One principal objection that many Protestants have to Catholicism is their supposition that Catholicism teaches people to earn their way to salvation. Perhaps you might easily conjure up an image of some sort of "typical" or "representative" Catholic doing good works of whatever various sorts with some goal of attaining Heaven thereby, much as one would, in this life, get a good education, work hard, earn a lot of money, save a lot of it, and invest it wisely over the course of one's career so as to earn a comfortable and enjoyable retirement.
However, at the opposite pole rests the extraordinary absurdity foisted upon many credulous Protestants of God predestining each and every soul, whether to Heaven or Hell. In such a model, there is nothing the "Predestined-to-be-saved" need or can do to attain an utterly guaranteed Heaven, certainly no "work" that any of the saved did to save themselves, or even that any of them could have done to save themselves, or even contribute towards that salvation in even the most trivial and insignificant way.
In the shadow of such a teaching, though rejected or at least doubted and treated as a mere speculation by many Protestants and indeed nearly all living today, many of them at least still refuse to recognize any value of a person's "works" towards his salvation, taking the commonly-heard motto of "Faith alone." The whole idea of "Faith alone" is that it is only and exclusively a man's faith that saves him, not any work. In that viewpoint, a person's good works count for absolutely nothing, perhaps may even hinder his salvation in giving him something to be proud of, and we all know pride is never a good thing. In this context, Martin Luther once recommended that a person should sin much and often with the hope of being forgiven all the more (and certainly one could not be proud of a life of sin).
But is it Faith? Or is it Works? Or is it some combination of the two? We should all know the Scripture that reads: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28), but there is also the Scripture that reads: "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). So which is it? Or is the equation "Faith plus Works equals Salvation"? I would hope that all concerned would see the clumsiness of such a simplistic formula. Obviously Faith is essential, for without Faith it is impossible to please God (cf. Hebrews 11:6).
The real question is, What is the role of works in the salvation of a man? I think this role can be far better examined objectively by breaking out all the possible basic categories of works that would have bearing to this question. So often many of the possible things that might be counted as "works" are clumsily lumped together by those who denigrate the role of works in the Faith life of Catholics, as if all of these basic categories are all the same and all to be dismissed as being mere attempts of a soul to earn their own way to God, without reference to Faith, the Grace of God, or what God did to pay the price of our salvation. I say the various categories of works are not to be compared to each other, and that a better understanding of the role of each will go far towards resolving this question of Faith and Works.
Category 1: Charitable Good Deeds:
When one mentions works, often the first thing to come to mind is charitable good deeds. You help a blind person across the street, you donate towards the reduction of poverty or disease, you feed a beggar, you do a favor for a neighbor. All of these are of course particular good deeds that one can do. But of course nothing of this kind could ever transfer the good person doing it from the Kingdom of this fallen world to the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Protestant realm, it is often felt, or even outright taught, that these sorts of things just naturally follow from becoming a Christian. So in that model the Faith of a person justifies one, and then with that Justification in one's soul, one is thereby somehow motivated towards accomplishing these sorts of good works, "saved by Faith unto good Works," one might say.
Truth to tell, that is not all that far from the Truth. One should not get the idea that we need to keep some sort of list ("Let's see, that makes two blind beggars I have helped across the street, three charitable causes I have donated to, and one favor to my neighbor, so now if I can just help one more blind beggar and do someone another favor I will have been sufficiently good for this week to keep my 'salvation'..."), but indeed that such works, of whatever form, will populate our lives as befits the Children from Above.
It is one thing to make the point that a person might indeed perform not a single such work and still be saved, for example if they died immediately after becoming a Christian. But it is quite another to point out the obvious fact that if the person does survive for any consequential period of time after becoming a Christian, then indeed there really would be (ought to be) many such "good works" if their Faith be real and no mere intellectual acquiescence to the realities of the Gospel.
A valid point has been made that "good works" should truly be "good work," that is to say, well and properly done. Sometimes there are those who do "good works" in some shoddy and lazy fashion which is an insult to the God Who inspires us to do good works. Of course, there is also the question of whether the goodness of a work is to be measured by effort or by results and consequences, and there is also always the "no good deed goes unpunished" factor. Finally, as Comedian Mike Warnke once put it, "If you spend your time doing the do's then ya ain't gonna have time to do the don't's, and if you could you wouldn't so you can't so you don't so it's cool."
A more important distinction is to be made between general practical good works versus specifically evangelical good works. As Proverb 11:30 states, "He that wins souls is wise," and there most certainly is a great grace in bringing souls to Christ and in providing them with edification and discipleship, to bring them to a state of full Christian maturity. The Church recognizes this twofold distinction in listing seven Corporal works of mercy and then another seven Spiritual works of mercy.
The Church outlines the following seven Corporal works of Mercy:
1) To feed the hungry
- 2) To give drink to the thirsty
- 3) To clothe the naked
- 4) To harbor the homeless
- 5) To visit the sick
- 6) To ransom the captive
- 7) To bury the dead
Can one not see that in doing each of these corporal works of mercy we imitate the heavenly Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost? For is not the Creator of all not also therefore the Creator of everything that we eat? It is said that that "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them." St. Matthew 6:26 When we provide to the hungry, we do the same, though obviously on a much smaller scale, as befits our smaller scale of being that we are in our limitedness. But there is more to each of these that superficially seems to meet the eye.
When we feed the hungry in the sense required, we are providing the food they need, not necessarily what they might want. Giving drink to the thirsty is no mere redundancy to feeding the hungry. When Christ said from the Cross that "I thirst," it was not really for mere water that He thirsted, but it was for worship, for souls devoted to Him, for companionship. Giving drink to the thirsty implies taking the time to know and listen to those we would aid, to learn of what they would have to say to us, to be not merely a benefactor to them but to be their true and personal friend.
Clothing the naked is more than merely providing clothing to those who have none or only old clothes that are falling apart and in need of replacement or at least repair. It also includes cultivating in all a respect for decency with regards to the human form, to cover the shame of the shameless, to invite all to a nobler way of life. One day a woman attempted to enter a Church for Mass while dressed in a most sluttish fashion. At first, one usher tried to turn her away, but then a second usher pushed the first aside, and grabbing a long disused spare altar cloth from the sacristy, proceeded to wrap it around her to make her sufficiently decent enough to be able to enter. After the Mass and moved to tears of repentance, the woman then explained that she had been to so many other places that had merely turned her away as even the first usher had attempted, or else just as bad, invited her in merely for their own lascivious reasons. But coming here and being invited in the respectful manner that she was by the second usher, she repented of a past life of much sin. The older women of the congregation loaned her some of their clothes until she could procure respectable clothes for herself and she went on to progress to great sanctity.
Harboring the homeless again is what God has done in creating the whole world in which we live, and again we do a small microcosm of the same thing when God created a home for all life (the Earth), and then again, to be one who harbors the homeless, where were we when Joseph and Mary needed a place to stay? We can only begin to make up for that inhospitality on mankind's part.
Visiting the sick is precisely what our Lord did in choosing to be incarnated so as to visit all of us sin-sick persons who have need of Him. How also like the Good Samaritan who helped the beaten man by the road who could not help himself, so injured was he. Such visits that can seem so minor to us can often be almost the whole world to them who are visited and often have little contact with any companions of any kind. And often we can bring not only life and joy and humor to their spirit but even healing itself, sometimes in miracles, but more often in humbler form, of no less value in the sight of God.
Ransoming the captive has got to be one of the closest ways of imitating our Lord in that His death ransomed all of us who were captive to sin and delivered back to the freedom of the sons of God. Finally, burying the dead is to show respect for them as having been persons created by God and worthy of such a dignity as to be treated with respect, for God respects all of His creatures, even when we don't merit such respect, and all the more if ever we do.
The Church outlines the following seven Spiritual works of Mercy:
1) To instruct the ignorant
- 2) To counsel the doubtful
- 3) To admonish sinners
- 4) To bear wrongs patiently
- 5) To forgive offences willingly
- 6) To comfort the afflicted
- 7) To pray for the living and the dead
As with the Corporal works of mercy, one should be able to see in these the imitation of our Divine Master by our performing of each of these works. Ignorance is a damned ugly thing, even where the ignorant person can be forgiven their wrongful acts committed in innocent ignorance rather than in deliberate malice. This is why God provides Divine Revelation in addition to our inner conscience, since ignorance is common and the right "inner voice" needs to be affirmed and supported.
A similar function is provided in counseling the doubtful, since again it is easy to slip into wrongful behaviors when the reasons to do what is right seem weak. But this clearly differs from the first in that the first is a remedy of a person not knowing what is right, whereas the second is a remedy of a person knowing what is right but lacking the motivation to do it.
Even though a person may know what is right and know that doing what is right is the right thing to do and cannot be doubted, still the human will is amazingly weak and faltering, riddled with faults and foibles that nevertheless still render us unwilling to do as we know we must, or to do the things we know to be wrong because of some thing we want more than God's sanctifying grace in our lives. Some reminders of what is right and why it is important to do what is right can at times be helpful even in retrieving the wayward from their sins.
We must also bear wrongs patiently and also forgive offenses, as God indeed does both. For how many times have we blamed God or offended Him with our sins, and God bears these wrongs patiently and forgives our sins, knowing our frail nature that so easily sins and places blame for our own sins on anyone but ourselves, including God. Imagine how horrible it would be if every time we accidently offended someone we thereby lost a friend for life, Forgiveness, almost more than anything else, is the glue that holds together any group or community of persons, be it a marriage, a family, a club, a village, a nation, or the Church.
When we comfort the afflicted, we are thereby a blessing to them in a way that God wishes to bless all persons. And who are the afflicted? We think of those going through bereavement or enduring persecution or illness, but really, all of us are afflicted with sin and with the effects of sin in this sin-sick world. So when we give comfort to any and all (apart from comforting the sinner in his sins), we show God's love for them, for God has not promised us an easy or comfortable life, but when we can rejoice in righteousness, He rejoices with us. I know this well personally as a father, in being able to reward my boy for doing what is right, being able to give him something he wants since he has completed the things we want him to do. And those who truly are downtrodden and enduring illness, persecution, or bereavement are most in just need of the comfort that God wishes to give out of His love of His creatures.
Praying for the dead is even more important than burying them, for where the one respects their physical person, the latter respects their soul, and can benefit it. All of us request prayers and Masses to be said for us after our death, for what could benefit us more at such a difficult time as whatever we must endure in purgatory before our entry to Heaven. What afflictions we have in life could never hold a candle to the afflictions of purgatory, and what greater demonstration of Faith that we should be able to devote effort to assisting the Church Suffering which we cannot see or know about in this life at all, apart from what occasional saints have envisioned.
All of these works taken together are of course not what saves us, God saves us. These sorts of actions will attract God's mercy, but ultimately it is up to us to desire and seek that mercy, and it is up to God to provide that mercy by which we are saved. So all the works listed above, and any others a person might do that favor the Kingdom of God, are things that bring other rewards, whether in this life ("the laborer is worthy of his wage") or in the next in terms of the glory of the saint in Heaven, or the diadems in his heavenly crown. But admittedly, it is not a question of a soul's earning his salvation through any of these works, as if any or all of them could merit a soul's salvation.