If you’re reading this, my guess would be that you have a certain level of theological education (formal or not), intellectual curiosity about the faith, and a desire to debate and discuss that faith with others. But this post-modern era is the time to put aside debate that aims exclusively for the head and instead reach for the heart with the Gospel’s perennial message of mercy.
On the internet or at least facilitated by online websites, an unprecedented number of Catholics can read most anything written by anyone of significance in the last 2000 years. The arc of history has been unfolded before us on the computer screen, and through it all stands the Church, wandering at times but destined for our eternal home. The consistency of her teachings through change, her sureness through turmoil and upheaval, are a testament to the truth of Christianity–that is to say, the Truth, Jesus Christ, who guides her steps. In short, Catholics today, perhaps more so than Catholics at any other point in the Church’s history, have good reason to be convinced of the truth of Catholicism and many notable thinkers have converted to Catholicism as a result.
Unfortunately, despite this theoretical advantage, many more people have also converted from or left the Catholic Church. This article written a few months ago now by Onsi Kamel escaped my attention when it was written, but having happened upon it, I am deeply moved and disappointed. Kamel’s journey from Protestantism to the brink of Catholicism and back is a specific example of the Church’s failure to put our best foot forward–and to be clear, by Church, I mean all of us, lay and clergy alike. In his conclusion, Kamel shares that the acceptance of Jesus’ love for him, which he previously saw mediated through the rituals and traditions of Catholicism, became a source of profound joy for him. He came to understand that it was faith through Jesus alone that redeemed him once and for all.
There is a certain irony here that because of my theological education, I can pick apart the missteps that Kamel made that led him to accept Luther’s fundamental heresy, the one that ultimately convinced Kamel to reject the Catholic Church. And yet, I doubt that even armed with this information at the moment of his conversion of sorts, it would have been sufficient. Kamel had assumed a lie, namely, that the rules and traditions of Catholicism somehow were an attempt to mediate that relationship with God. He writes:
I was sitting in my dorm room by myself. I had been assigned Luther’s Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, and I expected to find it facile. A year or two prior, I had decided that Trent was right about justification: It was entirely a gift of grace consisting of the gradual perfecting of the soul by faith and works—God instigating and me cooperating. For years, I had attempted to live out this model of justification. I had gone to Mass regularly, prayed the rosary with friends, fasted frequently, read the Scriptures daily, prayed earnestly, and sought advice from spiritual directors. I had begun this arduous cooperation with God’s grace full of hope; by the time I sat in that dorm room alone, I was distraught and demoralized. I had learned just how wretched a sinner I was: No good work was unsullied by pride, no repentance unaccompanied by expectations of future sin, no love free from selfishness.
This, in a nutshell, is how Catholicism has gone astray. It is the core theological error that Pope Francis has been militating against at least since his election to the papacy, if not prior. Despite all of our intellectual proclivities, we have failed to definitively convey the notion that Catholics–yes, Catholics–believe in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, the free gift of God. Instead, this bright young Protestant man has decided–after many years of studying Catholic theology and living out the rituals of a Catholic faith–that Catholics believe that justification comes only through cooperation with God’s grace, as if, at least with God’s help, we could somehow merit our own salvation.
Arguably the most explicit, but certainly not the first, statements of Francis to this effect can be found in Gaudete et Exsultate:
The Church has repeatedly taught that we are justified not by our own works or efforts, but by the grace of the Lord, who always takes the initiative.
And later he writes:
The Second Synod of Orange taught with firm authority that nothing human can demand, merit or buy the gift of divine grace, and that all cooperation with it is a prior gift of that same grace: “Even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit”. Subsequently, the Council of Trent, while emphasizing the importance of our cooperation for spiritual growth, reaffirmed that dogmatic teaching: “We are said to be justified gratuitously because nothing that precedes justification, neither faith nor works, merits the grace of justification; for ‘if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace’ (Rom 11:6)”.
Only on the basis of God’s gift, freely accepted and humbly received, can we cooperate by our own efforts in our progressive transformation.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis also wrote:
The Father’s free gift which makes us his sons and daughters, and the priority of the gift of his grace (cf. Eph 2:8-9; 1 Cor 4:7), enable that constant sanctification which pleases God and gives him glory.
The point is not about Luther’s heresy that caused Kamel to reject Catholicism, but rather the fact that it was a rational but post-intellectual experience that caused Kamel to make a radical change in his life. It was an experience he can point to and describe in great detail, but it was fundamentally beyond the reach of argument itself. He felt loved. He writes in his conclusion, “At that moment, the joy of my salvation poured into my soul. I wept and showed forth God’s praise.” Despite years of being immersed in Catholic theology and ritual, Protestantism had reached his heart first.
Perhaps Kamel’s story is unique, something Catholics can conveniently dismiss, but I don’t think so. I myself remember as a young Catholic passionately disagreeing with my Protestant cousin over whether we are “saved through faith.” I remember it took until many years later to understand I was wrong and the simple yet radical truth that lies at the heart of Christianity. And it took even more years to embrace it, aided by the explicit proclamations of Pope Francis.
This truth that we are saved by the free gift of God’s mercy through faith in Christ Jesus is everything, but Catholics seem perpetually challenged by the counter-Protestant “faith and works” mantra that we can’t even admit to ourselves, much less others, that it is so. I’m not immune from blame. Well before being formed into the faith, I was active on online forums, seeking advice on Catholic Answers and being an amateur Catholic apologist in a Protestant forum. In debate, I was so eager to distinguish Catholicism from Protestantism that I ran headlong into the Pelagian heresy. I have no doubt that many young Catholics are in a similar position, assuming they’re active in the faith at all.
As Kamel’s story indicates, however, the debate is beside the point. Surely, debate can help to shed away falsehoods and heresies that cloud our understanding of God and his love. To be clear, this is in no way an attempt to belittle the conversions of those who became Catholic because of the self-consistency of the Church’s body of teachings or their inherent truthfulness. Still, the true aim of any argument or debate must be to help “guide the arrow” that leads to the heart, which encompasses the intellect but also, in fact, so much more than that. Only the gift of God’s mercy, the kerygma, is, as Francis says, the “message capable of responding to the desire for the infinite which abides in every human heart.”
In contrast, see this article in response to Kamel published online for Crisis Magazine. It was written by a Protestant convert to Catholicism and is a fine piece of writing. It also illustrates that sort of intellectual approach to faith that Catholicism is perfect for, an approach that may also make it more difficult to appreciate the experience of someone like Kamel who, like all of us, in his heart of hearts, just wants to be loved.
One of Pope Francis’ principles of evangelization, “realities are more important than ideas,” is relevant here. He writes in Evangelii Gaudium,
“We have politicians – and even religious leaders – who wonder why people do not understand and follow them, since their proposals are so clear and logical. Perhaps it is because they are stuck in the realm of pure ideas and end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric. Others have left simplicity behind and have imported a rationality foreign to most people.”
Catholicism has the immense blessing of being true, but this blessing is also a curse, at least insofar as Catholics seem keen on simply being right and not also helping others to encounter the living God who loves them as he loves his only-begotten Son. Catholicism is always right, but Catholics sure have a knack for getting it wrong.