For Protestants, one of the cries of the Reformation, one of the staples of Protestant faith, is sola fide, justification by faith alone. Many Protestants, especially the Reformed, hold this point to be so crucial and integral to the message of the Gospel that they label any other view (that is, the Catholic or Orthodox views) to be “heresy” or even “apostasy.”
As you know, this troubles me deeply. The Catholic Church teaches salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), the gracious and unmerited favor of God on the sinner, just as uncompromisingly as any Protestant community. So Catholics and Protestants agree on the source and the cause of grace; what we disagree on with regard to sole fide amounts to merely the mechanics by which that grace is received. To my view, our theologies even on this disputed point are much closer to each other than either side generally admits, resulting in what appears to me to be a difference of mere wording and nuance.
So the charge that the Catholic Church teaches a “different gospel” than Protestants (and a false one) is entirely incomprehensible to me. And so, the question occurs to me — and I sincerely hope for some dialogue with Protestants here: What is it that Protestants, particularly Reformed Protestants, think that the Catholic Church teaches, that is so antithetical to the Gospel? that would warrant denying fellowship with their Christian brothers and sisters, and even accusing them of “apostasy”? I am not at this time attempting any positive argument for Catholic position; I am merely trying to understand the Protestant charge.
The unspoken assumption of sola fide — by faith alone — is the rejection of the idea that “works” play any role in salvation. As St. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). These verses comprise one of several linchpin passages in sola fide theology — but what exactly does Paul mean here by “works”? I have often heard the accusation that Catholics (or Arminians, or anyone not Calvinist) teach “works’ righteousness” — the doctrine that by our “works” we are saved: that somehow, anything we can do can win God’s favor, merit our salvation, or in our own deeds make us righteous. As I’ve demonstrated, this isn’t what Catholics believe at all. I have heard the charge that Catholics are “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian”: Pelagius taught that Adam’s original sin did not taint human nature and that man was capable, in himself, of choosing good over evil without the grace of God. The Catholic Church denies this, and always has.
This line of sola fide reasoning apparently interprets that the “works” of Paul’s argument means any act of doing something — any work accomplished, ἔργα or facta. The belief, then, that doing something, anything, any action at all other than having faith, is necessary for salvation, is therefore construed as a contradiction: Certainly the practice of the Sacraments or the belief that Baptism is necessary for salvation fall into this category, but taken to the extreme, this opposition to “works” (that is, having to do anything to be saved) includes even the simple act of praying a prescribed prayer.
So is that it? Is it this teaching that one has to do something in order to be saved that is so gravely contradictory to the Gospel, and that makes Catholics “apostate” (that is, having willfully turned one’s back on and denied Christ)? Or is there something else I’m overlooking? Because the something that Catholics believe one must do to be saved, at a most basic understanding, is merely to accept God’s freely offered grace. All other actions — Baptism, the Sacraments, good works of charity proceeding — are merely the result of God’s grace working in our lives, both giving us the will and empowering us to work (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:12–13).
Where in this is the denial of Christ? If I believed that in any sense I was abandoning Christ’s Gospel, I would not have made this journey. I would like to understand the positions of Protestants who would label this “apostasy.”