Some Catholics wield Trent like a baseball bat. In their hands, Canon XVIII is a blunt instrument to beat the weak over the head with. Early in his pontificate Pope Francis criticized these Catholics for being what he called “self-absorbed Promethean Neo-Pelagians”. The mentality of the neo-Pelagians is an attitude that values strength and sufficiency, and likewise despises weakness and dependency. “With man all things are possible” is really the opposite of what Scripture says, but it makes a good motto for the Neo-Pelagians, which can be seen even in the way they that use that council.
Whenever it is confessed that the perfect observance of the law is not practically possible because of weakness or coercion, one can be sure that a smug Canon XVIII quote is forthcoming as a rebuttal. That canon says:
If any one saith, that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to keep; let him be anathema.
But is this the GOTCHA that people think it is?
Or is it just proof-texting a canon from Trent that is removed from its proper context. It seems like those that love quoting this canon the most have not actually read the text. Here are a few points that I think highlight some interesting things about the Trent fathers’ ideas about justification (how we are able to observe the commandments).
There is at once freedom and weakness
Right after it is affirmed that observing the commandments is indeed possible, the text explains itself like this:
“For God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou are able, and to pray for what thou art not able (to do), and aids thee that thou mayest be able;”
Here is the recognition that there can be, in one and the same subject, both something that is possible (“what thou are able”), and something that is impossible (“what thou art not able to do”). There are areas where our will is truly free, and there are areas where our wills may be weak and perhaps in bondage to forces we cannot easily control. For those things that we are not able to do, we are commanded to pray so that God may turn our impossibility into possibility, weakness into freedom. This brings us to the next point, bridging this chasm between what is possible and impossible.
Justification is a process
The preceding chapter from the one quoted above says:
Having, therefore, been thus justified, and made the friends and domestics of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day; that is, by mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified, as it is written; He that is just, let him be justified still; and again, Be not afraid to be justified even to death; and also, Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. And this increase of justification holy Church begs, when she prays, “Give unto us, O Lord, increase of faith, hope, and charity.”
Look at the language used. “Day by day”, “advancing”, “virtue to virtue”, “renewed’, ”increase”; the text on justification is saturated with the language of change, of becoming. So to is St. Paul’s analogy of the athlete that is referred to in the text a few paragraphs later. The athlete trains and disciplines his body to win the race. Increasing the possibility of winning the crown is not just a process, it is often a painstacking, gradual process.
It is impossible for me to go out and win a marathon tomorrow. But if I take a couple years to train, invest in a good coach and some equipment, eat right, and condition myself day after day, it just might be possible for me to win a marathon. In the mean time, what about our weakness?
Venial sin is not incompatible with justification
For, although, during this mortal life, men, how holy and just soever, at times fall into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial, not therefore do they cease to be just. For that cry of the just, Forgive us our trespasses, is both humble and true. And for this cause, the just themselves ought to feel themselves the more obligated to walk in the way of justice, in that, being already freed from sins, but made servants of God, they are able, living soberly, justly, and godly, to proceed onwards through Jesus Christ, by whom they have had access unto this grace.
Grace and justification coexist with weakness and imperfection without contradiction, as they must if the previous points are true – that we are a mix of freedom and weakness, and justification is a process. Because if justification is a process whereby what is as yet impossible in us becomes possible over time, it necessarily follows that until those possibilities are realized, until the virtues are within reach, the weaknesses and imperfections and sins will for a time continue to exist and so must be tolerated. Hence the toleration and patient forbearance of weakness, both in ourselves and in our neighbor, is an essential part of justification. “Bear with one another” St. Paul was always exhorting the churches.
Also, we know that weakness can make mortal sin to become venial, as Aquinas teaches. Therefore, not being in full harmony objectively with God’s law does not necessarily prevent justification either. It’s clear then that Trent does not see any contradiction between the impossibility that dwells in the sinner, and the possibility that lies within God’s power to change us, that “we mayest be able”. This point can also be illustrated with a scholastic truism.
Whatever is moved is moved by another
This principle is a major premise in one of the “five ways”, or arguments, for the existence of God–the argument from motion (change). It’s a principle from the Aristotelian philosophy of change. It was meant to explain how change is possible. This principle states that whatever is in a state of potentiality can only be moved to actuality by something that is already actual. Nothing, in other words, moves itself from a state of possibility to actuality. Nothing pulls itself up by its own bootstraps.
In the argument for the existence of God, the principle finds an ultimate causal explanation for change in an “unmoved mover”. Change implies contingency and imperfection and lack of being. Or one might say change implies a radical weakness and that therefore tranformation requires an external agent that is stronger to empower it. A thing cannot give what it doesn’t have. The first mover of all things is identified with God because it must transcend the imperfections of all that it moves. It is necessary rather than contigent. Infinite rather than limited, etc. In the order of grace, as with the order of being, there is a first mover, an infinitely powerful being that moves sinners by his grace to do what is impossible for them on their own.
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
The Law of Gradualism
Scripture, doctrine, philosophy, and experience all agree. Becoming observers of God’s law is a process where perfection is only gradually realized, step by step, and that perfection in following the commandments is not normally given all at once but only realized over a period of time, and therefore requires humility, patience, and tolerance. Or in a word–gradualism. Gradualism is change, not creation “ex-nihilo”. It’s organic, not magic. It’s the mustard seed that is the smallest of all seeds but grows until the birds of the air make their nests in its branches, not Jack’s magic beanstalk that springs up to the sky over night.
And gradualism represents everything that the critics of Pope Francis despise. They cite Trent in support of a position that in principle denies the very possibility of a sustained, inculpable weakness. And since we’ve seen how weakness, change, imperfection, possibility and time are all inter-related, in denying one they are all denied. If weakness and failure is impossible, then change is impossible. If observing the commandments is possible but weakness is not, then perfection must have been there all the time. Strength is not a gift to one’s internal poverty but a resource already posessed. It is not received but summoned. There is no need of an unmoved mover in grace.
The impossibility the Trent Quoters are reacting to is the impossibility of man. The impossibility that Trent is condemning however, is the impossibility of God’s grace to aid men and women. They are not saying that with God all things are possible, but that with man all things are possible. For when you deny the normal way that God makes things possible through grace, you’re denying the reality of that grace. And that makes you a Neo-Pelagian, possibly even a promethian self-absorbed one.
On the other hand, when a person truthfully confesses that they are powerless to obey the law, they are not usually contradicting Trent’s affirmation that it is possible to follow God’s commandments. They are simply affirming the other side of that coin; that they cannot do it by their own strength.