Recently, a Protestant accused Roman Catholicism of being a salvation-through-works religion. I corrected the individual, and I sent out a number of tweets explaining the Church’s position. I have touched on this topic before in another post, but a refresher, and perhaps, more detail couldn’t hurt.
The Catholic Church repudiates the idea of sola fides, but neither does the Church believe that works alone save. Like St. James, the Church teaches that both faith and works are necessary. Allow me to first briefly discuss the idea of faith before discussing the idea of merit in Catholic theology. (Again, frequenters of our blog should already be familiar with much of this information.)
Catholics, like the Bible, recognize two different kinds of faith. The first is called fides fide informis. This is nothing more than an intellectual assent of the will. This is the faith James refers to. It is not a saving faith. The demons possess fides fide informis, and yet, they are still in hell. Why? Because this type of faith lacks a very important element. The demons know God, but they do not love Him.
That is where fides formata caritate comes in. This type of faith is mentioned by St. Paul in Galatians 5. This is a faith “working through love”. Fides formata caritate is a saving faith because it has what fides fide informis lacks…love.
As I have stated before, a real love is always active. True love can not be passive. God is the perfect example. God loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for us. (Jn. 3:16) God didn’t merely say He loved us, but He showed us. Love is active. We must do the same.
This is why the claim that good works are merely a sign of a living faith (like a pulse is a sign of a living body) is false. Good works are actually the life of faith. Without a heartbeat, the body is dead. The heart beating is the life of the body. Good works are actually the life of faith. Without them our faith is merely an assent of the will, and we lack love of God.
The question now arises, however, how do Catholics believe we get to heaven if not by faith alone? In Scripture, heaven is repeatedly referred to (or alluded to) as a reward. Heaven is not ours by right. Humanity lost that right when Adam and Eve sinned. Strictly-speaking, heaven was never a right. Adam and Eve were created pure, sinless, in the state of grace. This meant that they could go to heaven when their time on Earth was over (without us experiencing death). But Adam and Eve sinned before this was accomplished. Hence, sin and death entered the world; and we were now forced to merit heaven as a reward for dying in the state of grace. But how do sinful humans merit heaven?
In Catholic theology there are three kinds of merit. These are strict merit, condine merit, and congruent merit. When Protestants object to the idea of meriting heaven they usually do so because they typically only recognize strict merit. They say that humans can not directly merit grace. This objection is correct, and Protestants might be happy to know that the Catholic Church agrees!
Humans can not, strictly-speaking, merit anything. Even the Blessed Virgin Mary, the pinnacle of creation, can not strictly merit. Only God (including, of course, Jesus Christ) can strictly merit grace. All other graces are earned by being united with the suffering of Jesus Christ, and the grace He earned on the cross. We even need grace to desire to do good works.
Humans can only indirectly earn grace. This is done in two ways. The first way is by doing something that God has promised us a reward for doing. One example is celebrating the Eucharist, and receiving it at Holy Communion. In John 6 Jesus promised eternal life for anyone who eats His body and blood. This is called condine merit.
The second way to merit grace is by performing an action that has no promise attached to it, but which pleases God, and He decides to reward us for the action. A great example of this is fasting. There is no promise of reward for fasting, but God is clear that such an act pleases Him, if done in the right way, and for the right reasons. This is congruent merit.
So we see that the Catholic belief in good works is not what it may appear to be at first glance. Catholics do not believe we can merit anything on our own. We can only merit grace when we unite ourselves with the Passion and death of Jesus Christ. We also do not believe that works alone save us. Faith is absolutely necessary, but a saving faith will include love. We can believe in God without loving Him. But to truly love Him is to serve Him. As Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven shall enter in.” (Mt. 7:21. See also Mt. 12:50.)
This is not to say that believers in Jesus will be sinless. We are still a part of a fallen race, and we still have a wounded, fallen nature. What it does mean is that, if we truly love God, He will give us the grace necessary to do His will, and merit heaven through His grace. Let us rejoice in having such a great God! Let us also rejoice in this wonderful truth taught by the church God Himself founded…the Catholic Church!
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity