After Cardinal Cajetan confronted Luther over his “presumption” (i.e. his confidence that he really was in a state of grace) at Augsburg in 1518, his tracts over the next 14 years show that there was no moving on this teaching that the faithful could not be certain. One gets the definitive sense that through conjecture the pious and devout were to conclude, from the evidence, not that they were in a state of grace, but the opposite! And Cajetan, I have recently learned, was more or less Luther’s most thoughtful, irenic, and dare I say, “liberal” opponent (and the top expert on Thomas Aquinas of that day)! In spite of the consensus that no one could be certain about this issue (admittedly due to William of Ockham’s overwhelming influence), there were some Franciscans who followed Duns Scotus, arguing that a person did not need to “doubt whether his disposition was sufficient for justification through the sacrament [of penance]”, but could rather be confident of meriting God’s grace by sorrow over their sin. But even their view did not hold sway at Trent (Antonio Delphinus, O.F.M., Pro cetitudine gratiae praesentis (Concilium Tridentinum, XII, 651-658), which came down on a formulation that seems to have left Duns in the dust, and Thomas reigning supreme. (see Cajetan Responds, footnote 14 on p. 267).
Not long ago, I heard an interesting story from the Lutheran pastor Rolf Preus. He talked about being at a conference where a highly informed and capable ecumenical Catholic scholar was convincing many Lutheran pastors that Rome and Wittenberg were not far about on the matter of justification by faith. He seemed to be saying all the right things – that is, until one pastor asked him the first Kennedy Evangelism Explosion question: “If you died today, do you know for sure you’d go to heaven?” This question threw him off, and at this point he evidently sputtered and flailed and didn’t know what to say. This convinced the pastors that for all the other words they had heard that sounded so good to their ears, there were still significant differences that remained.
Again, many modern RC apologists would not be so tongue-tied over a question like this… in fact, they have ready answers. I contend that they are new and innovative answers though – deviating from Rome historically – even if they don’t want to believe that it is true.
It truly is amazing to be reminded that Martin Luther, from Vatican II onwards, seems increasingly to be vindicated by modern Roman Catholic theologians….
“[Catholic theology] has to ask in a more unbiased manner about the contemporary consensus with the Luther of that time who has already formulated, sometimes in an uncanny way, so much of what is also today self-evident to the Catholic sense of faith” (Otto Pesch, quoted in Sobolewski, Gregory, Martin Luther: Roman Catholic Prophet, p. 50)
True, I would say.
So how can we sum all of this up? Well, some modern RC apologists, rather than embracing the Joan of Arc model, are at once doing a right thing and a wrong thing. The right thing they are doing is insisting that when a Christian who sees his sin says the words “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” they really should believe the words they speak, and receive the real peace with God that Christ delivers. In other words, they should be as infants, who in simple, unassuming, unpretencious, and unreflective faith receive the wonderful words of absolution freely, and resist alternative voices that tell them not to be formed, shaped, and driven by these words. The wrong thing they are doing is insisting that this is what St. Thomas taught – or what Trent taught – or even what Rome currently teaches.
Ecumenically speaking, all of this means that Rome would have to admit that they were on the wrong side of history on this most important of issues, and that Luther was fundamentally right. If this were to happen, it would truly be a wonderful miracle! Alternatively though, they could double down on the issue, which would continue to alienate those it calls “separated brethren”. Either way, all the word games in the world will not hide the fact that ultimately, a choice will need to be made.
P.S. – Any RC apologists reading this – If I’m wrong, please show me why. I certainly am open to hearing where I may have gone off the rails here – historically, or otherwise.
Related posts: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/knowledge-first-and-foremost-baby-king-david-vs-adult-st-thomas/ ; https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/reformation-history-what-would-you-have-done/ ; https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/forgiveness-free-and-true-the-crux-of-the-reformation-the-essence-of-the-christian-life/