I recently scanned a blog which regularly appears in my feed called “exCatholic4Christ” for the word “Orange.” This may sound quite strange – including to the author of that blog, who I am confident is reading – but I assure you, it is not.
I have had a few online exchanges with the author, a former Catholic turned rabid anti-institutional Christian, most of them to incredibly frustrating ends. He, like nearly all such men and women, beat, pound, stab, and ridicule a straw-man of the Catholic Church and Her teachings to a self-declared triumphant victory, often to the applause of a well-established echo-chamber which has an even worse understanding of the issues at hand. The lack of the relevant use of the word “Orange” anywhere in this man’s blog archive proves my point. Allow me to explain.
His favorite issue is “works.” His argument, which he reiterates ad nauseam (in literally almost every other post), is that salvation is not based on doing enough good works to earn (or “merit”) it. To the surprise of no regular readers of mine, I agree… Because this is the teaching of the Church. Remember, we baptize infants who do nothing other than breathe, eat, etc. – and yet the gates of Heaven are open wide… How less “worky” can you get than that? The child has done absolutely nothing but exist. (But I wonder if the blog author supports infant baptism… Hmm.) He and those like him want it both ways apparently – no works, and yet the need to do the work of an inward confession of faith – or even an outward confession of faith. Lest we forget, belief is an act of the will which moves the intellect to assent to a proposition whose referent is unseen… it is no less a work than prayer, or feeding the hungry, or healing the sick. Except we know that faith is an infused virtue, meaning, one that is given by God directly and not acquired by practice or natural effort. This virtue, however, can be resisted, which is sin, or it can be allowed to become active in one’s life by placing no obstacle before it, which is good. (The latter is what necessarily happens with infants who are baptized, as they can place no obstacle before an infused virtue or any grace. They have the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, but they just can’t really actively use them on account of their feeble minds.) And of course, any work which is actually meritorious, is a work which is powered by and completed through the working of interior grace. Meanwhile, unrepentant murderers, adulterers, thieves, etc. who happen to believe in the Resurrection (etc.), may indeed have the virtue of faith, but they will go to Hell because they do not love God with charity, the greatest virtue which “binds the rest together.”
But let’s hold on to that thought and return to the word “Orange.”
To comment on the Catholic Church’s teaching on grace and works, one must have read and understood the declarations of the Second Council of Orange (among other sources). Consider that Second Orange was called to deal with the teaching of later followers of Pelagius – the one who said that we can merit salvation without the help of grace… The doctrine had been refined to “semi-Pelagianism,” which still held that the first grace could be earned by our natural powers. This is an extremely attractive position. After all, if we don’t – or even worse, can’t – earn salvation through what we are born with, how else would God’s creative and salvific action be fair? How can we really be free if we are unable to choose the good on our own? Wouldn’t that mean that the Commandments are cruel taunts of an evil god who created some people just so that He could send them to Hell? What would human action even be for at all in such a paradigm? These are the questions at the center of the debate, and they are not easily answered, including from Scripture. (For instance – are we speaking here of Christ knocking on the door, or are we ourselves knocking on the door? See Matthew 7:7 vs. Revelation 3:20… The Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians certainly had strong Scriptural arguments at their disposal. Debates such as this help prove the inadequacy of “sola scriptura” – see my post on that topic here.) Anyway, shall we take a look at a few of the canons of Second Orange? The few readers interested enough can go compare these with his rather wild, tedious, and repetitive accusations that the Catholic Church is guilty of what amounts to a legalistic Pelagianism…
“If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).”
“If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).”
“God loves us for what we shall be by his gift, and not by our own deserving.”
Does this sound Pelagian or legalistic to you?
Anyone wishing to study in detail this issue will find plenty of information (and further references) in the commentary on grace by my own university’s most prestigious professor emeritus, the late Fr. Reginal Garrigou-Lagrange: here. The topic is not at all simple, because the human soul is not simple to begin with, and sin has only complicated it. Add to this the transcendence and inscrutability of God’s inner judgments about how to dispense grace, and we are off to the races.
To simplify these things (and almost every other issue in theology and law), which heresy invariably does, is to ignore the reality of competing truths: human freedom (and the ability to choose what is truly good), and human corruption and weakness (due to the Fall from the original state of Adam in Eden). The many heresies on grace and works basically sacrifice one for the sake of the other. Protestants basically choose human corruption over human freedom. The call to “be free” is actually a call to resign to one’s inability to do good – which is to lead one to resist sufficient grace.
The cruelest particular error which the Protestant heresy brings to the world is that the Commandments are impossible to follow, and thus they are not required for salvation. Apparently, the New Testament is speaking in vain with practically every other line – or God has set up a wicked game where we are forced to do evil which we will be punished for unless we just happen to believe (which is itself something that we do, lest we forget) that Jesus rose from the dead (and other items which, in this case, derive from no symbol or creed in particular – and all of which the demons also believe and tremble at and thereby profit nothing). If we don’t actually have to love our enemy, if we don’t actually have to refrain from anger, if we don’t actually have to forgive others, if we don’t actually have to give thanks to God, if we don’t actually have to… well, you get the idea. Half of the sense of the New Testament is precisely that we do indeed have the grace available to us to follow the Commandments, and thus if we should fail and not earnestly seek God’s forgiveness after failure, we condemn ourselves by choosing that sin over the love of God. We can, however, do much more than simply avoid grievously offending our greatest Friend – we can live the Beatitudes. We can live a common life of poverty. We can enter into a radical relationship of obedience, destroying our own will so as to serve God better. We can forego marriage so that we are freer for the love of God and His work. These things were preached by the Savior and the Apostles, and they are also practiced to great effect in our own day. One ought especially see the Lord’s interaction with the Rich Young Man (a story present in all the synoptic Gospels)… “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is, of course, to follow the Commandments, the most basic rules of charity and justice (a theme which is reiterated in the Epistolary tradition which follows, especially in the Johannine corpus). But, if objective perfection is sought, and in the case of the Rich Young Man it was possible (or else Christ would not have offered the special invitation to “follow,”) then greater freedom from the world is necessary… Perhaps the Rich Young Man made it to Heaven. But how much greater would his harvest have been, how much more fruit would he have borne, how much heavier would have been his glory, if he had sold his property and joined up with the Twelve? Apparently, none, according to the ethic I am here critiquing, even though this is confirmed in Christ’s assurance to the Twelve that those who have left social and material wealth will receive a hundred times more than those who have not, as He does in Matthew 19. The Rich Young Man was just “saved” or “not saved,” depending on his subsequent faith in the Resurrection and – I guess his belief in the supreme authority of the Bible, a book which would not exist for quite a while. The prescription to follow the Commandments was unnecessary, and the invitation to follow more closely in a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience was even more unnecessary. The words of the Lord, then, were quite in vain. How asinine a position. If the 10 Commandments were impossible to follow, they would be the 10 Suggestions. In truth, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are “Suggestions.”
For some verses which stress the importance of “works” (as in not committing grievous sins which reject God’s love in such a way that we destroy our friendship – our charity – with Him, depriving ourselves of a “trajectory” toward Heaven, which is the consummation of that friendship), one might begin with: Gal 5:6, 6:6-10; Phil 2:12; 1 Cor 6: 9-10, 13:2 (ESPECIALLY THIS ONE!); 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:6-10, 13, 3:31; Mt 25:32-46; Rev 20:12; 1 Jn 2:3-4; 1 Jn 3:24; 1 Jn 5:3… But pretty much, turn to any page of the New Testament, and you will see God telling us: “You need to LOVE as I have instructed, or you will lose your soul to Hell!” Love is the greatest commandment… Love God, love neighbor. The thought that what the law and the prophets are built upon, and which Christ gives as a “new commandment” (“love one another as I have loved you” Jn 13:34), is just icing on the proverbial cake, is quite blasphemous. It makes God into a vain talker at best, and a liar at worst.
Salvation is not about doing enough good works to earn it… but it is about loving God, which is His own life operating within us. When we act contrary to the letter or spirit of the Commandments, we remove that life, even though we might retain faith.
But does faith just mean loving God? Doesn’t a believer do good works just because they are good to do on account of how we have been loved by God? Perhaps some people operate this way. (Atheists often say something similar, and they will claim moral superiority by it… Strange, huh?) Faith, as it is strictly understood, is not the same as doing everything such belief would urge one toward doing. In a broad sense, the sense of total fidelity, faith does imply action based on the love of God. But if we insist on the latter meaning, then we end up with an absurdity: anyone who sins can’t possibly have faith. After all, if one really believes that it is best to follow the Commandments and love God with one’s whole heart, mind, and soul, how could that person ever do something wicked? It’s simple: we allow ourselves to be blinded to the truth from moment to moment through spiritual distraction. (It is this reality of blindness which differentiates our actions from those of the angels, who are confirmed in glory or damnation immediately upon their first action, good or bad – we can come to see that we made a wrong decision, while an angel chooses with complete knowledge with the meaning of the choice in itself and also of the consequences.)
Canon law is another perpetual target on the blog. One of the most recent posts details the supposed “dilemma” with which Catholics are faced by the overlapping of Ash Wednesday with Valentine’s Day – which I told the author would be a hilarious, bizarre, and irrelevant critique to any Catholic who heard it. What on Earth is complicated about this? We have a memorial of a saint which people in the West usually associate with romance, and we also have the beginning of Lent which requires fasting and abstinence for certain people, which are categories that can easily be checked.
But the problem with positive ecclesiastical law goes much deeper, I think. Why all the “extra” laws and rules? “Nobody could ever follow all of these rules! And so many just ignore them anyway!” That is just about the whole argument… Shall we unpack it?
The Church, as Christ’s Mystical Body, participates in His triple office of priest, prophet, and king. The first regards the authority to sanctify the people of God through the dispensation of grace through the sacraments. The second regards the authority to teach in God’s own Name and with His own authority, namely, infallibly. The third regards the authority to bind the people of God for the good of the order of the Church and the health of Her members. This third one is the source of ecclesiastical law. (“Ecclesiastical law” is a narrower term than “canon law,” as canon law also includes some Divine law. For example, it is canon law that baptism cannot be repeated – but this is a law directly from God, not a law from the Church’s own initiative.) Law is essentially about leading human beings to virtue, and canon law is no different. It also provides rules for what would otherwise be left to a chaotic soup of choices – just like we are told, “Drive on the right side of the road.”
The Church legislates positive and negative laws (“do this” and “don’t do that”) which do not exist in Scripture (or elsewhere in revelation) but which She does see as good for the whole or for the part. Fasting and abstinence laws, for example, are constructed to impose a minimal exercise of self-denial. Self-denial is a basic part of Christian life, and therefore, it is only fitting that the Church, as a caring Mother, would require at least a little bit from her members. Because of the serious and clear character of the obligation, it is a serious offense to dispense oneself for no good reason. Just as a natural parent can bind natural children, so too can the Church, a supernatural parent, bind Her supernatural children. And even though some kids don’t want to eat vegetables, or refuse to do their chores, or throw temper tantrums because they can’t play with their toys all the time, a good parent will make rules nonetheless which directly address these problems.
Ecclesiastical laws, however, and especially positive laws, certainly do not bind under every circumstance. (Not even Divine positive law always binds – thus was the Sabbath made for man, and not the other way around!) There are plenty of exceptions, and sufficient ignorance of ecclesiastical law can also excuse from guilt for breaking it.
I can hear the protesting now… “Silly human laws! Ha! So complicated! It’s impossible to figure out all those Catholic laws!” To which I respond – okay…? Any time there is a command and someone who seeks to follow that command, the command must necessarily be interpreted. As the issues which require the guiding hand of law grow more numerous, and the circumstances also increase in variety, the difficulty of interpretation will also rise. Look at civil laws… We certainly need those, right? And civil laws are always clear, yes? No. And that’s why the settling of certain difficult cases can “make law,” so to speak. But the fact is that Christ did not seek to establish an earthly kingdom, and so He left us to determine most temporal (and usually prudential) laws ourselves, both within the Church and in the civil sphere. (Where does the Bible tell us which side of the road to drive on? How long robbers deserve to be in prison? What a fair tax rate is? These kinds of questions exist within the Church’s governance and administration as well, like how to appoint someone as a pastor of a parish, for example…) The Apostles clearly thought that it was their responsibility to govern… To “bind and loose,” as it were. See Acts especially, but also the Pauline corpus. Why is there no complaint about Paul adding up laws on top of what Christ commanded?
“It’s Scripture,” goes the objection. But this does not change the fact that the Apostles actually gave laws which were temporal and prudential. We do not require women to cover their heads in churches today… Why? It’s commanded of the women in Corinth, after all, and it’s in the Bible, so why do we tolerate anything else if this is the only source of law? This is why the authority of the pope to “bind and loose,” and the Church’s extraordinary (and universal ordinary) magisterium to interpret Scripture infallibly, are so important, along with the authority of local bishops to govern the territory given to their care. If all we had was a big book written in ancient languages which we knew was free of error, we would have a much, much larger task on our hands than someone who has everything prepackaged in a codified law.
Furthermore, the vast majority of canon law is either intuitive (i.e. that clerics are the ordinary ministers of baptism), is easy to learn in a basic and practical way (i.e. consanguinity and affinity restrictions on marriage), or is pretty much irrelevant to the average layman at any given time (i.e. how to run a seminary).
The author also seems fascinated with Pope Francis, specifically, with the in-fighting surrounding Amoris. Close followers of this blog need no reminder of my position regarding the legal and moral aspects of the debate… I recounted my opinions in a series here, and there is really no meaningful update, other than to say that the appearance of the Buenos Aires document in the Acta does not meaningfully change the objective situation at all, though it certainly might have changed the prudential situation “on the ground.” I will not even bother to go further than that – those interested in the topic can comment on the series I wrote on the apologia of the document. Suffice it to say that his treatment is – no surprise – lacking in the necessary subtleties to be at all useful and therefore is not even worth critiquing. (I may, however, do a post eventually on my own take on the possibility of heresy in the Petrine office, looking at Bellarmine’s position and others’, careful to be sure to make the material-formal distinction, which is of course nowhere to be found in the author’s investigation of the subject.)
Okay. I could go on (and on and on and on!), but that is enough, as so much of his content is the same tune played on different strings, time and time again. I invite him, his fans, or other Protestants to tell me where I’m wrong and start an open and respectful discussion.