Tormented Lives

It is often heard that Catholics must lead very tormented lives, given the fact that we cannot know with “absolute certainty” (cf. Trent, S6, Ch 12) that we are among the elect. The converse is that those among the Reformed must lead very peaceful lives, in the assured knowledge of their final salvation. Now, I would never deny that many Catholics lead tormented lives, nor that many Protestants lead peaceful lives. But that was never the case for me.

Dr Phil Cary, an Anglican, has commented (.pdf) on the differences between Luther and Calvin when is comes to justification and assurance, and his comments hold up well as differences between Catholicism and Calvinism also. The reason for this is that Lutheranism and Catholicism are sacramental in their structure, and this has a lot of implications for our assurance and peace. To be sure, there are obviously differences between Lutheranism and Catholicism (duh!), but in this regard, the similarities are also there.

The primary implication for the sacramental outlook (vs. the non-sacramental) is that it leads to the tendency to look outwards (vs. inwards). What do I mean? Answer the question: how do I know I am in a state of grace? The non-sacramental answer is that I know I am in a state of grace because I have believed. But when the stormy waters of the Christian life come, as they inevitably do, and we are faced with the difficult task of rooting out the sins from our lives, many times rather unsuccessfully, the question frequently arises: have I really believed? If I had really believed and been justified, then the process of sanctification should be occurring in me. And if it’s not, then maybe I haven’t been justified. And if I haven’t been justified when believed, maybe I didn’t believe hard enough, or well enough, or the right things. This type of thinking can lead to tormented consciences, not only at the level of “Am I saved?”, but also, “How can I be saved, when I thought I had believed, but really apparently hadn’t?” The looking inside and endlessly questioning ourselves can quickly lead to despair. Or the opposite. It can also lead people to pretend that they are being sanctified in order to convince themselves that they are justified. This mindset, ironically, can quickly degenerate into self-righteousness; I’m saved because I’m acting well.

Conversely, the sacramental outlook makes us look outward. Consider again: how do I know I am in a state of grace? I have been baptized. And since my last mortal sin, I have been to confession. Are you in doubt? Go to confession. In this outlook, there is no endless looking inward to see if I can discern there the fruits of holiness. In one sense, it doesn’t even matter. If I have been baptized and have confessed my mortal sins, whatever else may be true about me, I am in a state of grace. I belong to God.

The Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, when scrutinized, really doesn’t give peace. It just pushes back the question one more level. “You can be assured of your salvation once you have been born again.” Cool, but how do I know I have been born again? Whereas the Catholic doctrine of not knowing with “absolute certainty” whether one will be finally saved leads to peace in the here and now, because I can know with certainty *right now* that I am in a state of grace.

Or so that has been my story. And that of others with whom I have spoken.


~ by Rob on May 18, 2007.

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