It has been said that the issue of justification is the main doctrine that sparked the Protestant Reformation . Some concepts within the Roman Catholic Church are thought to have changed since the start of the reformation. It is often stated that Vatican II changed the way by which a man may be saved . Are the concepts of purgatory, indulgences, and what is the role of the church as part of justification in Roman Catholic theology? If they are still taught then how do they relate to Sola Fide, also known as faith alone?
This paper will explore these issues using official documents from the Roman Catholic Church. Exploring these documents, and current church teaching, will create a better understanding and will help clear up some misconceptions about the teaching. There is no doubt that the way that Protestants and Roman Catholics vary. The very nature of the Gospel is at stake, and though there are agreements, there are still significant differences. In paragraph 2025 the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “We can have merit in God’s sight only because of God’s free plan to associate man with the work of his grace. Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to man’s collaboration .”
To better understand the nature of justification in Roman Catholic Theology it is necessary to not only understand what it is, but what it is not. Major part of the reformation was the concept of faith. Sola Fide became one of the five Sola’s, and means “faith alone.” According to Church Historian Justo Gonzalez, “Thus, Luther’s doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ does not mean that what God demands of us is faith, as if this were something we have to do or achieve, and which God the rewards.”
In this definition justification is something God gives fully to an individual through a faith a Jesus Christ. This faith requires no works to attain as the individual can contribute nothing to his salvation except the sin which made it a necessity. In regards to this Martin Luther wrote, “we hold that a man is justified by faith.’ This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he.” It is with this knowledge that we take a look at justification through the eyes of contemporary Roman Catholic theology.
JUSTIFICATION IN ROMAN CATHOLIC THEOLOGY
In response to the Protestant Reformation the Roman Catholic Church held the council of Trent. At this important council they stated in regards to justification, “Hence man through Jesus Christ, into whom he is ingrafted, receives in the said justification together with the remission of sins all these [gifts] infused at the same time: faith, hope, and charity. For faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites one perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of the body.”
In this regard this is where a huge misunderstanding takes place between Protestants and Catholics. As Protestants we believe that we are saved by faith alone through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Some will say that the Roman church teaches salvation by works. This is nothing short of slander as faith is a key ingredient in their concept of justification. The issue arises because it is faith plus another ingredient which is faith, hope, and charity in this case. In Roman Catholic Theology it is impossible to do any good work without the grace of God giving you the power to do so.
In the 20th century the Roman Catholic Church called the bishops and theologians of the church to a council which became known as Vatican II. This council is very important to our understanding of the churches teaching on justification and was convened on October 11, 1962 and ended on December 8, 1965. There is much confusion about just what the council did, and there was a big misunderstanding among the laity at the time that the church just stopped teaching certain doctrines. This misunderstanding has been continued among laity to this day. Roman Catholic historian Thomas Bokenkotter states, “The decade after its closing in 1965 appears as the most tumultuous in the whole modern history of the church.” Though this misunderstanding persists the laity “derives the duty to make a sincere, sustained effort to give ex anmino assent to the teaching of the ordinary magisterium.” This is reinforced by the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium which states, “Fully incorporated into the society of the church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept in its entire structure and all the means of salvation established within it and who in its visible structure are united with Christ.” By and large there are many Catholics who fully understand what the church teaches, but the misunderstandings concerning justification are concerning. Many will say that Justification is through faith, but a full concept of justification in the Roman Catholic Theology is not understood. It is not by faith because one must also merit it. In regards to this the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.”
So what can one do to merit salvation? As previous stated faith is a key component, but a question must be asked. If salvation is something that can be merited does one’s faith truly lay with Jesus Christ, with himself, or with the church? For the Roman Catholic weekly attendance at mass is mandatory unless one is unable to attend because of work or illness. Attendance of mass for Holy Days of Obligation are required. Confessing ones sins to a priest once per year is prescribed. There are many others, but some action is required on the part of the individual for his salvation. Justification is the process by which we receive divine forgiveness and reconciliation. This extra work introduces the penitential system of the Roman Catholic Church, and it is essential in its view of justification and sanctification. It was this extra work which helped spark the Protestant Reformation.
In the scope of church history, there has been very little said of purgatory since the days of Vatican II. In fact it will not be found in either of the sixteen documents released by the council. Though it is a Dei Fide doctrine that must be believed not much is taught about it, and there is a large amount misconception in regards to it. We should start with what purgatory is not. Purgatory is not a type of Limbo or third destination for the soul, but it is a stop on the way to eternal glory.
Thomas Aquinas says in regards to Purgatory, “Those who are in Purgatory, though they are above us on account of their impeccability, yet they are below us as to the pains which they suffer: and in this respect they are not in a condition to pray, but rather in a condition that requires us to pray for them.” Though these souls had faith in Christ they must work off, or purge themselves, of the temporal effects of the sins they committed in life. The formal definition is “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”
This process is a step between justification and sanctification and there is no time limit that one may spent in purgatory. We do not have an accurate understanding of time in the afterlife. Thus, according to Roman Catholic Theology, purgatory may be an instantaneous process or may take several thousand years. So were we Christians perfectly atoned for by the finished work of Christ on the cross? Other church documents would seem to answer that question in the negative. A Papal Bull written October 1, 1567 titled Ex omnibus afflictionibus states, “Through the sufferings of the saints communicated in indulgences, our sins are not properly atones for; but through a communion of charity their sufferings are communicated to us, that we, who are freed by the blood of Christ from punishments due to sins, may be worthy.”
The sources quoted, with the exception of the catechism, are quite old. Therefore how do they relate to the contemporary concept of justification in Roman Catholic Theology? The documents of Vatican II affirmed the teaching of past councils by not mentioning it. It was never repudiated and therefore it is affirmed and still required to be believed by the catholic laity.
In contemporary Roman Catholic Theology indulgences and purgatory are two peas in a pod. There is no having one without the other. So what are indulgences and what role do they play in Justification? According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church an indulgence is “The remission by the Church of the temporal penalty due to forgiven sin, in virtue of the merits of Christ and the saints.” As previously stated an entrance to heaven relies on faith in Christ and the merits of the individual. The Roman Catholic Church has what is known as the “Treasury of Merit.” It is made up of the excess merit of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. A fuller definition is found in the Catechism which states, “This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission in the unity of the Mystical Body.”
While in Purgatory the church can draw from this treasury and hasten your time to your heavenly home. Again this is still a vital part of theology in the Roman Catholic Church. It may not be discussed or mentioned very often but it is still a doctrine that must be believed. There are a few questions in regards to this practice. The Pope is in charge of the church, and thus is in charge of the treasury. If there is such an excess then why not dispense it to all of those poor souls who are being purged? This was one issue that Martin Luther had written about in his 95 Theses. The church believes, in accordance with 2 Maccabees 12:46 that it is good to pray for the dead. These prayers help the temporal effects of sin to removed faster, and that leads to another question. If there is no time associated with purgatory then how can prayers and indulgences make it faster? The best explanation is that purgatory is not a set sentence, but indulgences and the treasury of merit can get you times off as God sees fit. In crude terms it is time off for the good behavior of others on your behalf.
IS IT BIBLICAL?
With all this being said, is the concept of justification in Roman Catholic Theology biblical? There are certainly elements that are such as a prerequisite faith in Christ, but many other parts are based on the tradition of the church. The scriptures teach in many places that justification is by faith alone. The church counters with James 2:24 which states, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” To hang a doctrine on the threads of this verse is eisegesis. The whole concept of James is that if one has faith then good works with spring forth from that faith. Nowhere in its context is the book saying that we, or the work of others can save us. As the Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
The two main passages used as justification for purgatory are 2 Maccabees 12:46 and 1 Corinthians 3:15. The Maccabees passage describes the Jews as saying it is good to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sin. The problem is these soldiers died wearing the emblem of a pagan god. They committed adultery and according to Mosaic Law that means damnation. The prayers from them would not help them because they became apostates. Another point of contention is that the book itself is not accepted by Protestants as belonging in the canon of scripture. In its context the Corinthians passage is dealing with the motivations of church leaders, and not about an intermediate state after death.
The contemporary Roman Catholic teaching on justification has not changed since the days of the Protestant Reformation. There is a misconception that the church teaches salvation by works, but though partly true, is not completely accurate. Faith is Jesus Chris is a requirement, but works are also added into the equation. This is still an issue that is disputes between Catholics and Protestants almost 500 years after the reformation. Vatican II may not have discussed issues such as purgatory, but in not doing so it still affirmed church teaching, it was also discussed in three paragraphs of the most recent catechism. It is essential for Protestants to remain grounded in the biblical view of justification, and to understand the Roman Catholic view. There are a lot of misconceptions about it, but many catholic are relying on themselves for salvation. WE must be able to accurately discuss their theology, and help them enter into the peace that Romans 5:1 describes.
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 Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican II: Constitutions, Decrees, and Declarations, 6th ed (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 2007), 20. Quote is taken from Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
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 Henry Denzinger, ed., The Sources of Catholic Dogma [Enchiridion Symbolorum], 13th ed, trans. Roy J and Deferrari (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2010), 309.
 Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). In The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 834). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
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 Timothy F. Hull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 41.
 Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican II: Constitutions, Decrees, and Declarations, 6th ed (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 2007), 75. Quote is taken from Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
 James 2:24 (English Standard Version).
 Ephesians 2:8 (English Standard Version).
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 1186.