Justification (Part V) – Also, its Relevance for the Synod on the Family

Now that we have laid out some of the basics, we need to dig a little deeper regarding justification. We need to ask the question “Why?” Why did Luther hold what he held? Of course there are many reasons. We can only offer some.

The usual narrative that he presents is that he had tried to do everything right as a Catholic monk. But nothing was good enough. The Law was too much to bear. He fasted, prayed, kept vigil, etc. But he still was sinning. He still did not feel God’s love. Trying to “earn” God’s love was futile. Suddenly, he discovered what he took to be the real meaning of “the righteousness of God”. This sudden experience is referred to as his “tower experience”. It has recently come under question just what and how influential this event was. At any rate, that is the usual narrative. And it rings with many Protestants. They consider that Catholics are guilt-ridden servants of the Law. Whereas God wants free sons who approach him in love.

Another reason for Luther’s position can be found in his own writings. We see, especially in the early Luther (1515-1521) a deep desire to love God for his own sake. He held as ideal a love of God which excluded every motive for his own gain. We see something resembling this (I do not say identical) with the great saints. Thus, this core desire had something deeply correct about it.

And something deeply flawed. Quite flawed. And that is the root of the trouble.

Luther thought that true love of God required the absolute absence of self-interest. Therefore, any motive other than perfect love of God for his own sake spoiled true love of God and was imperfect. And here is the second flaw: Any imperfection in the moral order is sin. And the third flaw: Every sin is a mortal sin. Thus, Luther conceived the law of love as exacting a love practically impossible for mortal man. It echoes of a certain voice long ago, which asked us in Eve, “Did God say that you cannot eat of any of these tasty trees? Is he that kind of a Master? They do look good to eat.”

Confusion concerning the content of the law. This was the root of Luther’s problem. Add to that a pessimistic theory of what man can accomplish, and you get a nearly impossible situation. Thus, it is as though he thought, “The Law is impossible of obedience. There must be some way to God that totally excludes any condition of Law. There must be some way by which God will not issue the Law, or count the Law, or count transgressions. That must be the way. That must be what “righteousness of God” means. It must mean that God will justify us by faith alone and save us by faith alone, regardless of what we do or do not do. Faith is the only criterion. Faith merely as trust in God’s promise. That is all that he requires. And he gives what he requires. Well, then, once God has given us all good, we do not need to labor to get it. What should we do then? Give gratitude to God. We should love him. Love neighbor. And none of this counts for heaven. It is all totally free. It is our pure gift to God. That is how God creates true lovers. If he ignores all their faults, then everything they actually do, they do out of free love. Therefore, God has found his true lovers.” So, Luther.

This was Luther’s solution to the problem he say. It was his “tower” experience. From despair to presumption. I will unpack what this means in the post to come. After that, I will show that how it fails to work on its own terms.

But before closing, we should contrast Luther’s understanding with the Catholic understanding, implicit in the Prayer for the Memorial of St. Patrick today: “O God, Who didst send forth thy Blessed Confessor and Bishop Patrick to preach thy glory among the Gentiles, mercifully grant unto us, for his sake and at his petition, whatsoever Thou commandest us to do, to have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same.” For the conviction of the Church is that God does not command what is impossible to do, since He providentially bestows the sufficient grace for salvation.

Sufficient grace. Sufficient grace. Sufficient grace. For holy, holy, holy is the Lord who works to make man holy. Sufficient grace! This is the ingredient to which the Synod on the Family must pay heed, what it must praise, what it must proclaim to the nations. God gives us his grace! He commands not the impossible. No burden to heavy for him to lift in your heart. For when he lifts this burden, not by denying the burden, denying the Cross but by enabling you to bear it, when he lifts it, the Law of God is fulfilled in us (Rom 8) so that we can now walk in the Spirit, not in the flesh. For life according to the flesh is sin, and the end of sin is eternal death; whereas life according to the Spirit is sanctification, and its end is eternal life (Rom 6). Mortal man has not the power to proclaim that sin is not sin. And mortal man ought not indirectly imply that sin is no longer sin.

What then, about the Synod? Let us not despair of God’s grace! Two roads of despair: a “faith alone” doctrine of justification, and a re-writing of the Law a-la liberalism. Both roads are false. Neither road leads to life. For the roads that lead to perdition are broad, and many choose them. But the road that leads to life is hard, and few find it. But there is one who can enable us to bear his burden sweetly, who addresses us with forgiveness, if we let him enter our hearts. Let us then hope on God. This was John Paul II’s tireless message in Veritatis splendor, par. 112:

“In fact, while the behavioural sciences, like all experimental sciences, develop an empirical and statistical concept of “normality”, faith teaches that this normality itself bears the traces of a fall from man’s original situation — in other words, it is affected by sin. Only Christian faith points out to man the way to return to “the beginning” (cf. Mt 19:8), a way which is often quite different from that of empirical normality. Hence the behavioural sciences, despite the great value of the information which they provide, cannot be considered decisive indications of moral norms. It is the Gospel which reveals the full truth about man and his moral journey, and thus enlightens and admonishes sinners; it proclaims to them God’s mercy, which is constantly at work to preserve them both from despair at their inability fully to know and keep God’s law and from the presumption that they can be saved without merit. God also reminds sinners of the joy of forgiveness, which alone grants the strength to see in the moral law a liberating truth, a grace-filled source of hope, a path of life.”

Deliberately did John Paul II refer to Mt 19. The very text on the abolition of divorce. Divorce is a pure chimera, a phantom of man’s imagination. As is bigamy. Therefore, there can be no recognition of “remarriage” in the face of a first marriage.

Let us follow John Paul’s courageous hope. Be not afraid, ye Christians. O sacred pastors, from whose hands we feed, please, be not afraid. Be not afraid. We all know: Man must not water down the Law, directly or indirectly, so as to save man. Such would be rebellion. (Directly, i.e., presuming to change the Law. Indirectly, i.e., changing crucial practices that announce the Law, crucial practices that indicate an objective compass for the lost, crucial practices that are part and parcel of an embodied existence, crucial practices part and parcel of an incarnational ecomony of salvation, crucial practices the denial of which would be Gnosticism! For by changes of such crucial practices, the Law would cease to be announced; even its opposite would become the impression in the heart of man. By such changes the objective compass would be obscured, and one would readily pronounce innocent those engaging objectively evil acts. Thus would be endorsed a Gnostic Morality: Appearances deceive, the body lies, it is the mind alone that matters, the interior alone that matters.) An indirect change of doctrine would be its own form of presumptuous Pelagianism. For it would be man trying to make it so that man is saved. It would be salvation by the work of merely human hands. But man cannot save man. Only God can save man. Thus, to tinker with the Law, directly or indirectly, bespeaks the presumption that man can save. This is totally false. This would be deception. We must trust not in horses, much less in a Change in the Law.

Is it not a worse thing for man not even to know of the sin he commits than to weep endlessly for mercy from God? Of course, at all times, he can know that sin is sin, for it is of this that his own heart speaks (Rom 1-2; Wis 11-13; Gaudium et spes). Yet, when voices seemingly pious cloud over this delicate speech of conscience, they steer a man astray. They crowd out the solid rule by which conscience acts. For the supreme rule of conscience is not the product of human engineering. It is not the product of some kind of “core energetics” by which I can “retool” the universal law of moral action. (That would be New Age Gnosticism.) The supreme rule springs forth from the Unchanging Being of God and directs man’s mind along the path he should trod.

Yes, sufficient grace is the answer which the Catholic Church herself proclaims through the ages. God has not left us orphans. Let us not think that he would. So, let no one falsely tickle ears with an attempt at an indirect, much less direct, change in Law. For if someone close to us is living by standards of Ba’al, even unknowingly, our answer is not to deny that these standards are Ba’al’s. Our answer is spending the time in ministerial love, the way the good Samaritan did, so that the sick and beaten can make it to the hospital (= Church), receive the anointing balm (= Reconciliation), and thus begin to eat (= Eucharist), and thus begin to recover that vigor ravaged by sin. Let us be servants taking people to the hospital of life. Triage does not mean bypassing objective moral discernment. It means precisely issuing this in the proper order. But in this proper order, we must remember that health is not produced by a declaration of health. For mere declarations, “You are ok; it is not a sin” accomplish nothing but confusion and pain. For if I am lying wounded in the field and told, “You are not wounded,” I wait with my wound and wail. The declaration was false and did not lead to life.

The hospital is the Church and her sacraments. And these are dispensed to “adults”. Even six year old “adults”. Yes. To free human beings. Who make consciously determinate choices. And know of them. Who take responsibility for them, regrettably or no. For our audience is not infants. Our audience is adults. Let us respect them. Let us honor their freedom, their dignity. All the while, let us speak sweetly of the Savior. And not omit his Law. For: No Law, No Savior. “I came not to call the righteous” that is, “not to call those who call themselves or are called by others, falsely, already righteous”. For he came for what Luther called – so rightly! – “real sinners” not “sham sinners”. (I like that line.)  An attempt to change the Law, directly or indirectly, — should we think this through earnestly — would also be deeply offensive to Lutheran – Catholic ecumenical dialogue. For it would represent a strategy of salvation opposite the Incarnation.

All pastoral directives must take their cue from this truth of faith. If we cloud it over by attempting to change law or practice, we tell the sinner, “You are not capable of action. You are infantile. We must protect you from your infancy. Nor does it seem — if we measure you as an instance of a statistical frequency gathered by the sociologists of the day — that God will help you bear that burden. Yes, if you are another instance of a statistic (!), then you will probably never be helped so as to bear your responsibility well. Well, then, … God did not say, “Do not eat of the tree of knowledge.” That was a mis-impression. I am clearing that up for you. Rest. Rest. Rest. You are immaculate.” Manifestly opposite the salutary Angelic Cry: Penance! Penance! Penance! Is this whitewashing of the tombs not the other extreme in the perils opposite the Catholic truth? Yes, justification sola fide is one extreme error. The liberal annihilation of law is the other, and a worse perversion. For this latter is the antithesis of the very foundation of all religion.

On that — Read Newman, Grammar, chap. 10, on Natural Religion. What would Newman call such an attempt? An unholy alliance with religion of civilization, which so-called religion he decried as a banal falsity that utterly perverts man’s most native instincts regarding his well being and future.