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
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
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
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
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.
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