In his article (“Justification Sola Fide: Catholic After All?,” September-October 2009) Christopher Malloy unduly restricts the meaning of the word “work” when he says: “But I might not have opportunity to perform a work, to ‘realize’ this living faith.” Every justified person has the opportunity and the obligation to do good work.
Healed and empowered by God through the sacraments, we do good work when we do what God would have us do. Good work is nothing other than obedience to the will of God. Put another way, if God would not have us do anything other than what we are doing in a particular circumstance, then we are doing good work. In fact, we know from Scripture that good work can be something as simple as peaceful sleep. Jesus said, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 5:17). That is, every moment of his life, Jesus was doing good work. But Jesus was fully human. He slept. If Jesus was always doing good work, even while he slept, we must conclude that sleep can be good work, if that is God’s will for us at the time. And this is obvious when we recall the story of Jesus and his disciples in the storm (Mt 8, Mk 4, Lk 8). As the storm raged, Jesus slept peacefully in the boat, which enabled his disciples to learn a tough lesson about God’s faithfulness and omnipotence. Jesus was clearly doing good work by sleeping.
Let us consider a baby girl who dies just after baptism. Given her circumstance, God would not have her do anything other that what she actually does, and so she does good work, even as she dies. This is why the Church honors the holy innocents who were slaughtered for their association with Jesus (Mt 2:16). These babies did good work—God expected nothing more from them.
Why does this matter? Most Protestants object to this statement: “Good work is necessary for salvation.” But many Protestants agree with this statement: “Obedience to God’s will is necessary for salvation.” For Protestants who agree with the second statement, objections on the issue of justification are rooted in their misunderstanding of the term “good work.” For example, a Protestant might say, “The good thief was saved, yet he did no good work.” They say this because they think that “good work” necessarily means something akin to “serving meals at a homeless shelter.” But in reality, the good thief probably did only good work from the moment of his conversion to his death. This would be so, if he did all that God wanted him to do. As Bl. Teresa of Calcutta says, “Don’t think that sitting, standing, coming and going, and all that you do is not important to God.”
So, Pope Benedict XVI does not err when he says that sola fide is true, if faith is not opposed to charity, because in fact, we do good work whenever we are not opposed to charity. This is no different than saying, “sola fide is true, so long as faith incorporates obedience.” And this is what the Catholic Church has taught since her conception.
Christopher Malloy replies:
I thank the reader for a very thoughtful set of questions and remarks. One could always amplify here and draw out there. I would refer, for more sufficient answers, to my other works on the subject; only the briefest of remarks are fit to print here.
There are indeed complexities to “good work.” By no means should they be limited to the “soup kitchens.” The gift of sexual union properly enjoyed, between husband and wife, is a “good work.” The results cry to God for joy.
Regarding the criticism, I did not see the need to draw technical distinctions in such a venue. One might discourse about interior act vs. exterior act, about ends vs. means, about habit vs. act, about first act and second act, about virtual intention, about choosing to act or not to act, about meritorious acts vs. naturally good but not-meritorious acts, etc. These and other distinctions were out of place here.
Suffice it to say, excellent theologians such as Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Möhler, Newman, John Paul, Ratzinger, Dulles, et al. have simply presumed as self-evident that infants do not have the use of free will. (We will except our Lord and possible others whom God has seen fit to bless with the use of free will.) But the use of free will is prerequisite to a good work. Hence, infants do not do good works. Does this mean an infant is not good? No. It means that when we say “good work,” we mean a specific, freely chosen act of charity. And, as the good reader notes, we must not let “charity” be defined simply by soup kitchens. It was but a pencil that St. Thérèse wielded as a good work!
While there is a certain freedom when I “lay me down to sleep,” still, in my experience, I do not undertake a series of free acts throughout the night. I pray that, should and when I wake, I may praise our God.
Poetry or Clarity?
For the most part, I agree with Anthony Esolen that our English translation of the prayers at Mass are banal (“The Language of Prayer Is the Language of Poetry,” September-October 2009). However, I wonder if he is not looking for a snake under every rock—sometimes placing the flowery beauty of certain words above the practical implication that Catholics of today can fully relate to.
One example he gave is the current text from Eucharistic Prayer III, “so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made . . .” The forthcoming translation will be “from the rising of the sun to its setting . . .” While this may be more poetic, it caught my ear in a way the new translators probably didn’t anticipate: The rising and setting of the sun implies that the perfect sacrifice is only made during daylight hours!
This is certainly not what is meant, and the “east to west” phrase avoids that confusion.
Anthony Esolen replies:
Thank you for your kind words. I have always believed that translators (and I am a member of that fraternity) should work hard to preserve both the literal and the figurative meanings of what they are translating. That is what the poetic “from the rising of the sun to its setting” does—not to mention that it picks up the allusion to the prophet Malachi quite nicely, while the other submerges it beneath recognition.
Taste vs. Charity, Round 2
There is an old Latin saying, de gustibus non est disputandum (one cannot argue about taste), which I always felt had some truth to it and so I usually avoid arguments about taste. However truth and charity are another issue, and I was disturbed by comments made by Anthony Esolen in your last issue (Letters, September-October 2009) which I felt failed against those virtues. In his response to Mr. Zimmerer, Dr. Esolen made some comments about [a hymn’s] phrase, “I shall raise you up on the last day.” Now I have no idea how many times I have sung that song and I have never thought that the “I” referred to me. The first line of the song says, “I am the Bread of Life,” and it is abundantly clear that we are singing the words of Christ. I certainly am not the Bread of Life: Christ is. In the song we are singing the promises of Christ to us, and the context makes that so clear that it is really dishonest to twist the meaning, as Dr. Esolen does. For someone so dedicated to the importance of language, that is unbelievable.
Then in his article (“The Language of Poetry Is the Language of Prayer”), Dr. Esolen makes several snide comments that do not help his arguments and really fail against charity. For example he has to add the unnecessary comment “if we were still listening.” And then a few lines later, he talks of the priest saying (the prayer) with perfunctory speed. I have been a priest for 50 years, and I try never to say the prayers of the Mass with “perfunctory speed.” That is an insult to priests. But those sorts of comments reveal an attitude that Mr. Zimmerer was referring to in his letter. I think Dr. Esolen should have paid more attention to Mr. Zimmerer’s comments.
—Rev. William Behringer, S.M.
Anthony Esolen replies:
Why should we sing the words of Christ in the first person, breaking a nearly uninterrupted tradition of 2,000 years (the only exceptions I can think of are the Improperia, the poetic reproaches imagined to be uttered by Christ against his people, that is against us, who are condemning him to death)? Why not simply sing them in the third person? I oppose everything at Mass that tends to divert attention away from Christ, and this grammatical blurring of the distinction between the person singing and the Person about whom we are singing does just that, as it does in the awful “Here I Am,” wherein the congregation sings the part of God in the first person, and then follows it, presumptuously and narcissistically, with the part of the young Samuel, also in the first person.
As far as the perfunctory is concerned, I don’t wish to imply that most priests desire it so as to get the Mass over with as soon as possible, nor do I believe that a reverent low Mass is at all a bad thing. But it is obvious that the translation of the Novus Ordo that we have been hearing for the last 40 years puts a premium on the perfunctory—as a glance at what the translators inflicted upon the Gloria will show—and this premium tends to encourage bad habits among both clergy and laity.
Finally, I thank Father for his service to God and his Church and apologize for any trouble I may have caused his heart; that was not my intent.
Not “Firstborn” of Many
I thank and commend Tim Staples for “The Case for Mary’s Perpetual Virginity” (July-August 2009). Through the years I have been blessed greatly by Mr. Staples’ articles and teaching audiotapes.
In the following excerpt from The “Brothers and Sisters” of Jesus: Anything New?, François Rossier reinforces the argument that the Hebrew and Greek words translated “firstborn” do not necessarily imply successive children:
In Numbers 3:40, the Lord ordered to Moses: “Number all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward.” A one-month-old child could not be declared a first-born because he had other siblings. The term “firstborn” refers above all to the law, and is thus applicable not only to the eldest of several, but also to any only son. Luke insists, three times, on showing how Jesus was presented into the Temple as the law demanded for every firstborn male child (cf. Luke 2:22, 23, 27).
May the Lord continue to bless This Rock and all members of the Catholic Answers “family”!
—Donald A. Balasa
Keep Up the Good Fight
Your opening article (“Beware Fair-Minded Words,” July-August 2009) was awesome. The very idea of Notre Dame letting Obama give that graduation speech was abominable. Notre Dame was my alma mater. I agree with you about fair-minded words. The “get to the point” words are murdering innocent little children. What is fair about that? Fair is giving the baby a chance.
Some of the same people I see today screaming about abortion being legal are also screaming that the death penalty is immoral. Tell me—where is the difference? It’s cool to let a convicted killer go back on the street to kill again. But it is even better to kill a pure, innocent baby? Give me a break.
Please keep up your fight against the evil in our world. I truly enjoyed your article. I also enjoyed Alice von Hildebrand’s article, “Truth Demands Charity—Not Mere Tolerance.” Very well put.
Faith Necessary for Salvation
In November 2008’s “Quick Questions,” Michelle Arnold’s answer to a question asking about the possibility of salvation of atheists claimed, in effect, that it was possible for someone to be an atheist “in good conscience.” The claim was further made that atheists fulfill the “second great commandment […] even if they do not explicitly do it” for the sake of our Lord when they perform works of charity.
The Catholic Church has never taught that one can be an atheist “in good conscience.” Someone “unable in conscience to believe,” according to Catholic teaching, has nothing other than a severely warped and perverted conscience.
St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans speaks of atheists as “inexcusable” for their atheism, here echoing the words of the Book of Wisdom (13:1-10). The First Vatican Council also taught that the existence of God can be known with certainty from the natural light of human reason (that is, without the light of supernaturally infused faith). It is therefore not at all possible that anyone could be excused “in conscience” from acknowledging something evident and certain by the natural light of reason (see also St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans 1:20).
Further, as to the claim that atheists fulfill the commandment of loving one’s neighbor whether or not they do so for our Lord, I would cite in reply an incident narrated by the late Servant of God Archbishop Sheen. On a plane, Archbishop Sheen was asked by the stewardess if he would like some food. He declined, stating that he was fasting. The passenger sitting next to him also declined. Archbishop Sheen turned and asked if the passenger was also a Catholic who was fasting. The passenger replied that he was a satanist fasting to increase the number of abortions.
Thus we have a good work utterly perverted given its depraved end.
Similarly, an atheist who lacks Catholic faith, no matter what good works he may do, cannot at all be said to fulfill the second commandment, since his works proceed from something other than the supernatural faith “without which it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:6). St. Paul is very clear on this point (1 Cor 13). Just as faith without works is dead, works without right faith are worthless.
I hope, in the interests of truth, that you would issue a retraction of this point. There seems to be a distressing tendency since the Second Vatican Council to promote ignorance as some sort of excusing cause of sin, as though someone’s not believing in the necessity of the Catholic Church, by his very unbelief, is thereby excused from being Catholic (if someone is really “sincere” in his belief that he can fly, will his sincerity permit him to walk unharmed over a nearby cliff?) The traditional teaching, as always concisely expressed by St. Thomas, instead points out that ignorance itself is a sin and in some cases a punishment for sin (Summa Theologiae I-II:76:1-3).
Michelle Arnold replies:
Mr. O’Halloran’s concerns do carry weight, but two points must be made. One, it was not my claim that all atheists are atheists in good conscience or that they all fulfill the second great commandment to love neighbors, only that some may by God’s grace do so. Second, doctrinal development, as shown in Lumen Gentium 16 (which I cited in my original response), reveals that there may be some atheists who are blameless for their atheism:
Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with his grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the gospel. She knows that it is given by him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.
Lumen Gentium acknowledges the Church’s traditional teaching, stating in the same paragraph:
But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. (LG 16)