Questions Answered

Justification by faith alone?
Any guidelines on the nature and practice of spiritual direction within confession?


 Pictured above: Martin Luther, St. Paul, and Pelagius, the heretic.

Justification by Faith Alone Revisited
Answer:   Romans 3:28 states:  “Therefore, we conclude that man is justified by faith without the works of the law.”  This text was one of those which led Luther to teach the doctrine of sola fides (only faith).  It also gave rise to a common Protestant teaching of forensic justification, or the concept that God imputes justification to man in grace; but this justification in no way implies any ontological change.  It is rather a psychological change.  One is considered just by God, but is still a sinner.  This last teaching is reflected in a text of St. Augustine, where he states that redeemed man is simul iustus et peccator (at the same time just and a sinner).  The traditional interpretation of this phrase in Protestantism is that man is actually a sinner, but regarded as just.

It must be stated that, though this does characterize a good deal of common Protestant teaching about grace, it is questionable whether any classical Protestant (Luther, for example) held this teaching in all of its logical implications.  The weight of the teaching seems to be in reaction to an exaggerated power given to human works in the reception of grace.  Some Protestant thinkers wrongly attributed a Pelagian, or semi-Pelagian, tendency in Catholic ideas of things, like indulgences and the sacraments, which suggested that man can cause his own salvation in an active sense.  God must reward our works in strict justice.

Certainly, this teaching, in its complete logical sense, cannot be held by any Catholic.  One can agree with this teaching, that human works do not cause salvation in strict justice.  However, the sacraments are not human works, but works of Christ.  Also, though man cannot give himself grace, or demand it of God, he can prepare himself, with the exterior aid of God, to receive grace.

Catholics hold that justification involves the inner presence of the Holy Spirit.  Luther certainly held that too, but the logic of his explanation is problematic.  For Catholics, since sanctifying grace is a gift (an accident in the soul by which we participate in the life of the Trinity), one is truly sanctified, and renewed by it.  No one merits this grace.   However, since God has given us his life as a kind of proportionate participation as God moves us to salvation, we do, in a small sense, cooperate with him in arriving at heaven.

Paul’s text certainly means that faith is a necessary part of the process, but only the first part.  Faith is an act of both the intellect and the will.  The act of the intellect comes before the will, as one cannot love what one does not know.  This is what St. Paul means, in the text above, by our salvation consisting of faith and not works.  The first result of God’s grace moving us is conviction in the intellect about his nature.  This must be completed in the will for grace to be a complete act.  So, “faith without works is dead also” (Jas 2:26).  Charity is the perfection of faith, and without it, faith is dead.  So, no Catholic could maintain that justification was by faith alone, unless this included charity.  Faith is the beginning but is perfected in charity.

As to the text that man is at the same time just and a sinner, a Catholic would interpret this to mean that man is really justified by grace, but because the weaknesses caused by the original sin remain after this, he has a tendency to sin—which theology calls “concupiscence.”  “Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will, and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example”  (CCC, 406).  This is too optimistic.  “The first Protestant reformers, on the contrary, taught that original sin has radically perverted man, and destroyed his freedom; they identified the sin, inherited by each man, with a tendency to evil (concupiscientia), which would be insurmountable” (Ibid.).  This is too pessimistic.  The Church has steered a middle course.  Man is sanctified and renewed interiorly by faith working through love.

The Priest as Spiritual Director
Question:  Has the Church issued any guidelines on the nature and practice of spiritual direction within confession?

Answer:  The practice of spiritual direction is fittingly joined to the practice of confession.  The new document from the Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest: Minister of Divine Mercy (March 9, 2011), makes it clear that an essential ministry accompanying the sacrament of penance is spiritual direction.  This ministry was practiced by many saints, both male and female, throughout the history of the Church.  “Spiritual direction is an integral aspect of the ministry of preaching and reconciliation” (Priest, 67).

The sad fact is that, for most people today (and this includes most clerics), it is almost impossible to find a decent spiritual director, for any great length of time, who has the knowledge, prudence, good will towards the subject, and stability of residence to be available on a regular basis.  Yet, Church teaching is clear that this is an essential part of pastoral care and is “usually connected with the sacrament of penance, at least in the sense of possible consequence” (Priest, 73).  Certainly, one of the reasons that the present crisis has occurred in Catholic ministry is the lack of availability of spiritual directors.

There is an old saying: “He who is his own spiritual director is directed by a fool.”  Even natural prudence demands that one take counsel of others before one makes many decisions about moral matters.  With people who have a lot of experience of life, this necessity may be reduced in proportion to their true experiences.  Human beings know themselves very little. It is easy to rationalize glitches in the moral or spiritual practices which are vital to persevering in our various vocations.  Today, the theological climate of the Church is in great upheaval, and it is not easy to discern the spirit of truth from the spirit of error.  Even brilliant theologians are led to a kind of gnostic rejection of the authority of the Holy See.  Spiritual direction is necessary for a person to be certain that one is not following one’s own inclinations, but the Lord’s.  “The specific objective of spiritual direction is therefore to discern the signs of God’s will for our journey of vocation, prayer, perfection, for our daily life, and for our fraternal mission”  (Priest, 79).

This requires two important characteristics of the director: first, the director must realistically seek to understand the personality of the directee.  Though the goal of direction is the same for all, “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.”  If one were to use the old division of the temperaments as an example—choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, and sanguine—one would see that each type of personality experiences the same grace in different ways.  A sanguine personality would not be encouraged to be more active; a choleric, more courageous; a melancholic, more obsessive; or a phlegmatic, more isolated from others.  The advice must be tailored to the personality and the vocation.  It would be unfitting, for instance, to require a teenager to read and digest the Summa Theologiae.

Second, sound knowledge of theology and human psychology is essential.  Much harm has been done to souls when directors try to force their private devotions, or their personal way of prayer, on those they direct.  St. Teresa of Avila preferred accuracy to holiness in her director.  Some directors have had fixed ideas about spirituality, so they tried to force directees to continue strict meditation practices, even though they had already passed beyond word encounter with the Lord.  Others have tried to foist New Age techniques on people by getting them to abandon the traditional practices of the Catholic religion in favor of mantras, crystals, or lotus positions.

Normally, a director will deal with how grace is lived, as well as the ordinary virtues.  Concern for faults and patience with the progressive surrender of control over the whole process are key touchstones.  Spiritual authors have been accustomed to also treat the spiritual life like natural life.  It has three ages:  childhood, adolescence, and maturity.  Each demands its own particular evaluation and advice.

So, spiritual direction is a normal and important fruit of confessional practice.  It would be impossible to realize spiritual maturity, which is the fruit of confession, without a constant examination of the progress of God’s life in the soul.  The Vatican document lists the requirements for a good spiritual director:  “a sufficient knowledge (theoretical and practical) of the spiritual life, as well as experience of this, and a good sense of responsibility and prudence…. closeness, listening, hope, witness, integrity, in imparting desire for holiness, firmness, clarity, truth, understanding, broadness or plurality of outlook, adaptability, perseverance on the path of holiness” (Priest, 102).

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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