Oh here lies the great disagreement between Catholics and Protestants. Can we find an agreement on the matter? Will the hardness of our hearts keep us from unity because of this centuries-old disagreement?
One of the great tragedies of this disagreement, I believe, lies in a misunderstanding of the Catholic position on Justification. The irony is that this summer, I was listening to a Lutheran Missouri-Synod podcast called “Issues etc.” episode 2393 ‘Fifth Century Bishop of Hippo, Augustine – Dr. David Maxwell, 8/28/17.‘ The host of “Issues etc.” Todd Wilken asked the guest, what church upholds the closest towards the idea of St. Augustine’s idea of Grace and Justification and without hesitation, Dr. Maxwell answered, “The Modern Catholic Church. The funny part was the reaction of the host Todd Wilken, a usually great radio voice, started to trip over his words because he couldn’t believe Maxwell’s reply.
Naturally, though, Dr. Maxwell’s reply was rooted in the understanding of what Catholics actually believe in regards to Grace and Justification.
Bishop Robert Barron on many Word on Fire podcast episodes reiterates the idea of Gratia Prima:
“I have long been sympathetic with Father Yves Congar’s famous remark that if figures on both sides of the Reformation divide had been a bit more open-minded and open-hearted, there might be a Lutheran order in the Catholic Church today, just as there are Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines…” said Bishop Robert Barron. “If he had limited himself to saying gratia prima, (“Grace first”), Luther might have effected a needed reform within Catholicism.”
In a new book released by The Catholic University of America Press titled The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism, the author Thomas Joseph White, OP gives what I believe is the best Catholic understanding of Justification.
The Dominican writes:
“The Catholic Church teaches that justification occurs in a human person by grace alone and not by any natural moral agency or works of self-righteousness. (White, OP cites the Catechism pars. 1987-2005) This is not a subject of contention between Catholic and Protestants, at least so long as the true teaching of the Catholic Church is accurately understood!…
By this grace, we are given intimate knowledge of who God is. But integral to this process is also a conversion of heart: that we should love God above all things by grace, renounce all attachment to serious sin…
We cannot be “simul justus et peccator” in the words of Luther: simultaneously just and sinners.”