Are Catholics Confused about Grace?

Catholics and many Protestants are confused about GRACE! Why? Because they believe that GRACE is the Divine influence which operates in humans to regenerate and sanctify, to inspire virtuous impulses, and to impart strength to endure trial and resist temptation; and as an individual virtue or excellence of divine origin. That’s a lot to digest. Do I receive GRACE by going to Church? Doing volunteer work? That depends, according to many theologians, preachers, denominations of Christianity, and other religions.

Patristic theologians, known as the Fathers of the Church, wrote tomes about grace because there were so many controversies and definitions. For example, Pelagius, a British monk who preached in fifth-century Rome declared that Christians could earn their way into Heaven by doing good deeds, without the need of divine grace.

After Augustine refuted the teachings of Pelagius, some claimed that humans can simply be open to the Divine without God’s grace; and that Grace is retained through one’s efforts, without further grace from God; and that natural human effort alone can give one some claim to receiving grace, though not strictly merit it. One could debate this topic for a lifetime but maybe there is a simple answer. Read on!

So how does one obtain GRACE? Catholics may recall the basic definition they learned in parochial school from the Baltimore catechism.  “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” Sounds almost like a vending machine. Sorry, but when one sees so many people attending worship services lined up to receive Communion in the hand one has to wonder if that’s GRACE let alone Jesus!

Within Christianity, there are different concepts of how grace is attained. In particular, Catholics and Reformed Protestants understand the attainment of grace in substantially different ways. It has been described as “the watershed that divides Catholicism from Protestantism, Calvinism from Arminianism, modern liberalism from conservatism”.

Nowadays the Catholic Church refined its definition of GRACE but not very succinctly.

“We discover that “grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life”. Grace is a participation in the life of God, which is poured unearned into human beings, whom it heals of sin and sanctifies. The means by which God grants grace are many.”

“Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” 1996 CCC

“Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments.” 2003 CCC 

“There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning “favor,” “gratuitous gift,” “benefit.” Whatever their character – sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues – charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church.”  2003 CCC

“Among the special graces ought to be mentioned the graces of state that accompany the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and of the ministries within the Church: Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” 2004 CC

“Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot, therefore, rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved.” However, according to the Lord’s words “Thus you will know them by their fruits” – reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints* offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.” 2005 CCC

   *Paul writes to the “saints at Ephesus” Eph1:1. In the New Testament, the word is used to refer to Christians generally, but the name survived as a general title for Christians only through the second century. Then the Fathers of the Church declared sainthood synonymous with martyrdom” since it was such in the book of Revelation: “And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.: Rev 17:6 

This then resulted in the word becoming an “honorific title for confessors, martyrs and ascetics no longer to those of us who are known by our fruits: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Gal 5:22-23

Are you getting the sense that today, that some theologians preachers, priests and bishops, are deciding who gets grace and who doesn’t, who’s a saint and who isn’t? Many show the fruits of their labors to be very similar to those listed above. President Biden displays the fruits of the Spirit as a good, decent Catholic yet he can’t receive Communion because he respects the First and Fourteenth Amendments to America’s Constitution and won’t and can’t impose his religious beliefs onto the people of America, many of whom believe differently or are not even religious. Is the Church saying that if you belong to the Democratic party you are a sinner? I ask therefore, If you belong to the Republican party are you a racist? Politics and religion do not mix well. Haven’t we learned that from the last two thousand years of religious wars, and persecutions? Wasn’t that one major reason why people migrated from Europe to America?

Recently the Associated Press issued a news story with the following introduction:

A Wisconsin bishop has taken the unusual step of removing a defiant priest from the ministry after he made a series of divisive remarks about politics and the pandemic. The priest removed was the Rev.Altman who rose to prominence ahead of the 2020 presidential election with a fiery YouTube video in which he said Catholics can’t be Democrats and that anyone who supports Democrats will burn in hell.

“Requests that a priest resign aren’t uncommon but they rarely lead to such a high-profile refusal, Catholic observers say. One of the few such cases in the U.S. came in 2002, when a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston refused to step down over an accusation that he sexually abused a child three decades earlier. The Rev. D. George Spagnolia took his case to the Vatican but was unable to overturn his suspension. He died in 2008. More recently, the Rev. Frank Pavone, an anti-abortion activist who heads Priests for Life, appealed to the Vatican over restrictions placed on his ministry in 2011 by his bishop in Amarillo, Texas. Pavone succeeded in getting the restrictions eased, relocated away from Texas and remains active with Priests for Life.” writes Todd Richmond  for AP

Again, the Catholic Church concludes that “The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification” 1919 CCC

AS if the above is not enough, we also must distinguish between many kinds of GRACE and this gets tricky.

There’s ACTUAL grace-Temporary supernatural intervention by God to enlighten the mind or strengthen the will to perform supernatural actions that lead to heaven. Actual grace is therefore a transient divine assistance to enable man to obtain, retain, or grow in supernatural grace and the life of God. There’s Sanctifying grace which is the gratuitous gift of his life that God makes to us; it is infused by the Holy Spirit into the soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it.

Sanctifying grace makes us “pleasing to God.” Charisms, special graces of the Holy Spirit, are oriented to sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. God also acts through many actual graces, to be distinguished from habitual grace which is permanent in us.

You may think that this all is without controversy but in the history of the Church there was much contention and disagreement about many teachings on grace in particular: 

“The actual grace to which free consent is given by the will so that the grace produces its divinely intended effect. In the controversy between the Dominicans [led by Báñez (1528-1604)] and the Jesuits [led by Molina (1525-1600)] there was no agreement on what precisely causes an actual grace to become efficacious. In the Báñezian theory, the efficacy of such grace depends on the character of the grace itself; in the Molinist theory, it depends on the fact that it is given under circumstances that God foresees to be congruous with the dispositions of the person receiving the grace. In every Catholic theory, however, it is agreed that efficacious grace does not necessitate the will or destroy human freedom.” (Catholic Dictionary)

During the time of Jesus, you will recall that he challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees because they had devised some 613 mitzvahs or laws to supplement the Ten Commandments! Jesus was forthright in ignoring many of them since they prevented people from expressing the fruits of the Spirit mentioned above. For example the Tohorah, in Judaism, was the system of ritual purity practiced by Israel. Purity (tohorah) and uncleanness (tumʾah) carry forward Pentateuchal commandments that Israel—whether eating, procreating, or worshiping God in the Temple—must avoid sources of contamination, the principal ones of which is the corpse, the leper, and the outcasts, all of whom Jesus embraced walking and talking with them and through healing, dining with them. What would he say to the Catholic bishops today??

Like the Pharisees,  the Catholic Church Magisterium has devised Canon Laws and the Catechism of the Catholic Church to supplement the Commandments, and its Magisterial Doctrines. 

My point in all of this is quite simple. How much GRACE do we need? What happened to the gifts of the Spirit? The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are an enumeration of seven spiritual gifts originating from patristic authors, later elaborated by five intellectual virtues and four other groups of ethical characteristics. The gifts are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. If we receive these gifts evidenced by the fruits of the Spirit, are we not graced? Are we not closer to the Divine than say a racist, bigot, compulsive liar? Maybe many of the Catholic bishops need to rethink their theology and consider listening to the Sensus Fidei which will be the topic of another post.

When Archbishop Óscar Romero spoke out for the poor of El Salvador, he knew he was putting his own life in danger, and he was strengthened by the courage that is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

When Mrs. Augusta Gervay and Father Emilian Novak ran a workshop that produced baptismal certificates used to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, they were endangering their own lives and were strengthened by the courage that is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer,was a German Lutheran pastor, and theologian and the author of The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote this about GRACE.

 “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?..

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Bonhoeffer was known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi dictatorship, including vocal opposition to Hitler’s euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel prison for one and a half years. Later, he was transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp.

After being accused of being associated with the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he was quickly tried along with other accused plotters, including former members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office), and then hanged on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing. Bonhoeffer was sentenced to death on 8 April 1945 by SS judge Otto Thorbeck at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defense in Flossenbürg concentration camp.He was executed there by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945. Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard where he was hanged with six others.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
This entry was posted in Catechesis, Catholic Teachings, Discipleship, Sacramental Celebration, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

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