Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Vatican II on Justification: Lumen Gentium 14

Lumen Gentium is Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, presenting the Council’s teaching on (naturally) the Church. Chapter II is titled The People of God, and in §14 there we read this:

All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

We are not children of the Church, nor of God, on the basis of anything that we have done ourselves, nor because of any special qualities or traits that we have which others lack. On the contrary, this can only be attributed to “the special grace of Christ.” We cannot save ourselves; He must save us. But this does not mean that we are compelled against our wills into God’s kingdom; God has given us free will, and we must exercise it. If we reject God’s grace, then the judgment that we receive will be richly deserved.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Vatican II on Justification

Over the course of the last year or so, I’ve presented a series of posts on the subject of justification as it is presented by St. Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent. What we have seen is unambiguous: namely, that those who claim that the Catholic Church teaches a “works-based” gospel have either not read what the Church teaches, or have failed to understand it, or are outright lying. Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that the Catholic Church teaches that we are justified by works.

For the sake of a better semblance of completeness about the question, I’m going to take a few posts to review what Vatican II has to say that’s related to justification. Fortunately for my readers who are bored by this topic (!) I haven’t found much in the Council’s documents related to it. This makes sense, since Trent is eminently clear. However, there are a few brief passages here and there in Lumen Gentium that will confirm, unsurprisingly, that the Catholic Church teaches now what Trent taught, and what She has always taught.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

St. Augustine Pleads Ignorance

It should probably be said in St. Augustine’s defense that it seems likely (although I’m not in a position to demonstrate it) that what we shall see in this post is not a view that he held all his life. Nevertheless, just as St. Thomas may err concerning the Immaculate Conception, so too St. Augustine was only human. We may be certain that he no longer has any doubts about this question:

There are these four theories concerning the soul: [1] The soul comes from propagation. [2] The soul is created new in the case of every individual. [3] The soul exists elsewhere and is sent divinely into the body of a man at birth; or lastly [4] of its own will, it slips into bodies. We must not affirm any one of these rashly. Either the catholic commentaries on the divine Scriptures have not yet given this question the explanation and enlightenment that its obscurity and complexity deserve; or, if it has already been done, the book has not reached my hands. [On Free Choice of the Will, III.xxi, p. 133f]

Several thoughts come to mind. First, it is surprising to me at first glance that this might have been unclear to St. Augustine at any time in his Christian life, but maybe that’s being a bit too unfair. As a Protestant I learned that there were two theories about where the soul comes from, corresponding to the first two mentioned by St. Augustine above, but it was never exactly clear which of these one must hold (if it was even something that Protestants would consider that important). I guess I would never have imagined the question being as apparently difficult as Augustine does, but there you go: we stand on the shoulders of giants, right?

[For those who might not know, the Catholic Church teaches (§366) the second of Augustine’s theories; this is what St. Thomas taught, too]

Secondly, it’s worth noting that St. Augustine fully intends to submit to the teaching of the Catholic Church on this point. He has no intention of jumping to a view of his own apart from what the Church says. The problem he faced was one of ignorance: he didn’t know what the Church taught about it, but it seemed to him that if the Church hadn’t yet spoken on the subject, it should do so. St. Augustine, we see, was by no means one to suppose that he could get along just fine with just his Bible. No. He understood, and we need to understand, that when we come to the Bible, we must read it within the living tradition of the whole Church. We don’t read it within the tradition of the Presbyterians, or of the Baptists, or of the Lutherans; we read it within the tradition of the Catholic Church. That means that if our interpretation of the Bible contradicts the teaching of the Church on faith and morals, then we have made an error in what we think the Bible says. Period. St. Augustine was a faithful son of the Church; it seems clear that this was his view as well.

Thirdly, St. Augustine understood that doctrine develops. Over time, the Church’s understanding of the Faith grows and becomes more clear. In our passage above, the saint makes it clear that it was at least possible that the Church had not yet spoken on the matter, and that he hoped that She would do so. I don’t know if She had done so by his day, so that Augustine was simply uninformed on this point, but She has spoken by now, as I pointed out above.

Climbing back in the saddle

I fell off the horse there for a while; time to resume daily posting (and try to get caught up for this month).

As an aside for those who might have iPhones, I commend to you the superb app for Catholics called iPieta. It has more good stuff than I can list in a single blog post. It includes the Douay-Rheims and Vulgate versions of Scripture; the current and traditional liturgical calendars; hundreds of prayers (including free audio—downloadable separately—for many of them); brief lives of dozens of saints; multiple catechisms including the Baltimore, Roman, and the Catechism of St. Thomas; lots and lots of books (including the Summa!); a Bible commentary; documents of Trent and Vatican II (as well as many documents from or relating to councils prior to Trent); a whole raft of papal encyclicals; etc. In short, it's like a one-stop shop for all sorts of valuable tools. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Amusement for the Day

I found this to be very entertaining. Perhaps you will too, unless you just can’t stand a certain green-blooded, pointy-eared hobgoblin. :-)

St. Augustine and Goodness in Human Nature

In another post we saw that St. Augustine disagrees with certain forms of the Reformed/Presbyterian doctrine of total depravity. Some folks think that non-Christians are completely incapable of doing anything that God would view as good. This is not St. Augustine’s view.

It is no trifling matter that even before the merit of good works, the soul has received a natural power of judgment by which it prefers wisdom to error and peace to difficulty, so that it achieves these not simply by being born, but instead by its own endeavor. If the soul is not willing to act, it may justly be regarded as sin, for it has not put to good use the faculty that it received. For although it was born in ignorance and difficulty, nevertheless it is not compelled by necessity to remain in the state in which it was born. [On Free Choice of the Will, III.xx, p. 131-132]

If we are created so that we prefer wisdom to error, which is a good thing, it cannot be said to be evil or wicked when a man pursues wisdom. Of course it is possible for a man to “fail” to find wisdom deliberately, by prejudiced searching or deliberately hiding from it; but if we have free will as St. Augustine insists throughout the book, then it cannot be the case that we are compelled to shun wisdom.

This isn’t to say, of course, that a man may merit initial justification. It is to say that it is irrational to suggest that non-Christians never do good; it is to say that to hold that the non-Christian cannot do good is decidedly not an Augustinian view: “even before the merit of good works” a man has some powers for good. They cannot save him, of course, but that is not why God gave them to us.

Monday, March 1, 2010

St. Augustine on Invincible Ignorance

St. Augustine believes that some unbelievers seem to have a valid appeal to ignorance.

Although there is One present everywhere who in many ways through His creation beckons to hostile servants, instructs believers, comforts those who hope, encourages those who work, aids those who try, and hears those who pray, you are not considered at fault if you, against your will, are ignorant; however, if you are ignorant because you fail to ask, you are at fault. You are not blamed because you do not bind up your wounded limbs. Your sin is that you despise Him who wishes to heal you. No one is denied the knowledge of how to seek advantageously what, to his disadvantage, he does not know, and how he must humbly confess his stupidity, so that He who neither errs or toils when he comes to give aid may help the man who seeks and confesses. What a man through ignorance does not do rightly, and what he cannot do, even though he wills rightly, are called sins because their origin lies in free will. … [W]e call sin not only what is properly called sin because it is committed from free will and in full knowledge, but even that which must follow from the punishment of sin. Thus we speak of nature in one way when we refer to man’s nature as he was first created, faultless in his own class; and we speak of it in another way when we refer to the nature into which, as a result of the penalty of condemnation, we were born mortal, ignorant, and enslaved by the flesh. Of this the Apostle says, “We also were by nature the children of wrath, as were the others.” [On Free Choice of the Will, III.xix, pp. 129-130; emphasis added]

It seems here that he means to say that Original Sin is not sin properly speaking, because it is not associated with any deed on our part arising from free will and full knowledge. But along the way he acknowledges that a man is not blameworthy if through no fault of his own he is not a Christian. This seems to me to be consistent with Romans 2, and it is consistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church. It is certainly not consistent with at least some forms of Protestantism; there are some who deny that God extends any grace at all to those who are not Christian; there are some who insist that by original sin “we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.” It seems clear that such men are at variance with St. Augustine’s words above.

He says something pretty similar a few pages later.

Therefore, if blessedness for us consisted of fine speech and if it were considered a crime to err in speech and grammar in the same way as when we err in the activities of living, no one would denounce an infant because it set out from this point to pursue eloquence. Clearly, however, a man would rightly be condemned if by the perversity of his will he had either returned to babbling like an infant, or had remained at that first stage. So even now, if ignorance of the truth and difficulty in behaving rightly are the natural points from which man begins his ascent toward the blessedness of wisdom and tranquility, no one properly condemns the soul because of its natural origin. But if a man refuses to strive for excellence, or wills to step back from where he set out, he justly and properly suffers punishment.

The Creator of man is in all respects to be praised: whether because from the beginning He instills in man the capacity for the highest good, or because He aids man in attaining this good, or because He completes and perfects man’s progress; and He justly ordains the justest condemnation for sinners—either those who, from the first, refuse to strive for achievement, or those who slip back from a higher state—according to their just deserts. Besides, we cannot say that God created an evil soul on the basis of the argument that it is not so great as it has the power to be if it advances… [p. 138]

Natural ignorance isn’t culpable.