The Gospel reading for the ordinary form of the Roman Rite was Matthew's version of the Beatitudes. The homilist at Belmont Abbey today, Fr. Christopher Kirchgessner, sounded a theme that anybody who's ever been afflicted with "Catholic guilt" can duly appreciate. "In all honesty," he said, "it is impossible for us" to live out the Beatitudes consistently, or even most of the time. Everybody knows that deep down, but it must be said anyhow because not all Christians are willing to admit it. Many Catholics still seem to believe, even if they don't say out loud, that admitting as much would be tantamount to giving people license to sin. Since that would be unacceptable, they embrace moralism as the way to forestall antinomianism. To be sure, they know that moralism is not enough either. They retain enough spiritual wisdom, indeed orthodoxy, to profess that divine grace is also necessary. Thus they suppose that something called "sanctifying grace," thought of as a kind of divine fuel always on tap at the sacraments, ready to be pumped into the soul, is there to propel us reliably toward the goal of becoming "good enough" to merit heaven. We can check our progress by honestly admitting how many "mortal sins" we commit, how many vices we retain, and by measuring just how mortal and how vicious those things are. Our degree of holiness varies inversely with the product of the relevant quantities of evil. On this picture, the best hope for most of us is to squeak into purgatory if we and others pray and work hard enough to have kept the level of evil below a certain threshold when we die.
Such is the operative spirituality that produces "Catholic guilt." The thing is very much with us, even in the writings of otherwise sound theologians. In an article with whose main thesis I heartily agree, for example, Cardinal Avery Dulles remarks: "Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments." Hmmm. This is from a man who is not only a prince of the Church but a theologian very much involved in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue that produced the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Now I'm sure there is a way to interpret said remark so that it comes out consistent with the Gospel. I don't think it would be right to accuse a man like Dulles, to whose work I owe much, of heresy. But what is the ordinary Catholic, be they lay or clerical, likely to hear in such a remark, which sums up the import of too much Catholic preaching and catechesis even today, even in "progressive" circles that focus on social sin rather than personal sin? They are likely to hear that we're supposed to be, or become, "good enough" to get into heaven and have been given all we need for just that. That's what they've heard all their lives, even when it was not exactly what their teachers meant to say. It raises Protestant hackles—and rightly so. For sooner or later we come to realize, if we're humble enough to be honest, that we will never be "good enough." People who realize that before they're equipped to deal with it often lapse from the practice of the Faith, or even from the Faith itself. It's hard to blame them for refusing to dwell in toxic guilt, especially when nobody has presented them with a healthier model of the spiritual life. Others never admit their human incapacity openly enough to avoid beating themselves up all their lives—or if they do admit the incapacity, can't permit themselves any excuse for it because every possible excuse seems hollow. Every adult, practicing Catholic knows at least one Catholic like that. I know many; for a long time, I was one of them. What is to be done?
One approach is, in effect, Martin Luther's: stop imagining that anything you can do can make you right with God. Respond to the Gospel simply by accepting God's unconditional love. When you sin, pecca fortiter; just remember to repent by throwing yourself on divine mercy, in faith alone. That is the attitude of many Protestants, especially those who today call themselves "evangelicals." It is why they not only admit they will never be "good enough" but aren't much bothered by the fact. They tend to see themselves as righteous only by imputation, in faith. Not only do they not see themselves as having "earned" salvation; they don't even see themselves as being transformed by it. Such is certainly one way, indeed a centuries-old way, to avoid scrupulosity and Catholic guilt. That's how Luther did it. And it makes a certain sort of sense. If you don't think it's either possible or desirable to seek inner transformation, to cooperate in a process of being remade in Christ and thus divinized, then you won't feel bad about failing to do so.
Yet one of the reasons I could never be Protestant is that such an attitude, though not wholly wrong, is not wholly right either. The Great Tradition of both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, from which the Reformation mostly departed to its detriment, indicates that we are made righteous not only by imputation but also by transformation. That occurs for those Christians who, having reached the age of reason, choose to cooperate with what the Scholastics called "prevenient" grace: the divine activity we need in our souls order to accept all other divine gifts. And that's because the baptismal vocation, the very goal of the Christian life, is to become "partakers of the divine nature." Divinization is not something that just gets zapped into us after we die, if we happen to have chosen to "believe" before we die. It begins with baptism and, if we would have it so, continues in the here and now. We don't deserve such a gift; we can do nothing to bestow it on ourselves; to that extent, Luther was right. But for those of us who can choose anything at all for ourselves, it doesn't bear fruit without our cooperation. To that extent, Trent was right—and was consistent with what was right in Luther.
The best way to think of the process is to compare it with a successful marriage. It is often said, rightly, that marriage is not a 50-50 but a 100-100 proposition. Couples in which both parties put their all into the marriage are sanctified by their marriages. The same goes for the roles of divine grace and human will in the ongoing process of salvation. The work of salvation is wholly God's; but it is also wholly ours, to the extent we let ourselves be empowered to contribute to it. Given that Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, which is us, that could hardly be otherwise. To the extent we recognize and accept that, we will be enabled to have the attitude of beatitude. That doesn't mean we will always give our all or that the process will ever be complete in this life. Even the saints are wretched sinners. It means that God always gives us the chance, and the power, to resume going in the right direction. His mercy is what takes us the rest of the way.