God’s will for you, in two quotations

Christians of every stripe (and especially Protestants, and I do not mean this as a criticism at all) want to know God’s will for their lives, so that they can do it. This is a perfectly rational question for those who love God, but the answer to the question is often (dare I say normally) pretty hard to see when it comes to everyday life questions. Here are a couple takes on the subject from two great men, and from completely different angles.

Our first sage is unsurprisingly this blog’s eponym, St. Thomas Aquinas. In this passage from the Summa Theologiae he responds to the objection that we cannot know God’s will in every case (and therefore do not need to seek to do His will at all):

We can know in a general way what God wills. For we know that whatever God wills, He wills it under the aspect of good. Consequently whoever wills a thing under any aspect of good, has a will conformed to the Divine will, as to the reason of the thing willed. But we know not what God wills in particular: and in this respect we are not bound to conform our will to the Divine will. (ST I-II q.19 a.10 ad 1; emphasis added)

So by the Common Doctor’s reckoning, we do not know God’s will concerning specifics (presuming here that it is not an obvious question related to keeping the Ten Commandments or something like that), and so we are not bound to try to do something that is impossible for us. God does not normally reveal His specific will to us, so it is sufficient that our reason for doing the thing must be conformed to the good as best we can tell.

Please note: this is not an excuse to do things that we know are evil because we intend good from them. The end does not ever justify the means! It does however mean that the better we know God’s general will, and the better we know Him, the better we are able to love Him and the better we will discern the good that pleases Him. And this seems like a pleasant place to turn our attention to our second author, Thomas Merton, who prayed this:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude; emphasis added)

See how nicely this dovetails with what Aquinas said above? And Merton is exactly right: we do not really know ourselves, so it is really absurd for us to think that we know exactly what God wants us to do at every turn in the road. But when we want to please God, He is pleased with us, and if we seek to please Him in all things, then we may with Merton pray that He will guide us and trust Him to do so.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. (§837)

Charity is love of God and love of our neighbor out of love for God. Is it not perfectly reasonable to say that a man who does not love God will not be saved? Of faith, hope, and charity St. Paul says that the greatest is charity. We are not saved without faith, to be sure, but how can we be saved without love for God? Is that not just plain ridiculous? And since Jesus says (John 14:15) that if we love Him we will keep His commandments, and since the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor, is it not equally ridiculous to say that the man who hates his neighbor will still go to heaven? Because he shows that he does not love Jesus by that hatred of his neighbor.

Another absurdity comes to us from the Baltimore Catechism:

305 Q. Is prayer necessary to salvation? A. Prayer is necessary to salvation, and without it no one having the use of reason can be saved. (Source)

Again, if we love God, will we not talk to Him? How crazy is it to suggest that I love someone that I refuse to speak with? How do we show we love God by failing to pray?

Loving God and praying to Him are necessary for our salvation. To say otherwise (as some folks might) is nonsense.

Catholic Sola Fide

Catholic Sola Fide

Throughout my series of posts laying out scriptural difficulties with sola fide, I have tried to be careful to frame it as the Protestant view of sola fide. There are two reasons for this. First, it is rather more famously associated with Protestantism, but more importantly because there is a Catholic view of sola fide as well. So it is not that the Protestant holds to a doctrine that is purely mythic but rather that he holds to an erroneous view of it. In this post my aim is to sketch the Catholic view, therewith concluding (for the most part, I reckon) this series.

Perhaps some Protestants will be surprised that the Catholic view of the doctrine is taught by the Council of Trent, which many of them consider a den of villainy. They do so wrongly. :-) In the Council’s Decree on Justification the eighth chapter is devoted to justification by faith:

But whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith, and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we be therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons; but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, then is it no more by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle saith, grace is no more grace. (emphasis in original)

In other words: God gives us the grace of faith, and does so freely (not because we in any way merit it), and by that faith we are justified “because faith is … the root of all justification;” we can neither merit the grace by which we have exercised faith nor merit justification itself in any way whatsoever. This construction is consistent with chapter VII of Trent, which enumerates the causes of our justification: none of them are in any way a consequence of human merit. But this is not all.

Not only have Protestants misrepresented Trent (and the Catholic Church)’s teaching on justification, but they have redefined the crucial term of faith itself, so that it represents a fiduciary sort of trust in God. On the other hand the Church has always taught that faith is “belief in God and … all that He has revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief” (CCC §1842). Of course one must trust God because He is infinitely trustworthy, but that is not the primary sense of faith as the Church has always taught. This is an issue that the Council of Trent addresses in chapter IX of the Decree on Justification:

[It is] not to be said that sins are forgiven, or have been forgiven, to any one who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of his sins, and rests on that alone … But neither is this to be asserted,—that it behoves them who are truly justified, without any doubting whatever, to settle within themselves that they are justified, and that no one is absolved from sins and justified, but he who for certain believes that he is absolved and justified; and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone; as though whosoever believeth not this, doubts respecting the promises of God, and the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ. … [N]o one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to mistake, that he has obtained the grace of God.

We are saved by Christ alone, not because we have confidence in the notion that we are saved. Such confidence can and does waver for many godly folk; are they lost, then saved, lost, and saved or lost again just because of this? How does this not reduce one’s salvation to a human exercise in the maintenance of confidence? And where in Scripture am I told that I personally am or am not one of God’s elect?

In short: there is a biblical, Catholic sense in which we are justified by faith alone. The Protestant version isn’t it.

No sola fide at the last judgment

Come Judgment Day we will be judged according to what we have done. This is perfectly in keeping with Jesus’s declaration, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).

I saw the dead, great and small alike, standing in front of his throne while the books lay open.  And another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged from what was written in the books, as their deeds deserved. The sea gave up all the dead who were in it; Death and Hades were emptied of the dead that were in them; and every one was judged as his deeds deserved. Then Death and Hades were hurled into the burning lake. This burning lake is the second death; and anybody whose name could not be found written in the book of life was hurled into the burning lake. (Revelation 20:12-15, NJB; emphasis added)

We will be judged according to our works. Faith is not mentioned here at all. What is interesting is that there appear to be two groups of people before the Throne: those whose names are written in the Book of Life and everyone else. If our names are not written in the Book of Life, we are hurled into the lake of fire. It appears from this that it’s just understood that we stand condemned if we are not in that great Book: our deeds will not have measured up. It seems that there is more going on here, though. It seems pretty clear that everyone’s deeds will be judged. That includes Christians.

We cannot rely on mere faith nor on mere deeds. We must love God and keep His commandments.

Unspoiled Religion

We are drawing near (at least for now) to the end of my series of posts addressing problems and difficulties with the Protestant doctrine of sola fide.

Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world. (James 1:27, NJB)

If sola fide were true as Protestants define it, one would expect that there would be some mention here of faith. There isn’t. Instead, the apostle’s concern is with how Christians ought to behave as the defining characteristic of Christianity. As always I hasten to add that this does not mean faith is irrelevant: we have too much evidence showing that it is necessary to say that. But we also have far too much evidence to say that the Protestant formulation of sola fide is correct.

How to see God

The letter to the Hebrews has this to say about seeing God.

Seek peace with all people, and the holiness without which no one can ever see the Lord. (12:14, NJB)

Without holiness no one can ever see God. This contradicts the Protestant view of sola fide, according to which one is justified by faith alone (and thereby goes to heaven). Of course, the previous chapter of Hebrews is famously devoted to the value and necessity of faith, and I do not mean to deny that, but there is a holiness which Christians (the addressees of the letter) must seek and without which they will not see God. The Protestant’s sola fide is insufficient; we must also live holy lives. Bear in mind: he is addressing Christians. Hence on the Protestant view there is nothing left to be done…and yet Hebrews says otherwise.

Hear and obey

Here is yet another occasion where the Lord’s discussion of our salvation omits any mention of the Protestant’s sola fide view:

If any one hears my sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me. (John 12:47-50, RSV2CE)

I am not exactly sure how one could read sola fide into this passage, since it deals expressly with obedience to Christ’s commandments (and consequently the Father’s). Jesus expects us to keep His commands if we are His people. We see the same themes in another passage in St. John’s gospel:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. … He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. … He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. (John 14:15, 21, 24, RSV2CE; emphasis added).

I am almost certainly repeating myself, but how credible is it to say that one who does not love God will be saved? But if we do not obey Him, then we do not love Him. There is no way around it: our love for our Savior is demonstrated by what we do. There is more at work here than mere sola fide.

It is also worth observing that once again we see the Reformed idea of “total depravity” is left in ruins by the words of our Lord: if there is literally no one who does good at all, then there can be no one who loves Jesus, and there is obviously a population of zero in heaven (outside of God Himself and His holy angels). Obedience is not a dirty word, and it is not irrational to suppose that God would give us commands the observance of which show our love for Him.

Sola Fide will be irrelevant on Judgment Day

Hear what the Lord Jesus says will happen on that Day:

Do not be surprised at this, for the hour is coming when the dead will leave their graves at the sound of his voice: those who did good will come forth to life; and those who did evil will come forth to judgement. (John 5:28-29, NJB; emphasis added)

No mention of faith here. None. On the contrary judgment will be based upon whether we have done good or evil in this life. As usual I hasten to add that it would be an argument from silence to suggest that faith is not needed, but it would be just plain silly to say that what we do is irrelevant. Jesus says the exact opposite here.

The other interesting thing here is that the Lord contradicts the Reformed doctrine of “total depravity,” according to which it is supposedly impossible for literally anyone to do good. But if this is true, then heaven will be empty (based upon what Jesus says above). But that is absurd. We can’t save ourselves, and we can’t get to heaven on our own, but that is very different from pretending that no one does good.

This is your brain on dogma

It is easy, perhaps, for a lay Catholic to become intimidated by the sheer volume of dogmatic truths to which we give our assent. The Catechism alone is over 800 pages! Toss in hundreds of pages of Ott and Denzinger and it is pretty easy for my brain to go into system overload. And what about the 3,000 pages of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae? What do we do? We say we assent to all this stuff, but there is no practical way that we will ever know all the dogmas proposed by the Church or revealed by God, and still less hope of us understanding it all.

Here is the really really good news: we don’t have to understand it all.

That’s not to say that dogma is unimportant. It is important because it is the truth. We assent to it because it is revealed by God or proposed for our belief by the Church that Christ founded. But God does not expect things of us which are genuinely beyond our abilities or which our circumstances make impossible for us. If the Catechism has not been translated into the language of some nation, it would be ridiculous to expect them to be accountable for literally everything in it. It can’t be done.

Again, this is not to say that dogma is unimportant. As I have said before, we cannot love what we do not know. So the more that we know and understand the truth, the better able we are to know and love God. This is something we should all want and strive after, and it is the major reason for the importance of catechesis for children and adults. So these truths are important for us to learn, but they are important for us to learn to the extent that we are able to do so. Children are not going to understand the Incarnation of Christ (lots of us grownups won’t, either!). But that is okay: they are not saved by knowledge. They are saved by Christ. We adults are saved by Christ too, of course. We are not saved by what we understand nor condemned by what we fail to understand. We exercise the theological virtue of faith, given to us by God, which empowers His people to assent to what He has revealed and to what the Church teaches as dogma. If we can, we should by all means seek to understand these truths to the best of our ability. But we hold to them as true by faith, because God is truth and because God has given the Church a charism of infallibility. This is faith seeking understanding. I think it was St. Anselm who said, “I believe in order that I may understand.” This should be our attitude. The contrary attitude—understanding seeking faith—is the attitude of humanism: it makes man the measure of the truth. It is as though we say, “I am not going to believe in [this or that dogma] unless I understand it.” But that attitude is the very contrary of faith! It is appointing ourselves as judges of the truth, rather than humbly receiving the truth from God just because it is God who says it.

So let us consider some practical examples. Years ago I read St. Thomas’ exposition of the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Summa Theologiae. There were a lot of whooshing sounds as his explanations whizzed over my head, to the point where I reached something of a crisis of faith. I did not understand what Aquinas was saying, and to the extent that I did understand it I did not agree with it. This was distressing to say the very least. But then I remembered what I said above: I do not have to understand it. I only have to believe it; I only need to assent to it as true because the Church teaches it as truth. Maybe someday I will comprehend the doctrine. Probably not, but maybe. :-) In the meantime, it is sufficient for me to believe it as true to the best of my ability.

Here is another example: Someone who is mentally handicapped. If a mentally handicapped person is required to know and understand literally all the truths taught by the Church, then there will not be a single mentally handicapped person in heaven. And that is just plain stupid. There is no sin in lacking the capacity to learn the dogmas of the truth.

The fact that we lack the capacity to grasp all the truths taught by the Church should not surprise us. For one thing, God is infinite and we are not. When we have exhausted ourselves learning all we can about Him, we will not even have begun to scratch the surface of all that may be known about Him. So there is a certain practical impossibility with the idea just to start with. Other people may lack opportunity to learn very much, either because they lack the leisure time and financial resources to do so, or because they speak a language for which ecclesial documents are still unavailable, or because they do not know how to read, or any other of a million reasons. We do the best we can. We seek to love and understand God the best that we can. That is sufficient. And if there are truths that we do not understand, or which we have never even heard of, it is not the end of the world so long as it is our sincere intent to believe all that God has revealed and all that the Church proposes for our belief.

Infallibility – Why it matters

The Catholic Church affirms that under certain conditions the Pope, the Bishops, and in a certain way the Church herself exercises a gift of infallibility. This is a stumbling block for most Protestants. Why is this dogma so important that the Church insists upon it despite the obvious difficulties it creates for ecumenical efforts with those who deny that ecclesial infallibility exists?

The Catechism explains it this way:

In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.” (CCC §889)

The purpose of Christ’s gift of infallibility to the Church is the preservation of the truths of the Faith.

Protestants will generally complain that this gift was not only not given but that it is unnecessary. Why? Because God gave us the Bible. The Bible, they say, is inerrant and consequently satisfies the needs that Catholics say are fulfilled by the gift of infallibility. For its part the Church says that the Bible by itself is insufficient. Here’s why.

The best way to look at this question may be with a parallel sort of example: The U.S. Constitution. Final interpretive authority for the Constitution has been vested in the Supreme Court. When there is a difference of opinion about the meaning of the Constitution, or of how (or whether) it applies in some case or other, the Supreme Court’s decisions about that meaning and application are final. Now, consider what would happen if there was no final interpretive authority for the Constitution.

The result seems entirely obvious: social (or at least judicial) chaos would ensue. If we didn’t have a Supreme Court, we would have to invent one so as to restore some kind of order in our communities. For example, we would have camps opposing and favoring private gun ownership, abortion, and dozens of other social and cultural issues, and with no way of finally settling the differences. Each group would appeal to the Constitution in defense of its views, but the absence of a final interpretive authority would make resolution impossible in at least some cases.

The point, of course, is that books and documents do not tell us their meanings themselves. They have to be interpreted. And unless there is a final, ultimate interpretive authority to settle the disagreements, the best that can be hoped for are attempts at consensus with varying degrees of success and accuracy.

And that is the point of the infallibility of the Church: to preserve the purity of the Faith through the ages, God was pleased to grant the gift of infallibility to the Church in certain circumstances. If we want to see what happens when that authority is denied, it is not hard to find. We need look no further than the plethora of Protestant ecclesial communities who cannot agree on what truths the Bible teaches as essential. We need the infallibility of the Church so that we can know objectively what truths God has revealed, and hold them firmly because we love Him and want to know Him better.