The essay below was written a few years ago, and I am sharing today in response to a friend's question for me today. (One of the people I quote I would not necessarily choose today, but I have left it mostly unchanged.)
Recently, I blundered into a Protestant attack while trying to converse with a friend on an online board. There’s nothing quite like having a Protestant military chaplain dismissively declare, “As far as your friend's comments, well, what can one expect from a Roman Catholic?” The minister went on to add that he had had two Catholics in a former congregation, and he found them quite spiritually deficient. “One,” the minister recalled, “was a neo-platonic mystic, and the other was just a bitter elderly woman who had nothing but coldness and pride in her heart...”
The vitriolic nature of these generalizations prompted reflection on the misguided way Catholics are so frequently characterized as being too focused on sin and unhappy in their lives. Perhaps the negative assumptions are partly attributed to us Catholics being called to confess our mortal sins to a priest in order to be forgiven. Some might argue that Christ freed us from sin, so we shouldn’t be so brutally introspective when it comes to our daily struggles and failings; Christ understands because He also suffered temptations. It is true that He understands, yet, it was for these sins, too, that Christ suffered and died. If the Death and resurrection of the very Son of God were required in order that we might have even the choice to live for Him, then the true power of sin must be terrifying, something which can only be conquered through Christ and the Sacraments found within His Church.
Christians understand that sin separates us: man from man and man from God. It’s interesting that there seem to be two distinct views of sin and salvation held by most Catholics—with similar perspectives shared among Protestants. Some subscribe to the view that a loving God will never permit anyone to go to hell. There is an old British comedy about an Irish priest, played by Arthur Lowe, called “Bless Me Father.” One particular episode entitled “Fire and Brimstone” concludes with Arthur Lowe’s character explaining the nature of hell to his new curate. He remarks that hell most certainly exists, but no one but a “raving lunatic” would believe that there is actually anyone there. An empty hell does seem to be what many good-natured Christians picture, something created (or, perhaps more accurately, a gulf of bitter separation allowed to exist) for reasons of apologetics alone. Yet, if this were indeed the case, why would Christ’s sacrifice have been required at all? Why would the Son of God have to bleed to death on a tree, if the danger of hell was not real? Christ himself said in Luke 13:24 that we are to “strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Later, in verse 28, He warns that “there [hell] you will weep and gnash your teeth.” If we say that there is no hell, what do we make of Christ’s words?
On the other hand, many (rightly) believe that anyone who dies with unconfessed mortal sin(s) upon their hearts is bound for hell; Purgatory is even beyond the departed’s grasp. Now, for the sake of argument, let us put aside the discussion over whether a particular act is a venial or a mortal sin. Let us assume if you will, that a good, lifelong Catholic is crossing a street when he catches sight of an attractive woman. Let’s suppose that the sin of lust represents a constant battle for this particular man, and that he surrenders at times to related temptations. Suppose a lustful thought passes through his mind, and he pauses some moments to dwell upon it. For the sake of the argument, let’s call this act a mortal sin. A moment later the man is struck and killed by a passing truck. In a legalistic light, this man is condemned to an eternity in hell for the briefest and most seemingly inconsequential sin: a passing thought he consciously focused upon or “nurtured.”
While there seems to be something almost too mathematical or formulaic about this automatic sentence of eternal damnation of the soul in the situation described above, our personal speculation is not going to resolve this spiritual question. Furthermore, while the earlier example is troubling, perhaps a more effective response to this type of scenario is to do our utmost to flee sin. It should push us to a greater realization of the awful harm sin wrecks upon all of us. Instead of worrying incessantly about this, however, we also need to remember that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish.” (John 3:16) If we are friends of Christ, as our priest puts it, we are within His grace. As I recently heard Father Corapi explain on an EWTN program, sin not only involves signing part of ourselves over to Satan (like in a contract), but it also begets sin as it begins to injure our own conscience and weaken our ability to discern good from evil. I am reminded of the following powerful passage from James 1:13-15.
“Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings death.”
There is yet another fascinating dimension of sin and the Catholic to consider. It’s the understanding that more is expected of us as Catholics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, teaches (paragraph 847) that salvation is a possibility for those not within the Church—those who don’t even know Christ by name, but whose lives reflect a connection with the true Creator. So, the non-believer who has not heard the saving Word of God still has an opportunity for salvation through the profound grace of Christ, yet the Catholic who dies with mortal sin upon his heart may have, in effect, chosen hell in place of heaven. On the surface, this seems unfair, but we must understand “that every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required.” (Luke 12:48) If we take a second look at the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20, one also catches a glimpse of a similar truth. That is, God’s way is not man’s way; heaven, although it can be called a reward, is not earned like compensation for labor. That initial grace is a gift freely made from God. Our works and cooperation with the will of God, of course, demonstrate that the gift of grace is alive and well within us. As we read in James 1:23, “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”
In regards to the earlier accusation of being unhappy or unfulfilled, I suspect that these stereotypes often originate in the serious nature of Mass itself. Perhaps it’s because we don’t dance or wave our hands in the air that there is a false assumption by some that our solemn and reverent services mean that we are unhappy people at heart. As any good Catholic knows, however, this is a dangerously spurious conclusion. Reverence in worship does not mean that we are unhappy or dour in our lives. The reverence simply signals that we understand whom we are coming before when we attend Mass; it’s not entertainment. We believe, after all, that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. As Saint Augustine wrote of the Eucharist in Confessions, “I am the food of full-grown men. Grow and you shall feed on me. But you shall not change me into your own substance, as you do with the food of your body. Instead you shall be changed into me."
As a child I recall hearing my grandmother making a passing comment about a relative’s prospects of salvation. She commented, even though this relative was no longer a believer, that some Christians taught that once a person was saved, the person was always saved. Unconsciously, this memory served as an encouragement—even long after I had consciously rejected Calvinism, or heretical predestinarianism as it’s called by one Catholic theologian. It’s because of the nature of free will that “once saved always saved” simply does not work. God gives us a choice, and we are responsible for our decisions—unless there are mitigating circumstances such as mental illness or a lack of understanding. This is why we read in Philippians 2:12 that we are “to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”
The primary difference between the Catholic and Protestant understanding of what it means to be "saved" is seen most vividly in the way a friend of ours puts it. We as Catholics have been saved. This identifies a point of decision or "second conversion" where the first conversion is the Sacrament of baptism. We are being saved. This conveys the act of living daily as a friend of Christ. And, lastly, we hope to be saved. This reflects a trust that acknowledges the mystery of free will. The Catholic concept of being saved emphasizes a work in progress, since anyone can decide to turn his back on his Savior and Lord. While we can’t have absolute certainty of our own salvation, because of this free will and our own inclination toward sin, we can have an assurance of salvation, a confidence in God to safeguard those who love Him and remain in Him. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, “At the same time this [salvation history] embraces the life of every man. In a certain sense it is entirely contained in the parable of prodigal son, or in the words of Christ when he addresses the adulteress: ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go [and] from now on do not sin anymore (jn 8:11).’” This hope of salvation, if we remain true to Christ, should be enough to keep all of us singing and dancing like King David in the Psalms.