Over the years I have read claims that Catholic teaching has changed, that it has “learned from Protestant doctrine” over the nearly 500 years since the Reformation, becoming more “Biblical.” “Pope Benedict admits that Luther was right!” people crow, (pretending that the Holy Father said “Luther was right – period!” rather than “Luther was right, IF….). This reasoning originates with people who have bought into standard-issue anti-Catholic propaganda, along the lines of: “Romanists believe that you have to work your way to heaven, worship the Pope, the saints, and Mary, and pretend that a flat, tasteless wafer is God.” They then hear the Holy Father say something that sounds suspiciously “Christian” and, stymied, can only attribute the Pope’s “change of heart” to Protestant influence. Catholic doctrine is changing, they assume. Assumption is so much less trouble than research. I know that from first-hand experience….
Take the subject of justification. If you had asked me back when I was a Protestant why Catholics don’t agree with the Protestant doctrine of “faith alone,” I would have explained to you that the pernicious doctrine of justification by works had wormed its way into Church doctrine as man-made “wisdom” superseded the preaching of the Gospel. The clergy and religious brothers and sisters of the Middle Ages were steeped in ignorance of the Scriptures and in the traditions of men. That’s why God raised up Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk who came to realize that the Catholic Church was teaching error concerning justification. God called this simple monk to lead people back to the Bible, to teach them to have faith, and trust in the blood of Jesus Christ for their salvation!
Not that I actually did any research on this – I was just buying into the prevailing Protestant wisdom that permeated the teaching of the churches I attended. I now wish that I had actually tested these assumptions against the historical record. Here are some quotes taken from the High Middle Ages, the 11th to the 13th century. Is prevailing Protestant wisdom correct? Did Catholics know anything about salvation by grace through faith before the time of Luther?
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090- 1153) What I need to enter Heaven, I appropriate from the merits of Jesus Christ who suffered and died in order to procure for me that glory of which I was unworthy.
St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) Christians must lean on the Cross of Christ just as travelers lean on a staff when they begin a long journey.
St. Bernadine of Siena (1380-1444) The Church is indeed built on the Name of Jesus which is its very foundation, and hence it is the greatest honor to cleave through faith to the Name of Jesus and to become a son of God.
These men all lived and died before Luther’s time. These are the guys your Protestant mother warned you about: medieval priests and monks. But those quotes sound suspiciously “Christian.” Is that a fluke?
Martin Luther lived from 1483 to 1546. Here is a sampling of quotes from the Catholic writings of that era:
St. Thomas of Villanova (1488-1555) Fear not to approach Him with confidence, for He is called by the name of Jesus. He is the Savior and will not reject those whom He ought to save. If a man is condemned to hell, it is not because he has sinned but rather because he has rejected this so abundant and certain source of salvation.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) Not for ourselves, Lord, for we do not deserve to be heard, but for the blood of Your Son and for His merits.
St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) In His infinite love for us, though we were sinners, He sent His only Son to free us from the tyranny of Satan, to summon us to heaven, to welcome us into its innermost recesses, to show us Truth itself, to train us in right conduct, to plant within us the seeds of virtue, to enrich us with the treasures of His grace, and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life.
St. Thomas of Villanova’s timeline runs almost exactly parallel to that of Luther. St. Thomas was an Augustinian monk, as was Luther. Luther suffered from scrupulosity, and was plagued by doubts that his sins could be forgiven. Surely these words of St. Thomas, “If a man is condemned to hell, it is not because he has sinned but rather because he has rejected this so abundant and certain source of salvation,” address Luther’s fundamental concern. Yet Luther claimed that the Catholic Church knew nothing of salvation by grace through faith. It’s certainly hard to believe that St. Thomas was the only man of his time who preached these things….
St. Charles Borromeo, too, was a contemporary of Luther’s, and one of his fiercest critics. Borromeo seems to be awfully interested in Jesus and “the treasures of His grace” for someone who is trying to teach “works-righteousness” instead of salvation by grace through faith. Kind of counter-productive reasoning….
The Council of Trent, perhaps the heyday of anti-Protestantism, took place between 1545 and 1563, with its decisions being codified in the Roman Catechism (1566), the revised Roman Missal (1570), and a revised edition of the Vulgate Scriptures (1592). What were Catholics declaring about justification during that time period?
Council of Trent – But when the Apostle says that man is justified by faith and freely, [Rom 3:24, 5:1] these words are to be understood in that sense in which the uninterrupted unanimity of the Catholic Church has held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God [Heb 11:6] and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and 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. For, if by grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the Apostle says, grace is no more grace. [Rom 11:6]
That bears repeating: None of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification!
Some well-known Catholic saints lived at this time. What were they saying?
St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) It is by the merits of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that I hope to be saved.
St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622) He leaves us for our part all the merit and profit of our services and good works, and we again leave Him all the honor and praise thereof, acknowledging that the commencement, the progress and the end of all the good we do depends on His mercy by which He has come unto us and prevented us, has come into us and assisted us, has come with us and conducted us, finishing what He has begun.
He repairs all, modifies and vivifies; loves in the heart, hears in the mind, sees in the eyes, speaks in the tongue; does all in all, and then it is not we who live, but Jesus Christ who lives in us.
That could be a Protestant preacher talking! But St. John of the Cross was a Catholic mystic, and St. Francis de Sales was a Catholic bishop who, by God’s grace, brought some 70,000 converts to Protestantism back into the Catholic fold! Could it be that those reverts realized how wrong they had been about actual Catholic teaching on justification?
If the Catholic Church taught “salvation through works,” the saints of the 17th, the 18th and the 19th centuries seem not to have realized it:
St. Rose of Lima (1586-1617) Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.
St. Claude de la Colombiere (1641-1682) It is yours to do all, divine Heart of Jesus Christ. You alone will have all the glory of my sanctification if I become holy. That seems to me clearer than the day.
St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716 ) Pray with great confidence, with confidence based upon the goodness and infinite generosity of God and upon the promises of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775) I hope that God will save me through the merits of the Passion of Jesus. The more difficulties in life, the more I hope in God. By God’s grace I will not lose my soul, but I hope in His mercy.
St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696- 1787) And when the enemy represents to us our weakness, let us say with the Apostle: I can do all things in Him who strengthens me. Of myself I can do nothing, but I trust in God, that, by His grace I shall be able to do all things.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church: for if faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true Faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God Himself.
St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) 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 stained in Your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in Your own Justice and to receive from Your Love the eternal possession of Yourself. I want no other Throne, no other Crown but You, my Beloved!
This all seems a far cry from the perception of Catholics trying to earn Heaven through worthless good works, with no reliance on faith or trust in Christ’s blood. It seems to be a continuous stream of reliance on grace and faith in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The 20th-century saints speak:
St. Edith Stein (1891-1942) His blood is the curtain through which we enter into the Holiest of Holies, the Divine Life. In baptism and in the sacrament of reconciliation, His blood cleanses us of our sins, opens our eyes to eternal light, our ears to hearing God’s word.
St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938) I fly to Your mercy, Compassionate God, who alone are good. Although my misery is great, and my offences are many, I trust in Your mercy, because You are the God of mercy; and from time immemorial, it has never been heard of, nor do heaven or earth remember, that a soul trusting in Your mercy has been disappointed.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) Keep the light of faith ever burning, for Jesus alone is the Way that leads to the Father. He alone is the Life dwelling in our hearts. He alone is the Light that enlightens the darkness.
“Catholics sure have changed their tune!” is what a lot of folks claim when they read comments like the following from Pope Benedict:
Benedict XVI (1927- ) “Luther’s expression ‘by faith alone’ is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love.”
“Paul knows that in the double love of God and neighbor the whole law is fulfilled. Thus the whole law is observed in communion with Christ, in faith that creates charity. We are just when we enter into communion with Christ, who is love.”
You see, this is no capitulation to Protestant doctrine – it’s just the Catholic Church teaching what’s she’s taught all along. If by “faith” you mean “faith that creates charity,” then you understand the subject of justification the way the Council of Trent proclaimed it – faith without works is dead.
Realize, please, that the above-quoted individuals (Benedict XVI excepted – for now) aren’t just anybody; they are saints and blesseds. This means that the Catholic Church has set them up on a pedestal with a flashing neon sign proclaiming, “Pay attention to this person! Imitate her life! Listen to what he said!” Kind of counter-productive if the Church has secretly been cherishing the works-righteousness heresy all these centuries….
But as a Protestant, I didn’t know any of this, basically because I didn’t bother to do research on the subject. Prevailing Protestant wisdom was good enough for me. Little did I realize that Catholic doctrine cannot change!
Next time we’ll examine the prevailing Protestant wisdom on the subject of the Catholic Church and the Bible.
On the memorial of St. Robert Bellarmine
Deo omnis gloria!