Last time I spent a bunch of time critiquing a Protestant author’s understanding of Catholic theology. There were two fundamental problems: 1) the author is operating under a mistaken conception of what the Catholic Church teaches, and 2) since there is no attempt to define terms (on either side), most criticisms turn out to be directed against straw men.
I mentioned that I was frustrated because of the lack of defined terms, and also because of the lack of citations. It wouldn’t be so bad if the author was honestly trying to understand the Catholic position, but if you’re going to straight up claim that something isn’t a true church (“At the moment the Roman Catholic Church condemned the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, she denied the gospel and ceased to be a legitimate church, regardless of all the rest of her affirmations of Christian orthodoxy.”), then you’d better have at least some footnotes or something to show where you’re getting these ideas.
So there are a couple of issues happening here: confusion about terms, and a certain amount of confusion about some underlying principles of logic.
The first underlying principle is a common meme among Protestant converts to Catholicism: “either/or” versus “both/and.” In many instances, Protestant theology tries to make hard distinctions between various things, forcing them into “either/or” positions against each other. In contrast, Catholic thought is much more likely to utilize a “both/and” understanding of various concepts. To wit, I present a quote from this Protestant author:
The fundamental issue is this: is the basis by which I am justified a righteousness that is my own? Or is it a righteousness that is, as Luther said, “an alien righteousness,” a righteousness that is extra nos, apart from us—the righteousness of another, namely, the righteousness of Christ?
The Protestant says, “There must be only one kind of righteousness: righteousness of my own, or the righteousness of Christ. Since I cannot merit salvation myself, then it must only be Christ’s righteousness.” The Catholic looks at the same scenario and says, “On my own, I have no righteousness. Christ has righteousness, which He then gives to me, so that I, too, have righteousness.”
You will notice that in neither case does the person claim to have earned or merited the righteousness themselves, but the Catholic sees righteousness as a thing that God truly gives to us, that changes us and makes us righteous, whereas the Protestant seems to claim that while God is willing to impute Christ’s righteousness to us, He doesn’t see any reason to actually change us, to make us righteous ourselves. See? Either/Or vs. Both/And
…Which leads into the next issue, the divergence in term definition. I’ll start with the Protestant version, because that’s the one I learned first (caveat: I was raised non-denominational, evangelical, fundamentalist, etc. I recognize that other Protestants have different understandings, but mine matches fairly closely to the article in question.)
In Protestant thought, “justification” and “sanctification” means different things.
I was going to try to explain this, but I couldn’t verbalize my thoughts clearly, so I’m going to use a metaphor, okay? Basically, in our fallen state, we’re like criminals in prison. We’ve done bad things, and have been convicted of those bad things we did. We got what we deserved, and there’s no way we can escape the prison ourselves. Justification is a one-time event, when God gives us a full pardon. We didn’t earn it, but God just lets us walk right out of the prison, even though we are still, objectively, guilty. Sanctification is a separate process, that is seen to begin at the same time justification occurs, but that takes time. Sanctification is like rehabilitation: after we get out of the prison, God works with us to gradually make us holy, so that we won’t keep doing the things that get us thrown in prison in the first place.
In Catholic theology, justification and sanctification are used interchangeably, based on the usage in the New Testament. To the Catholic mind, it is impossible to be sanctified (made holy) without being justified (receiving the merit of Christ’s work), and it’s impossible to receive the merits of Christ’s work without those merits making you holy. They occur simultaneously, relying on and supporting each other, like a man walking on two legs. For a Catholic, the thought that God could justify you without sanctifying you is a contradiction in terms, a logical impossibility.
Now, this is where the differences in these particular definitions gets difficult. Ever since the Protestant reformers started preaching “justification by faith alone,” they’ve struggled to parse how one could become right with God and still live in blatant, unrepentant sin. It’s something that offends common sense, as well as Scripture, but according to faith alone, the only important thing is intellectual assent to the truth of God, regardless of repentance and becoming actually holy. Here’s the important thing: most Protestants, despite how they may parrot what they’ve been taught, don’t actually believe this. They are steeped in Scripture, and they KNOW that true Christianity involves an actual change of life, that God actually changes the people who follow Him, that striving to become holy is part of the real Christian life. But they’ve been told that “sola fide” is the foundation of their faith, so they suppress the cognitive dissonance. In real life, they act according to the Bible: that faith, hope, and charity are all necessary parts of the true believer’s life.
Sometimes, when you press them, Protestants will try to resolve the conflict by defining faith as “intellectual assent that is lived out in works that are empowered by God.” And the Catholic Church has agreed that, if you define faith this way, then to say “by faith alone” would be correct.
But the terminology that the Catholic Church uses separates faith (intellectual assent to the truth that God has revealed), hope (trust in the sufficiency of Christ to bring us to salvation), and charity (the active working out of love for God and neighbor), as all necessary to the Christian walk, and all three as what God gives to us in justification/sanctification.
This is an area where the great divergence of Protestant thought makes discussion difficult: some Protestants will buckle down on “faith alone,” and claim that as long as intellectual assent is present, nothing else is required: one could live in gross violation of every moral code, but as long as one claimed to “believe,” then one is justified before God, and is heaven-bound. Other Protestants will say that such a person is not genuinely saved, otherwise the sanctification process would have started, and the person would show signs of a regenerate life. Catholics have more options to work with: the person could either 1) never have been saved at all, or 2) have been saved, but exercised his free will in a direction that took him away from God, and is no longer saved.
If I have made this clear enough, hopefully you’ll be able to see the overlap in the Catholic and Protestant positions.
Again, I’m not claiming that there aren’t significant differences between certain Catholic and Protestant positions, but some are a lot closer than Protestants, at least, have been led to think.