Dom. orat. 23:
“God does not accept the sacrifice of a sower of disunion, but commands that he depart from the altar so that he first may be reconciled with his brother. For God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace.”
I may not be universally liked, but I do not deliberately try to show disunion, at least not now, when I am more mature. And I do believe in praying for peace.
Anyway, I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part in this post. I am a work in progress.