A problem sneaks in for us Catholics when proclaiming the Gospel that we need to address. We have this tendency since the Reformation to think about faith solely within the context of that infamous sola fide debate that Luther and Calvin gave to the world. Against "once saved, always saved" Christians, Catholics have asserted that faith is both a gift from God and the work of an individual, that is, it is faith and works, not faith or works. And all is grace, regardless.
The problem lies in emphasis. Since we were arguing with people who pushed faith alone, we had to reinforce the works side, leading to a rather unfortunate skewing of Catholic theology, especially where it concerns justification and sanctification. The reality is we Catholics are now leaning almost entirely towards works in our salvation. It seems that many pew-sitting Catholics have discarded the need for a saving faith, resulting in scores of pew-sitters who think they earn their salvation by being a “good enough person.” What qualifies a person as good enough, no one seems to know exactly, except that they at least fit the bill.
“I’m a good person. I mean, I’m not a murderer. I’m not Hitler.”
You’re not Hitler? Congratulations! So Heaven is filled with not-Hitlers and Hell is filled with just Hitler? It seems the bar for being “good enough” is so low that not being a homicidal, genocidal maniac automatically gets you over it.
This is completely false and terrifying at how widespread it is today. I see this in my parish and authors such as Sherry Weddell and Fr. Mallon talk about this plague in their own experiences. If Catholics think of Heaven at all, which they rarely do, they do so without once mentioning Christ. It all rests on moral effort, and what is considered moral is constantly shifting. Jesus is downgraded from Savior to moralist, and consequently, the Cross is emptied of its power to actually save.
Thus, if you follow this logic, you are a Pelagian heretic! This might sound extreme, but follow me on this. The priest Pelagius basically taught that moral effort was all that was needed to gain Heaven and avoid Hell. He denied things like original sin as well. If salvation is given solely based on human effort, then it ceases to be about grace altogether. Christians are no longer divinely adopted sons and daughters of God the Father, but are merely workers getting a wage. We become mercenaries.
Think about it: how can eternity, which is God’s own inner life, be earned by mere creatures, especially we sinners? Even the Blessed Virgin Mary is incapable of earning Heaven. Though sinless, she still needs God the Son to be her Savior, as she exclaims in the Magnificat.
Here is the core of both the sacramental life and one’s daily discipleship: grace. You cannot talk about the Gospel without talking about grace, which is God’s free gift of God’s own life. We have access to divine grace through our faith and we walk in that grace through our works. But make no mistake, both the ability to have faith and every good deed we do are gifts of God's grace. All is grace. That’s why Mary was so esteemed by Catholics. Her title spoken by the archangel Gabriel is “full of grace.”
Once we lose grace, Christianity ceases to be the union with, and worship of, God and becomes a moralistic religion. In today’s pluralistic world, yet another moral system is not a differentiator and it certainly is not life-giving or transformative. In this pick-and-choose moral landscape, Christianity-as-moralism will lose every time to moralities of indulgence. So we have to present the truth, beauty, and goodness of Christianity by giving people the fullness of it. In short, we need Christ more than we need the Commandments, because Christ makes the Commandments a source of life and not restriction and repression, as it often characterized today.
We need a Savior more than a teacher. When did humanity follow the advice of Socrates, Plato, Confucius, or any other wise man or woman? How can one more teacher or sage suddenly wake up the human race? Isn't it more honest to see that precisely because we do not follow the wise in this world that points to our need for a Savior? I think it does.
This Pelagian mindset is what we call a "Works-based religion." Works-based religion means that there is a standard of goodness that an individual needs to achieved in order to be approved by the deity. This immediately leads us into the comparison trap. If we are feeling good about ourselves, we will compare our good deeds to those of someone who is obviously morally inferior (like Hitler!), and we will congratulate ourselves. If we are depressed, we will compare ourselves to those who are seemingly better than us, and this will lead to despair.
The highest achiever of a works-based righteousness is thwarted by his own pride, thinking himself the most morally superior. This is precisely why Aristotle would have viewed Christian humility as an evil to be detested. No, to Aristotle the virtuous man maximizes the ways others depend on him and minimize his need for others. He hides his weaknesses and faults. This pride corrupts the moral quality of the virtuous man in his very virtue. "I earned this!" He tells himself, and no one can take that away from him.
These self-righteous rigorists and not obvious sinners are the hardest to convert because they are convinced of their own white-knuckled, self-made sufficiency. It was the despised public sinner named Zacchaeus who, by receiving Christ into his home, received transformative grace into his heart. This stands in direct contrast to the rigorist Pharisees that mocked Jesus for sitting at Zacchaeus' table. The Pharisees are patient zero for how pride corrupts and isolates the moral high achiever, seeing everyone else as beneath them and as detestable.
No where does the Bible or the Church teach we earn our salvation or gain Heaven by being just a little more moral. To break this Pelagian mindset, we need to return to putting a priority on faith in Jesus Christ as the central point of Catholicism, and not "being a nice person," or some other nonsense that is being peddled in our coloring book catechesis today.
By placing faith at the center of an individual's life God's Spirit can move in tremendous ways. Our faith grows and God is able to do more work within and among us because we have an expectation that He will show up and do something amazing. A works-based religious system has no need for grace and, with works at the center, we miss out on the inspiration of faith and the motivation of grace. This is why we see generation after generation of bored Catholics who are not daring and bold in their faith. They have no expectation that God will do anything anyways, so why bother dreaming big and stepping out in faith?
God love you!