04 August 2008
A friend of Susan's was talking with her about the Church recently. The friend had been brought up a Catholic, but ceased to practise over the issue of artificial contraception. Now this person is considering coming back to the Church. The person in question is a woman, and is, I think, well beyond the age of child-bearing, so at least there is no practical issue. Her decision to leave the Church over the issue showed, it seems to me, more integrity than many. She did not simply decide that she and the Church would have to "agree to disagree." Perhaps she understood what it means to be a Catholic. The Protestant principle of authority is usually stated as sola scriptura - "by Scripture alone." I could say "been there, done that" but it wouldn't be as simple as that. Living by Scripture alone involves a variety of both logical and practical difficulties. How does one know which books are Scripture? What is the relation between the Old and New Testaments? Between apparent contradictions in Scripture? These are all difficulties, to be sure, but not, perhaps, to the person determined to try to follow God, genuine obstacles. One can readily enough determine - the principle of 'private interpretation' - that the New Testament, simply as historical documents, tell us of One Whom to follow must be life itself. For those not looking for obstacles, following Jesus by trying to take His Words, and those of His immediate followers, seriously, is not that puzzling. Not puzzling, but - in my own twenty-five years' experience as a Protestant - overwhelmingly difficult. This is, after all, not a comment on Protestantism nor on sola scriptura but on me and my own sinfulness. Nonetheless, my own experience since becoming a Catholic has been that I have received a source of help in beginning - only beginning, but nevertheless a real beginning - to overcome, if not my sinfulness, at least some of my sinful actions. This source of help is something which is available through - and only through - the Catholic Church. It is called 'grace.' "Hey!" I hear you protest, "are you saying that only Catholics experience the grace of God??!!" No, of course not. What I am saying is that all grace comes through the Catholic Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is the principle Sacrament - the physical means of spiritual grace - which God has given to the world. And the Church is the only means of grace. Grace, as Luther taught, is a change in God's relation to us. For the sake of Christ's merits, God now looks on us as if we possessed the righteousness of His Son - that righteousness which is reckoned to us for His sake. Well, fair enough, but I cannot go along with Luther at the next stage. Even the regenerate, he appears to have taught (I am open to correction if I am wrong) are still, even in their righteous acts, unacceptable to God - 'filthy rags' as Scripture puts it. God gives us more. Catholic 'infused grace' has been (inaccurately) caricaturised as like going to the petrol station to get a fill-up. If we have some of this magical 'infused grace' in us when we die - I have heard it caricaturised like this almost as an impersonal 'stuff' - then we 'go to Heaven.' Otherwise, we 'go to Hell.' I recall once, when a Reformed minister asked me, when I told him I had to become a Catholic, how I expected to be saved. I thought for a moment and gave an answer which I do not think I would change today. I will be saved - acceptable to God and in union with Him - the same way His Son is, humanly speaking: by being perfectly righteous. Whew! But I think that is right. I will not go on about this here. This has got too long already. God does pour His grace into us. This is His power to enable us to keep the law. He does indeed give this grace to those who, through no fault of their own, are not able to be members of the Catholic Church. He does this and yet ... well, my own experience is that it is very difficult to avail oneself of God's grace without ... ... the Sacraments. All Christians have the Sacrament of Baptism. By it they are born again of water and the Spirit. This is very garbled and I have not time to clean it up more, but I will say this, to tie it to the beginning. Grace is not magic. You cannot avail yourself of the fullness of the grace of the Sacraments by 'becoming a Catholic' without faith. Faith is the gift to understand and to believe that the Catholic Church is just what she claims: Christ's Body in the world, His appointed Teacher of men - and the main channel of His grace. You have to believe or you are just trying magic. Susan's friend mentioned above did well by deciding that she could not believe the Church because she could not believe one of the Church's teachings (she is now thinking of coming back to the Church, by the way). And I cannot be a Catholic simply by lining up a number of teachings, deciding on private interpretation that I believe them, and then 'joining.' A Catholic believes what the Church teaches because the Church teaches it. And then can receive the power available through the Sacraments. Somehow I believe that I have been given power to improve through: 1) Confirmation - the strengthening of the Holy Spirit 2) Matrimony - my bond with Susan is of a different nature now 3) Holy Eucharist - I receive the Body and Blood of the Risen Saviour into my body and my heart every day 4) Confession - the real forgiveness of God is poured out on me weekly I want to emphasise the latter here. Confession is sometimes seen just as a sort of counselling session. I was so totally overwhelmed the first time I went to Confession. Father may be personally a dull, witless person. Any advice he gives me may be way off the beam. He may not even believe in what he is doing, but if he gives me absolution, intending what the Church intends by the Sacrament then I receive not only forgiveness but real power to overcome sin. The contrast between that and mere counselling is the contrast between Heaven and earth.