Amazing Grace: Saved a wretch like me? The Catholic Church and total depravity

John Newton

John Newton, in his later years.

Today I am once again deeply thankful for God’s overflowing grace. Not only did I receive the grace of absolution and the empowering strength of the Eucharist, but the membership chair of the Knights of Columbus approached me at the breakfast after Mass, put on by the Knights, and invited me to join. I am grateful more and more for my church family, who have reached out to me and wrapped me in their love, after I slipped away from other churches again and again.

Our hymn during Communion today was “Amazing Grace.” Everybody knows the words to “Amazing Grace,” right? Well, I was rather surprised when I stumbled in the very second line…

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…

“That saved a wretch like me!” I started to belt. But no, that was wrong. We Catholics have changed the words. Our version of the second line is, “That saved and set me free.” Surprisingly, everybody else seemed to get it. I guess few newbs go to the early Mass.

Those are the only words that were different; though we also sang the little-known, canonical fifth verse that I had never seen or sang before as a Protestant:

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail
And mortal life shall cease
Amazing grace shall then prevail
In heaven’s joy and peace.

Why did we change the words? Whose idea was this, and when was it done? The byline in the missalette says only “Vss. 1-5, John Newton, 1725–1807, alt. Vs. 6, Anon. (Standard text)” So we “altered” it. (I also never realized that the sixth verse, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” actually finds its origin in African American traditional spirituals, and first gained widespread currency from its use in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.)

I figure someone objected to the use of the word “wretch,” which rings of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. I tend to think the alteration is a bit of an overreaction. We Catholics certainly believe we are all sinners saved by amazing grace, too (and by grace alone). The “wretch” who is saved in the hymn is John Newton, a former slave ship captain, overwhelmed by the grace of God in his life.

So what is the big deal? What do Catholics believe about the sinful nature of man? What is total depravity, and why don’t Catholics adhere to it? I go first to the Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the cornerstone documents of Reformed doctrine and supposedly a good digest of it. I believe this is the relevant portion, emphases mine (my Calvinist readers will kindly correct me):

  1. By this [original] sin [our first parents] fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.
  2. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.
  3. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions. (Chapter IV)

The last statement is the most important. Total depravity is also often posed as total inability: the total inability to do anything good apart from the grace of God. Without the grace of God, according to Calvinist doctrine, we are inherently corrupt and evil, and everything we do apart from God’s grace, even what seems to be good, is tainted by sin and done with ultimately selfish and evil intentions.

What does the Catholic Church teach about original sin and the sinful nature of man? The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a lot to say on the matter, and is considerably more wordy. I won’t paste the whole section — but if you’re interested, here it is (CCC #396-409). Below is an important quote that sums up the difference between the Catholic view of man’s fallen state and the Calvinist view of total depravity:

405. Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin — an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence.” Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.

And the next section goes on to talk about the further implications of original sin. For you Protestants who like to claim St. Augustine as one of your own regarding the doctrines of sin and grace, here’s a note for you (#406).

Catholics don’t believe that man is totally depraved; that human nature is wholly corrupt and sinful. We don’t say that every act man does without the grace of God is evil and corrupt. Looking around, it’s plain to see a lot of unregenerated non-Christians doing a lot of good in this world; are we to believe even these good acts are evil and corrupt? Neither do we say, however, that man can save himself. It is entirely God, by His grace, that gives us salvation; it is only God, by His grace, that enables us to even respond to His call (#1996). Catholics agree that man is totally unable to attain God or salvation without the gift of God’s grace.

4 thoughts on “Amazing Grace: Saved a wretch like me? The Catholic Church and total depravity

  1. Congratulations on the Knights of Columbia – that sounds an honour.

    And congratulations on an execellent post – but I do wish they had not changed the words – as you point out, no need to.

  2. To add the Lutheran perspective, here’s Article II of the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the most basic, original confession of Lutheranism:

    “Furthermore, it is taught among us that since the fall of Adam, all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this same innate disease and original sin is truly sin and condemns to God’s eternal wrath all who are not in turn born anew through baptism and the Holy Spirit.

    Rejected, then, are the Pelagians and others who do not regard original sin as sin in order to make human nature righteous through natural powers, thus insulating the suffering and merit of Christ.”

    The Roman Confutation agreed with the beginning, but disagreed with the definition of why human beings still sin after having been baptized, which prompted Phillip Melanchthon to write a lengthy lengthy reply in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession of 1531.

    Original Sin was also the subject of the first Article of the Formula of Concord of 1577, the document that sought to resolve differences and arguments between different groups of Lutherans in the generation after Luther and Melanchthon.

  3. From a Calvinist perspective, Total Depravity and being “opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” (WCF 4.4) is a question that centers around spiritual good. We would say that none of man’s so-called “good” works actually do him any spiritual good in his unconverted state.

    Furthermore, you’ve hit the distinction between positions dead on; the Reformed believe that we are “dead”, whereas the Roman communion would say that we are only “wounded” by sin. It’s an important distinction, and one that the question hinges on.

    • It all reminds me very much of Monty Python’s parrot sketch. 😉

      Yes, it’s a difference in terms — but what is the essential distinction? We both agree that man is spiritually unable to do anything to approach God apart from His grace. In the end, why does it matter we say the good in human nature is “dead” or “stunned”? Where does the difference leave us? (I’m asking out of curiosity, not argumentation. I don’t understand where your logic ends up.)

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