“I confess to almighty God . . . that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed by my fault, my fault, my very grievous fault.” Roman Catholic Mass
By The Rt. Rev. Dr. C. FitzSimons Allison
February 2, 2010
Reform of the church in the 16th century was by no means an exclusive concern of Protestants. The need for moral, educational and administrative reform was everywhere acknowledged. The calling and intermittent meeting of the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563 is a complex story but considerable needed reform was accomplished in training clergy, discipline, renewal of spiritual life, and administration. However, our focus will be on the 5th Session which dealt with original sin (1546) and the 6th Session which dealt with justification (1547).
No tradition (or generation of believers) is without the need to hear our Lord’s warning concerning the self-righteous yeast of the Pharisees. The decrees of the Council of Trent about sin and justification are to Pharisaism as cigarettes are to cancer. Some issues at these two sessions evoked special criticism from Anglicans and Protestants and dismay among many Catholics as well. Among the latter were Cardinal Seripando, head of the Augustinian order, and Reginald Pole, later the Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Mary. Pole was so distressed by the decisions at the 6th Session concerning justification that he left the Council in a state of depression from which it took him many months to recover.
What was the decision that distressed these two Roman Catholic leaders? The simple issue lay beneath a layer of scholastic terms: What is it that makes us justified or acceptable before God? The answer given at Trent was: righteousness of our own, infused into us at baptism. The technical language was: the “single formal cause” of our justification is the “infusion of inherent righteousness.” (Formal cause simply means that which makes a thing to be what it is.)
The dismay among many Roman Catholics and most Protestants was caused by the teaching that denied any recognition of sin in Christians who are in a state of grace, that is, in favor with God. Session 5 had already asserted that venial sins do not have the formal nature of sin. Thus, the righteousness of Christians in a state of grace would satisfy God’s justice, notwithstanding the presence of venial sins.
The claim that this righteousness is “infused” wards off the charge of Pelagianism, that we have established this righteousness by our wills. However, the claim that infusion of righteousness at baptism is the single formal cause means that nothing but our own righteousness, though infused (given), is necessary for us to be justified before God. Cardinals Seripando, Pole and Contarini (who died in 1542 before the Council of Trent) each saw that no one’s righteousness, however infused and given, was adequate to meet God’s justice without being joined with the righteousness of Christ which is reckoned (imputed) to us.
Criticism of Trent by Anglicans ran along similar lines. Richard Hooker (1554-1600) called this statement concerning the formal cause of justification, “that grand question which hangeth yet in controversy between us and the Church of Rome about the matter of justifying Righteousness.” The Anglican alternative to Trent is clearly expressed by Hooker: “The righteousness whereby we shall be clothed in the world to come is both perfect and inherent. That whereby here we are justified is perfect, but not inherent. That whereby we are sanctified is inherent, but not perfect.”
This understanding of salvation acknowledges that it is only by God’s perfect action in Jesus Christ that we are either forgivable or forgiven. Because no one, even Christians in a state of grace (being in a right relationship with God), is without sin, so our righteousness in the process of sanctification is ours but in this life is imperfect. The righteousness of our final consummation is both ours and perfect.
Trent claimed that our present infused righteousness is in itself enough to satisfy God’s almighty justice. This mistake was a breach in the air lock that guards the faith from resting on one’s own goodness (which in this life remains imperfect).
Supererogation and Indulgences
Let us examine three reasons why this issue is important. First is the claim that our righteousness, given at baptism, satisfies the justice of God. This reduces that righteousness to include venial sins and it can be improved by doing good deeds over and above what is required by the Church.
These works are called “works of supererogation.” For instance, a lay person can become a nun or priest, which is more than the minimum required of a Christian, and be rewarded accordingly. St. Augustine and other saints of antiquity, on the contrary, insisted that “what is not of love is sin” and that no Christian has yet fulfilled the complete love in response to the love God shows to sinners. Jesus tells his disciples, “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)
The Anglican Article XIV of the 39 Articles explicitly denies the possibility of works of supererogation. Article XI deals with our chronic unworthiness before the majesty of God. We are accounted righteous before God because of the righteousness of Christ being reckoned or worded to us.
While attending the Council of Trent, Cardinal Seripando and Reginald Pole objected to the claim that our infused righteousness alone is the formal cause of justification because no one’s righteousness, whether infused or not, is equal to God’s justice and must be supplemented by Christ’s righteousness. They were put down by the General of the Jesuit Order, Diego Lainez, as holding a “novelty” invented by Luther. Lainez claimed that the position of Pole and Seripando “would undercut the structure of satisfactions, indulgencies, and purgatory.” (Italics mine)
Logidzomai: Impute or Reckon
The word in scripture, denoting the event that makes us worthy to stand before almighty God, is logidzomai. “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) And the Word became verb, logidzomai. It is inadequately translated as: account, regard, treat as, reckon, deem or impute. Impute (a word scarcely used today except by accountants) is an exceedingly weak translation of logidzomai. But it is crucially important to understand this term in order to see that logidzomai (impute) is the verb form of Logos – the word by whom the worlds were made and by whom we are saved.
“Imputation” of the righteousness of Christ is a term that has been used since the Reformation by the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican traditions in contrast to Trent’s “infused” as that which makes us worthy before God. Imputation is the righteousness of Christ worded to us, while we were yet sinners and knowing this we may begin to become righteous.
The Tridentine term, infusion, of righteousness establishes our favor before God on the basis of our own righteousness alone. On the other hand, when sinners realize by faith that they have been worded as righteous by God, in their gratitude they begin to become truly righteous, not self-righteous. The trust (faith) evoked by God’s sacrifice in Christ changes our hearts so that we begin to love what he commands.
Works of supererogation and indulgences, in contrast, are the logical and historical result of the claim that we are worthy before God by virtue of the righteousness within us, a righteousness we can add to for merit. Henry VIII (1491-1547) believed and acted on these unreformed teachings and died in these beliefs:
By his will . . . money was left for a great number of masses to be said for the repose of his soul . . . and that until the Revolution in 1792 Mass was said annually for him . . . at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
So-called chantry masses are financed by endowments. A priest, in consecrating the host, can offer the sacrifice of Christ to God in the name of others whose time in purgatory might be shortened. These transactions, called indulgences, were not permission to commit sins but were reductions of time in purgatory because of the need for restitution. If John steals ten dollars from Jack and is forgiven he still must pay back the ten dollars to make restitution. Restitution not made in this life is accomplished by time in purgatory.
Pre-Reformation teaching regarding merit and indulgences were not reformed at Trent or by the 2nd Vatican Council (1962-1965). Roman Catholic scholar, Gregory Baum, asked in an issue of “The Ecumenist” following the 2nd Vatican Council, “Why silence on indulgences?” The distinguished Roman Catholic scholar, Karl Rahner, is obviously embarrassed by the teaching concerning indulgences but is relieved “that the interest in indulgences is largely diminishing in the church.”
No Sin in a State of Grace
Second, denying sin in the regenerate (simul justus et peccator: at the same time righteous and a sinner) has a debilitating effect on social and political responsibilities. Since the Council of Trent if a person is a sinner he cannot be in a state of grace, or in favor with God. Consequently definitions of sin must be carefully defined so that one can be considered sinless. The article on “Grace” in the Catholic Encyclopedia indicates the results of the Tridentine mistake:
For since sin and grace are diametrically opposed to each other
the mere advent of grace is sufficient to drive sin away . . .
immediately brings about holiness, kinship with God, and a
renovation of spirit . . . and therefore a remission of sin
without a simultaneous interior sanctification is theologically
impossible. As to the interesting controversy whether the
incompatibility of grace and sin rests on merely moral, or
physical, or metaphysical contrariety, refer Pohl ( . . .1909),
Scheeben ( . . . 1898)
This claim by Trent in regard to denying simul justus et peccator, or sin in the regenerate (those in a state of grace), precludes any acknowledgement of corporate or collective guilt. For example, an article entitled “Collective Responsibility” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia deals with collective guilt as a legitimate Old Testament phenomenon and teaching, but not one appropriate to the New Testament or to church history.
If sin to be sin must have full knowledge and consent of the will, citizens of a country where torture is practiced have no culpable responsibility so long as they themselves neither perpetrate nor assent to the torture. They are justified in their passivity. This teaching seriously diminishes the quality of social duties. On the other hand, if Christians are taught to share complicity in society’s sins they are likely to be led to correct them. However, that very complicity carries the nature of sin.
Then they also will answer, “Lord when did we see thee
hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison,
and did not minister to thee?” Then he will answer them
“Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of
these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment. (Matt. 25:44-46)
The refusal to acknowledge collective responsibility is a consequence of Trent’s denial of sin in the regenerate. Only those who have full knowledge and consent to bribery or tyranny can be held accountable for social and corporate wrongs. This fact has had a debilitating effect on Roman Catholic cultures and countries. Without a sense of corporate accountability democracies do not flourish; tyranny and corruption do.
The 19th century English jurist, Lord Moulton, accurately observed that “the greatness of a nation, its true civilization is measured by the extent of its obedience to the unenforceable.” This requires a keen sense of social and corporate responsibility, what has been called a Protestant conscience.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that throughout the Old Testament God holds Israel corporately responsible for justice and faithfulness. Is this corporate responsibility not also ascribed under the New Covenant? Are not responsibility and accountability even loftier and more arduous in the New than the Old? The Old is not abrogated but fulfilled.
For Christians to share responsibility for the Holocaust and other horrors which they as individuals had no willful part in, is an unbearable burden for one whose state of grace depends upon the absence of any culpability. William Wilberforce owned no slaves and gave no consent of his individual will to the institution of slavery, but his sense of corporate responsibility drove him and others to work successfully for the abolition of the slave trade.
Surely it can be shown in both St. Augustine and St. Bernard that similar responsibilities, and acknowledgement of corporate complicity, were on the shoulders of Christians in regard to the Empire, Donatists, or papal schisms. St. Bernard insisted that “not to sin is God’s justice; but the justice of man is the pardon of God.” At that time this was a bearable responsibility because such acknowledgement of culpability was not tantamount to the loss of grace as was later claimed at the Council of Trent.
Sin was a much deeper and wider phenomenon in Patristic and Medieval theology than in its post-Tridentine definition. Christians are enabled to accept complicity and corporate responsibility in actions of a family, tribe, company, church, city, or nation when they know their acceptance by God is not based on their own worthiness, but on that of Christ which is worded, imputed, and reckoned to them.
Since the decree of Trent in 1547 it seems to be assumed that any statements by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, St. Bernard, or others concerning unconscious, unknown, non-deliberate, or corporate sin must be understood as venial sin, because “full knowledge and consent of the will” is not involved. If one regarded unconscious fault or corporate guilt as sin, it would be virtually impossible to maintain the interpretation that sin and grace are mutually exclusive or that Christians, in a state of grace, can not be sinners. The result of these teachings at Trent is the claim that regenerate Christians in a state of grace are not sinners.
The fact of sin among Christians is obvious from the most general reading of scripture. More than half of the Epistles would be irrelevant if Christians were not sinners. The situations addressed in Galatians, I and II Corinthians, and the book of Acts make it abundantly clear that the early Christians, and even the disciples, were not devoid of sin. (See the quarrel among Paul, Barnabas, Mark, and Silas in Acts 15: 39-40). Teaching people that they are of themselves righteous, if they have not committed a mortal sin with full knowledge and consent, can quarantine them from grace and appropriate responsibility. Being in a state of grace is to be no longer under condemnation because of what has been done for us by Christ, not because we are no longer sinful.
Denial of Unconscious Sin
Third, this denial at Trent that sin can be present in a state of grace has unfortunate implications for our spiritual lives and for therapeutic endeavors. Ancient pastoral wisdom and contemporary depth psychology testify to the reality that many intractable patterns and compulsions are symptoms of unconscious roots. These need to be exposed and acknowledged in order that the damaging patterns no longer will have sway over a person’s actions.
Dom Victor White, the English Roman Catholic Dominican saw this serious limitation of Trent’s teaching:
This idea of “unconscious sin” is often a difficult one for the moral theologian to grasp.
Especially if he has been brought up in the traditions of Post-Reformation Catholicism [after the Council of Trent] he may find it particularly hard to square with his correct notions that mortal sin must be voluntary, performed with full knowledge and consent. But it is a fact that the psyche is much less indulgent to unconscious breaches of its own laws and demands . . . and will revenge itself for their disregard . . .
He appends a valuable observation:
The exclusive emphasis of later theologians on “full knowledge
and consent” can have the unfortunate result of putting a certain
premium on unconsciousness, irresponsibility and infantilism.
As an obedient Roman Catholic, White must put unconscious sin in quotation marks because it seems to conflict with the correct notions that, since Trent, mortal sins must have full knowledge and consent. But clearly he feels quite unhappy with this restraint under which spiritual directors and psychiatrists must work to stay in accord with the church’s teachings after Trent.
The article on “The Psychology of Guilt” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia indicates the same direction, but with new and even more awkward problems. Although it recognizes unconscious guilt to be a pervasively destructive phenomenon, it does not relate such guilt to one’s spiritual condition and distinguishes it from moral guilt by terming it material guilt.
The issue of material guilt has no meaning to it other than its producing a feeling of excessive fear of retaliation in interpersonal
relationships about wrongdoing (due to ignorance, misconceptions,
immaturity, or to repression, displacement, and substitution), which
loses its significance at death since it vanishes then, or before death
as one learns from experience. Moral guilt, however, binds one to
an accounting for wrongdoing in the relationship with God, to be
resolved by His judgment at death; therefore one must consciously
seek to do good and avoid evil.
This solution puts a premium on keeping material guilt unconscious, thus rewarding irrationality, ignorance, “repression, displacement, and substitution,” as Dom Victor White pointed out. The article insists that unconscious aspects of guilt “must be considered, for they are recognized as disruptive in personality function,” but when they are “once realized” (italics mine) they become sin (VI, 854). If true, this would mean all therapy and counseling jeopardizes one’s state of grace at precisely those points where it successfully brings into consciousness the hitherto unrecognized roots of one’s sinful behavior.
It follows that separating material guilt from moral guilt, and claiming that material guilt is neither sinful nor something for which we are held accountable, might be necessary to maintain Trent’s teaching but it results in what Dom Victor White warns against: repression and endeavors to keep such matters unconscious, where it is claimed that they do not endanger one’s soul but merely infect one’s psyche. Separating matters of the psyche from matters of the soul has no theological or philological rationale. Both words are translations of the single word in Greek, psuke.
Bruno Bettelheim has argued convincingly that translators have made spurious use of Freud to make scientific what was essentially humane. Translating the German to read psyche instead of soul is one such case. It would be a shame for Christians to continue this distortion by making separate arenas for psyche (material guilt) and soul (moral guilt) for which there is absolutely no biblical or theological justification. In fact it has become a secular sleight-of-hand to reduce much of religion to mere psychology. The word soul in scripture is always the translation of psuke, never psyche.
Treating material guilt as having “no meaning to it” in relation to our souls’ health is pastorally irresponsible, and echoes the 17th century Jesuit teaching that excuses sins done in ignorance. As Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) has pointed out this rewards ignorance. Surely the traditional recourse to distinguish between vincible and invincible ignorance, can serve certain practical purposes in avoiding administrative and penal injustices that would punish people for what they were unable to alter. (Invincible ignorance excuses one from culpability because it does not involve the will to sin. Vincible ignorance, however, is culpable for it involves neglect to acquire information necessary to avoid sin.) Nevertheless, it falls short of approaching positively those areas of darkness in a person’s soul (psyche) that need the light of grace for one to grow toward the perfect image that is Christ.
I recall counseling a married couple at a theological seminary. In a role reversal each was asked to pretend to be the other partner in extended conversations. When it was over the husband said, “I knew she cried easily but I thought I was just a big tease. I had no idea how much I was hurting her!” Surely his ignorance of how he had hurt her was no mere “material sin” needing no accountability.
A more serious problem results from this teaching of the Roman Catholic Church since the Council of Trent that for sin to be sin it must have full knowledge and consent of the will. Such teaching renders irrelevant Jesus’ cry to us from the cross, “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Worth noting is the way the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung handles this question of sin and culpability that remains in Christians. He claims that simul justus et peccator (at the same time just and a sinner) is itself a Catholic teaching in spite of traditional understandings of the Council of Trent.
He justifies this by showing that the revision of the Mass is replete with illustrations of confession of sin by priests and people who are clearly assumed to be in a state of grace, and therefore it is Catholic doctrine that those in a state of grace are yet sinners. This text of the Mass was established in the 16th century as the official liturgy, a higher claim than traditional interpretations of Trent. A quotation from it is used to introduce this chapter: “ . . . I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, my fault, my very grievous fault.”
The best illustration of Trent’s lasting mistake can be seen in John H. Newman’s republication of his 1838 Lectures on Justification, which he had written as an Anglican. Later, writing as a Roman Catholic, he spent six pages of the introduction and sixty-one pages in an index trying unsuccessfully to include something like “the cognate presence of Christ in our souls” as a part of the formal cause of justification Finally he relinquished the task and submitted to Trent’s single formal cause. If he had been successful Roman Catholics would be relying not on their own infused righteousness but on Christ’s presence with them, recalling the position taken in the 16th century by Cardinal Contarini, Cardinal Seripando, and Reginald Pole. It would have been a good antidote to the Pharisee yeast, as the faithful would be taught to rely not on their own goodness (righteousness) but on Christ’s.
In Scripture, St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, and St. Bernard ample evidence exists to regard unconscious sin as no invariable cause for condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1) Unless one can at least consider the possibility that sin can be consonant with a state of grace, any suggestion of unconscious sin or corporate guilt will sound to one nurtured in what Dom Victor White called post-Reformation moral theology as pastorally cruel, claiming everyone to be in sin. This is in fact true but, in the light of the teaching of the Mass (in contrast to Trent), being a sinner does not mean that one has lost one’s favor with God.
On the contrary, acknowledging the discrepancy between a regenerate person’s righteousness and the righteousness that is to be in complete sanctification (following St. Augustine’s dictum that “what is not of love is of sin”) can become an antidote to self-righteousness and encourage compassion for other sinners. Knowing and admitting we are sinners is a gracious matter of staking out areas for grace to do its work until we all attain “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)
This criticism of Roman Catholicism needs to be set in context. Criticism of Anglicanism, and in the subsequent chapters concerning the Reformed (Presbyterian), Lutheran, and Methodist traditions, is meant to help each tradition be more faithful to our Common Founder and avoid the Pharisaism of which Jesus warned us. The Christian witness of the Church of Rome is exceedingly important since she represents approximately half of all Christians in the world, dwarfing all other denominations. How the Catholic Church makes its Christian witness to contemporary alternatives, such as Islam and secularism, is of far reaching significance for all Christians.
The Anglican poet, T. S. Eliot, made the following prophetic statement in1930:
The World is trying the experiment of attempting to
form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The
experiment will fail; but we must be very patient
in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the
time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through
the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization,
and save the World from suicide.
In almost a century since Eliot made that comment we are seeing the Anglican Church, and much of mainline Protestantism, increasingly accommodate to the culture, while the Catholic Church is losing much of its influence in its most historic Catholic countries: Ireland, Quebec, Spain, Italy and Poland. It might be said that of all the traditions Roman Catholicism is among the most unfriendly to self-criticism (although true to some extent in all traditions). Those to whom it is not given to love the Roman Catholic Church should be angry at none other than Martin Luther. Historian Roland Bainton writes:
Luther saved the papacy
Such was the judgment of Jacob Burckhardt in his famous study of the Renaissance. He pointed out with great sagacity that the See of Peter in the ageof the Renaissance was on the way toward becoming a
secularized city-state. If that process had not been arrested the result for the papacy would have been far more drastic than anything which did happen. A secularized Italian city-state would not have continued to command the obedience of the nations, nor even of the other Italian city-states.
Luther revived the religious consciousness of Europe. Luther was
responsible for the calling of the Council of Trent. The popes
persistently opposed the calling of a council lest their wings be clipped. The Lutheran peril at last compelled them to acquiesce in the demands of the emperor that a general council be summoned. These statements are, of course, not meant to imply that the positive contributions of Luther extended no further than the reform of Catholicism, but only to point out that in addition to the beneficial results in the Protestant world There were also beneficial results in the Catholic world.
Recalling that all Christians are but branches grafted onto the tree root of Israel (Rom. 11:17) the history of Israel can be an example for repentance and a new spirit today. As Luther triggered significant reform within the Catholic Church, so the challenges to all Christians today are the occasions of new opportunities. If we do not heed Christ’s warning about the yeast of the Pharisees and repent, the consequences will be dire. As St. Paul warns us: “For if God did not spare the natural branches neither will he spare you.” ( Rom. 11:21)
Is it possible that God is using secularism and Islam, as he used Assyria in the 8th century BC as the “rod of my anger” (Is. 10:5) to punish Christendom for our faithlessness and denominational idolatry?
Excerpted from Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison’s latest book, “Trust in an Age of Arrogance”. You can buy the book at WIPF Stock, Eugene, Oregon, $23. Available also at Amazon.com and www.wipfandstock.com
To buy this and all of his other books go here: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&sort=relevancerank&search-alias=books&field-author=C.%20Fitzsimons%20Allison