The Catholic Church teaches that God’s love overcomes evil and causes a real change in us. This idea is a hallmark of John Paul II’s theology: “Especially through his lifestyle and through his actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live—an effective love, a love that addresses itself to man and embraces everything that makes up his humanity. This love makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering, injustice, and poverty—in contact with the whole historical ‘human condition,’ which in various ways manifests man’s limitation and frailty, both physical and moral. It is precisely the mode and sphere in which love manifests itself that in biblical language is called ‘mercy’” (Dives in Misericordia, 3).
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is fully revealed in Jesus Christ, by his mercy draws good out of evil. Though the full realization of Christ’s victory over evil awaits its appointed time, the Resurrection is a first fruit of that victory and shines forth as the greatest evidence of the efficacy of divine love.
The miracles of Jesus—demonstrations of divine power over the consequences of sin—point to the power of God’s love to overcome sin itself. Such is the lesson of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:10–11). God’s love is no less effective with respect to sin than it is with respect to leprosy, blindness, and death. When he touches us with his grace—that is, his love—we are really changed. We are made holy and are justified. This consistent teaching of the Church was restated by Vatican II:
“The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to his own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy” (Lumen Gentium 40; emphasis added).
Anyone familiar with the issues of reformation theology and the Decree on Justification of the Council of Trent will appreciate this text’s emphasis that a real change takes place in those who are justified and become sons of God by faith and baptism. Trent defined justification as a “translation from that condition in which man is born as a son of the first Adam into the state of grace and adoption among the children of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 250). It emphasized that it “consists not only in the forgiveness of sins but also in the sanctification and renewal of the inward being by a willing acceptance of the grace and gifts whereby someone from being unjust becomes just”(Ott, 251).
Trent’s emphasis on the real effect of divine love has been recently reaffirmed (July 8, 1998) by the Response of the Catholic Church to the Joint Declaration of Catholics and Lutherans issued by Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Quoting pertinent texts from the Decree on Justification, the Response identifies statements in the Joint Declaration that “seem incompatible with the renewal and sanctification of the interior man of which the Council of Trent speaks.” The Response comes back to this central reality of the interior transformation of man with respect to the Catholic understanding of good works and the reward of eternal life.
Scripture uses a variety of images in revealing the change that takes place in us as a result of God’s love. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes Gregory of Nyssa as a summary: “Sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again. We had lost the possession of the good; it was necessary for it to be given back to us. Closed in the darkness, it was necessary to bring us the light; captives, we awaited a Savior; prisoners, help; slaves, a liberator. Are these things minor or insignificant? Did they not move God to descend to human nature and visit it, since humanity was in so miserable and unhappy a state?” (CCC 457).
God’s love accomplishes something we cannot do for ourselves. It forgives sins, causes conversion, justifies, and makes us children of God.
Evidence for the Effectiveness of God’s Love
Without entering into detailed documentation and development, there are several considerations that support the claim that God’s love is effective.
1. This is the clear teaching of the Church. The texts we have viewed stress the real change in us that constitutes justification. We cannot justify ourselves. Even though there is a genuine cooperation on our part with God’s grace, that grace (the term as used here is synonymous with God’s love) is the cause of this change.
2. The lives of the saints bear witness to this real transformation. The teaching of Trent is verified in the virtues and martyrdom of the saints.
3. A love that was not effective wouldn’t correspond to our poverty and suffering. Either we would not be saved, or we would save ourselves. When people are wounded, they do not need a doctor simply to cover up the ugliness. They need a doctor to stop the bleeding and prevent a life-threatening infection. When people are sick, they need a real cure, not a sympathetic bedside manner. What good is love that does not bring about a real healing, a real change?
4. Many of Christ’s miracles changed people physically. Would it make sense if God’s power was less effective in the spiritual and moral realm? The liturgy captures this parallel between the physical and spiritual in the prayer before Communion: “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and my soul will be healed.” This prayer is based on the words of the centurion who believed in the efficacy of Christ’s word to heal his servant (Matt. 8:8). This is the kind of faith the Church desires to arouse in us as we approach Holy Communion.
5. Genuine human love is not satisfied with just telling someone, “I love you.” As all parents know, love does not rest until the one you love has benefited somehow and is better off for having been loved. Could God’s love be less effective than human love?
6. God’s word is effective, as we see in Genesis: “Let there be . . . and so it was.” We see it also in Isaiah 55:10–11: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” Should God’s word be any less effective when it is the Word Incarnate of the New Testament?
7. We expect dogs to bark and cats to meow because those actions are consistent with their natures. Similarly, Paul expects Christians to act in a way becoming children of God. He would not do so if he did not believe that they had acquired a new nature and become sharers in God’s own nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Only God can bring about the change in us from being powerless to keep his law (Rom. 7:14–23) to living in the power of the love of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:1–5). Otherwise, we would be saving ourselves; or else grace would have been within us all along, and all we would need is a moving act on God’s part to activate it. But Catholic tradition has understood the role of Christ to be much more than simply stimulator to activate what was already there. He is the mediator of God’s life, the efficient cause of our salvation.
Catholic Doctrine Reconsidered
Let us now consider several elements of Catholic doctrine in light of this efficacy of divine love.
1. The sacraments as real instrumental causes of grace. In and through the sacraments, God loves us efficaciously by sending the Holy Spirit as the fruit of Christ’s paschal mystery. “‘Sacramental grace’ is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior” (CCC 1129).
The Catechism teaches that in the sacraments “the Father always hears the prayer of his Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power” (CCC 1127). If the Father hears the prayers of the Church, it can only be because the Church’s prayer becomes one with the Son’s prayer. And the Father’s answer in the sacraments can be no different than the answer he made to his Son’s prayer: “The Spirit of truth, the other Paraclete, will be given by the Father in answer to Jesus’ prayer” (CCC 729).
The sacraments operate in virtue of the efficacy of God’s love in the same way that the sacrifice of Jesus results in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This has an apologetic and catechetical value. The apologetic value is that a Catholic can show that a denial of the causality of the sacraments entails an implicit denial of the efficacy of God’s love, something for which there is rich biblical evidence. This is something that, hopefully, no Christian would want to call into question. The catechetical value is that it keeps faith properly Christocentric and Trinitarian, based on the biblical witness to the economy of salvation. It also serves to bolster Christian hope, which is especially based on the efficacy of divine love and operative in the celebration of the sacraments.
2. The nature of Christian morality. We saw that Paul’s moral exhortations invoke the principle that action follows upon being. We must be renewed in our being if we are to conform our lives to the demands of the gospel. We cannot become Christians by keeping commandments. In the covenants God has made with his people, commandments specify what is required in order to be good stewards of the gift of new life. But life comes first: God first touches us with the power of his creative and redeeming love; only then does he give the commandments, as in the case of Adam and Eve. Further, we are admonished that our love must be effective (see 1 John 3:18 and Jas. 1:22–25). Only an effective love is a participation in God’s own love, which is also effective.
3. The glory of God in Mary and the saints. An understanding of the efficacy of God’s love helps people to understand the Catholic way of giving God glory by drawing attention to the effects of his love in the saints. As the Catechism teaches, “By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her” (CCC 828). Far from deflecting attention from God, veneration of the saints is a way to give him glory.
4. The role of witness in evangelization and holiness in apologetics. Witness unites power to the proclamation of God’s word: “The witness of a Christian life and good works done in a supernatural spirit have great power to draw men to the faith and to God” (CCC 2044, quoting Apostolicam Actuositatem). It has been said that holiness is the greatest apologetic for the Church. Now we know why: Holiness shows the active and transforming presence of God’s love in the Church, despite human weakness.
5. The Church as sacrament. We are now in a position to understand the pastoral significance of Vatican II’s teaching that the Church is a sacrament or sign and instrument of unity. The Catechism uses several different qualifiers when mentioning that the Church is a sacrament, but the one that goes to the very foundation of the entire economy of salvation is the one that links the sacramental nature of the Church to God’s love.
The Church is the sacrament of “the mystery of God’s love for men” (CCC 776), the sacrament of “divine love” (CCC 515), or of the “loving plan of God” (CCC 609). Every member of the Church is charged with cooperating with God’s grace in order to show the power of his love. This is how the petition of the Our Father is realized: “The sanctification of his name among the nations depends inseparably on our life and our prayer. . . . We ask that this name of God should be hallowed in us through our actions. For God’s name is blessed when we live well, but is blasphemed when we live wickedly” (CCC 2814). René Latourelle put it negatively: “If Christianity cannot show in practice this change in the human condition, it confesses its failure” (Christ and the Church, Signs of Salvation , 59).
The principle of the efficacy of God’s love is important for several reasons. Since catechesis is by nature systematic, presenting the faith as an organic whole, our discovery of the connection between the efficacy of God’s love and the elements of Catholic faith presented here serves this goal. The efficacy of God’s love is also important for apologetics and ecumenical dialogue. As we have seen, several elements of Catholic doctrine related to the efficacy of divine love are points on which Catholic faith differs from that of many non-Catholic Christians. Understanding that divine love is effective also helps us understand the irreplaceable role of witness in evangelization.
During this time of a new evangelization, it is crucial that those who respond to the Holy Father’s call place more confidence in the power of a Christian life to reach people’s hearts than in programs, techniques, and arguments. Apologetics and evangelization intersect precisely at this point: presenting to the world, through our changed lives, concrete evidence of the efficacy of God’s love made manifest in Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.