I have long been sympathetic with Father Yves Congar’s famous remark that if figures on both sides of the Reformation divide had been a bit more open-minded and open-hearted, there might be a Lutheran order in the Catholic Church today, just as there are Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, and, indeed, Augustinians, the religious family to which Martin Luther himself initially belonged.

Implicit in Congar’s observation is the conviction that there was something altogether right and important in some of the Reformer’s moves and that the church catholic would have benefitted from incorporating them into its own life. Implicit too is Congar’s sense that, sadly, things got out of hand: exaggerations, over-reactions, impugning of motives, awkward formulations, etc. on both sides. The result was that a reform movement within the church gave rise to a divided church.

If he had limited himself to saying “gratia prima,” Luther might have effected a needed reform within Catholicism.

The Second Vatican Council, at which Congar played a major role, valorized a number of themes dear to the hearts of the Reformers: the primacy of Christ, the need for ardent evangelization, the central place of the Bible in the life of the church, using both bread and wine in Communion, the priesthood of all believers, etc. And it expressed its fervent hope for the unification of all those baptized into the body of Christ. For this, both Protestants and Catholics should give thanks.

The Primacy of Grace

At the same time, there were and are substantive issues that separate Catholics from Protestants, and it is only right that, on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we look critically at them.

The single most significant contribution of Martin Luther and those who followed in his theological path was the stress on the primacy of grace. Absolutely essential to the biblical witness and to the best of the Christian spiritual tradition is the assertion that the divine love comes first. The people of Israel are important, not because of their heroic spiritual attainment, but because the Lord chose them. Jacob is not obviously “better” than Esau and hence the object of the Lord’s love; rather, he is loved by the Lord and hence becomes the bearer of the promise. David was not the handsomest or most obviously gifted of the sons of Jesse, yet “the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully” on him (1 Sam. 16:13). The Lord didn’t ask Simon’s permission or assess whether he was the most effective fisherman; he just got into the man’s boat and commenced to give orders. And Jesus sums up this principle of the primacy of grace with admirable directness: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).

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When this principle is forgotten, myriad problems ensue in the spiritual order; chief among them is Pelagianism, or the illusion of auto-salvation. If we can save ourselves through heroic moral effort, we turn God into an object of manipulation, and we eliminate the necessity of a savior.

Along with many others in the early 16th century, Luther saw this danger in the life of the church and so he cried out, with true prophetic vigor, on behalf of grace. In doing so, he was echoing his spiritual father, St. Augustine, who many centuries before had contended against Pelagius himself.

And it goes without saying that we need this protest, especially today, when it is taken for granted in our radically secular society that we believe we can not only save ourselves but even invent the meaning of our lives. For this witness, the entire Christian family owes Martin Luther an enormous debt of gratitude. And if he had limited himself to saying gratia prima (grace first), Luther might have effected a needed reform within Catholicism. The problem was that he insisted on gratia sola (grace alone).

The Problem with Grace Alone

This might seem a quibble, but everything hinges upon the difference. By setting grace and “works”—or moral achievement—in stark opposition, Luther demonstrated that he was operating out of a competitive understanding of God, so that giving God all of the glory necessarily entails giving no glory to humanity. And this view was grounded in Luther’s formation in philosophical nominalism. The classic conception of being, proposed by Thomas Aquinas, viewed our being as humans as only analogous to God’s being as God—not the same. By contrast, nominalism embraced a univocal conception of being, initially proposed by William of Occam, which understood that humans and God both have the same sort of being.

On Occam’s interpretation, both God and creatures are items within the general category of “being,” so that God becomes one existent being, however exalted, among many. On Thomas’s reading, God is not the “supreme being,” existing alongside a lot of other beings; he is the sheer act of being itself, through which all creaturely things have their existence. This means that God and the world do not compete with one another on the same ontological “field.” In the classical view, the created realm neither adds to nor subtracts from the perfection of God’s manner of existing. Therefore, giving God all the glory does not require stripping away glory from the creaturely realm—just the contrary. As St. Irenaeus said: Gloria Dei homo vivens (the glory of God is a human being fully alive).

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This is why the Council of Trent, the Catholic church’s official response to the challenge of the Reformers, nodded vigorously toward Luther in denying Pelagianism and stressing the primacy of grace, but at the same time insisted on our “cooperation” with grace as an essential feature of salvation. Precisely because of the unique manner in which God relates to creation, this human cooperation doesn’t compromise the absolute primacy of the divine love. The two can co-inhere, as the prophet Isaiah knew: “Lord, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us.” Catholics are happy to embrace Luther’s Reformation in the measure that it revived a healthy Augustinian anti-Pelagianism; but we wish that it had stopped at gratia prima and not insisted on gratia sola.

Bishop Robert Barron is an Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

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