Reflections on Catholicism, Sacred Scripture and the Letter of St Paul to the Romans.
Please vet for doctrinal error.
[References:The New American BibleCatechism of the Catholic ChurchDei VerbumProvidentissimus DeusFaith and works (EWTN)Reward and Merit (Catholic Answers)
Prayerful study of the Word of God found in Sacred Scripture is helpful to our Christian life; indeed it is essential. "Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ" (St. Jerome, c. 340-420 AD, the first man to make a decent translation of the Bible into Latin, the vernacular language of Western Europe at the time). The Church in Her wisdom helps us by reading scripture aloud everyday at Mass and providing us with preachers (at least on Sundays and feast days) to help us deepen our understanding. Further, "Dei Verbum" (the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) urges all the Christian faithful to go themselves to the sacred text and to prayerfully meditate on it and study it by devout reading ("Dei Verbum", section 25).
The Church has from the earliest time upheld the Bible as the Word of God and that nothing may contradict what we find written therein. A concrete definition of this was given by Pope Leo XIII in 1893:
"For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost: and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true." (Pope Leo XIII, encyclical letter "Providentissimus Deus").
Indeed, here lies a great area of agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals. While many middle-of-the-road Protestants take an overly symbolic or critical view of the Bible and seek to diminish its truth, importance and eternally valid teaching, the Church unceasingly seeks to uphold it.
So, having established the importance of scripture to Catholicism, what did I make of Romans? I was certainly amazed and challenged by it! We are left in no doubt as to what Paul believed and the depth and complexity of his theology is astounding -- I've barely scratched the surface.
Perhaps the most difficult part for me was Paul's discussion of a kind of predestination -- why is it some people are Christian and some aren't? This question (cf. Rom 9:19-26 and elsewhere) is of perennial importance and is deeply mysterious, something Paul acknowledges. We must respond by acknowledging God to be God, acknowledging Christ's Kingship of the universe and trust that everything is part of His providential plan!
Romans also highlights some areas of agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals. Paul is abundantly clear that, in the final analysis, the most important thing is what we "believe in our heart" (Rom 10:9), our interior conversion to Christ. This is the most important message of the Church -- it is a central reason why Christ established the Church, to "make disciples of all the nations" (Matt 28:19). At the same time, the necessity of living lives of the highest moral character is affirmed. In terms of moral teaching, the Catholic Church and Evangelicals uphold today what no Christian would have questioned historically. Many other denominations have been overcome by liberal permissiveness in the form of misguided compassion. Furthermore, the universality of Christianity is affirmed by Paul; Christ's death was for all. In an age of relativism, the Church unflinchingly holds up the uniqueness and universality of Christ. I think this is an idea we would agree on (sorry for lack of references in this paragraph).
And how are we to attain these lofty ideals? Only by Grace! We must acknowledge our complete and utter dependence on Grace. The Church affirms that no man can merit for himself the intial Grace of justification; between God and man there is an infinite inequality (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2007-2010). Human acts of attempted obedience to any Law can only condemn us because we can never live up to God on our own terms, we always fall short. Grace alone can save. This truly is a central message of orthodox Catholicism and chimes strongly with the message of Evangelicalism (again lack of references).
Of course, the Church understands it in the context of the rest of scripture and magisterial teaching, and so may place a slightly different emphasis even on these points of agreement. For Evangelicals and Catholics, these points may fit slightly differently into an overall theology. The commonality cannot be denied however and surely provides a good starting point for improved relations between Catholics and Evangelicals throughout the world and in Cambridge.
My studies have brought some questions concerning the interpretation of Romans in the Evangelical tradition. The two biggest questions I have concern Romans 2:5-11 and 6:3-14.
First, Paul (quoting Psalm 62) says 'God "will give to each person according to what he has done."' (Rom 2:6).
I know this topic is a bit of an old chestnut, but let me try and lay out clearly the Catholic teaching. Protestants often misunderstand the Catholic teaching on merit, thinking that Catholics believe that one must do good works to come to God and be saved. This is exactly the opposite of what the Church teaches.
Remember, according to Catholic teaching: "[N]one of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification; for if it is by grace, it is not now by works; otherwise, as the Apostle [Paul] says, grace is no more grace" (Council of Trent, Decree on Justification 8, citing Rom. 11:6).
But, under the impetus of God’s grace, Christians do perform acts which are pleasing to God and which God has promised to reward (cf. Matt 25:31-46). In the sense of a reward given according to a promise made by God, our actions truly have merit in the sight of God then; yet this itself is a grace He alone gives! It is in this sense then that we may be said to be saved by faith and works -- faith is essential for our initial justification and our faith and deeds together merit for us the rewards of eternal life. And this all by the Grace of God, for salvation is truly by Grace alone and through Christ alone (cf. Eph 2:8, Acts 4:12). Furthermore, this view is upheld by the earliest Christian writers, and is explicitly attested to as early as AD 110 by Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to Polycarp and by many writers from the 2nd century onwards.
(See for example http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/FAWORKS.htm for an apologetic explanation of this, based on scripture)
The second point I would raise concerns belief about the nature of baptism. I'm not sure what your views on baptism are, or even whether there is one single Evangelical standpoint on the issue. One often hears people refer to baptism as merely symbolic though, that it has no real effect but is an ordinance to be follwed. This is quite un-Catholic, for we believe that baptism is a true sacrament, it actually conveys the grace it symbolizes.
Romans 6:3-14 (I won't paste the text in here) hints at this far deeper, more mysterious meaning to baptism. Paul explicitly and directly links our baptism itself to our being joined in Christ's death and hence our baptism is our assurance salvation. (cf. 1 Pet 3:21).
Furthermore, Paul talks of baptism literally incorporating us in the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:13, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1267-1274), which ties in to what we find in Romans. To my mind, this is the only understanding of baptism which is truly consistent with scripture.
This has many implications for how we view the Church, as a community of believers who are literally Christ's body. No time to go into those now though. Our theology of ecclesiastical structure will be discussed another day I'm sure!