Justification: The Roman Catholic View

Editor's Note: The following is the second entry in a new series on justification. Click here to read part one.

In response to the challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church called its 19th ecumenical council in the city of Trento in modern day Italy.[1] Held in three parts from 1545 to 1563, it is commonly known in English as the Council of Trent and was one of the most important developments in what is popularly but perhaps poorly titled the Counter-Reformation. One of the key tasks for this council was to define the Catholic doctrine of justification in response to Protestant challenges. This they did in a series of decrees and canons.[2]

The Council of Trent declared that justification “is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend, that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.”[3] In this, they made clear their position that justification is not simply about being declared righteous but actually becoming righteous, emphasizing that “not only are we reputed but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to everyone as He wills, and according to each one’s disposition and cooperation.”[4]

This distribution of the Holy Ghost, the “voluntary reception of…grace and gifts” mentioned earlier, is often described with the term infusion. Though the righteousness of God is the formal cause of justification, it is not righteousness per se that is infused into those united to Christ, but grace and virtue. Thus, we see the common terms infused grace and infused virtue:

“For though no one can be just except he to whom the merits of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet this takes place in that justification of the sinner, when by the merit of the most holy passion, the charity of God is poured forth by the Holy Ghost in the hearts of those who are justified and inheres in them; whence man through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives in that justification, together with the remission of sins, all these infused at the same time, namely, faith, hope and charity.”[5]

This initial justification of the sinner carried out through the infusion of grace and virtue empowers the individual, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, to perform acts of righteousness and increase in sanctification. As is taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification.”[6] Whereas apart from God and enslaved to sin, our works would merit nothing, works performed by the power of God can truly be called meritorious, although at the same time they are entirely of grace. “The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men.”[7]

Of particular importance is the effect of sanctifying grace upon a sinful heart, driving out sin even as it fills one with virtue. It is grace which enables sanctification from beginning to end, and notice again in the following quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia how there is little or no distance placed between justification and sanctification:

“The sanctity of the soul, as its first formal operation, is contained in the idea itself of sanctifying grace, inasmuch as the infusion of it makes the subject holy and inaugurates the state or condition of sanctity… The two moments of actual justification, namely the remission of sin and the sanctification, are at the same time moments of habitual justification, and become the formal operations of grace. The mere infusion of the grace effects at once the remission of original and mortal sin, and inaugurates the condition or state of holiness.[8]

Therefore, according to the Catholic view, the justice of the individual must be actual and not simply symbolic or declared. He or she must continue in righteousness as sanctifying grace performs its work, and this involves a certain amount of cooperation on the part of the individual, though the sovereignty of God still drives all. One must persevere in order to gain the life everlasting, all the while empowered by that initial infusion of sanctifying grace:

“Wherefore, when receiving true and Christian justice, they are commanded, immediately on being born again, to preserve it pure and spotless, as the first robe given them through Christ Jesus in place of that which Adam by his disobedience lost for himself and for us, so that they may bear it before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ and may have life eternal.”[9]

This Roman Catholic concept of infused grace was captured perhaps most importantly in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica sat next to the Bible upon the altar at the sessions of the Council of Trent, a testament to its level of significance.[10] Although the doctrine of infused grace was not as well developed in his time as it is in the 21st century, many key points can be recognized in that text:

“Now He so provides for natural creatures, that not merely does He move them to their natural acts, but He bestows upon them certain forms and powers, which are the principles of acts, in order that they may of themselves be inclined to these movements, and thus the movements whereby they are moved by God become natural and easy to creatures…Much more therefore does He infuse into such as He moves towards the acquisition of supernatural good, certain forms or supernatural qualities, whereby they may be moved by Him sweetly and promptly to acquire eternal good…”[11]

In line with much of medieval Catholic thought, Aquinas taught that a certain degree of cooperation was involved on the part of man in the process of sanctification, though it is only grace that enables a person’s free will to turn in the direction of goodness.[12] “The justification of the ungodly is brought about by God moving man to justice…God’s motion to justice does not take place without a movement of the free-will; but He so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time He moves the free-will to accept the gift of grace, in such as are capable of being moved thus.”[13]

This doctrine of infused grace leads to certain logical conclusions which were outlined by the Council of Trent in a series of anathemas against what its participants believed were heretical views of justification. They declared that “no one can know with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God”.[14] In additions to several canons delivered against what is essentially Pelagianism, they directed the following canons at the Reformed Protestant viewpoint:

Canon 11.

If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.

Canon 20.

If anyone says that a man who is justified and however perfect is not bound to observe the commandments of God and the Church, but only to believe, as if the Gospel were a bare and absolute promise of eternal life without the condition of observing the commandments, let him be anathema.

Canon 24.

If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.

Canon 30.

If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.

Canon 32.

If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.”[15]

In these canons, we see how the Roman Catholic Church sought to differentiate itself from the Reformed Protestant view. It stated that, 1) the righteousness by which we are justified is not solely Christ’s, but partially our own, 2) justification and therefore eternal life is conditional upon keeping God’s commandments, and 3) a temporal punishment remains for the sins of the Christian either on earth or in purgatory.

The Council of Trent drew a hard and fast line; next time, we will see more clearly what they were opposing.

Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.

Related Links

Podcast: "Reformed Road Leads to Rome?"

"Francis Turretin on Justification" by Guy Waters

"Christian Assurance: Rome and Thomas Goodwin" by Ian Hamilton

Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner

Free Justification: The Glorification of Christ in the Justification of a Sinnerby Steve Fernandez

Justification in Church History, with Michael Horton, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan [ Audio Disc | MP3 Disc | Download ]


[1] The councils recognized as ecumenical by the Roman Catholic Church are not always recognized as such by other branches of Christianity.

[2] More information can be found at this link: https://www.britannica.com/event/Council-of-Trent

[3] Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: Original Text with Translation, trans. Rev. H.J. Schroeder, O.P. (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1941), 33.

[4] Ibid, 33.

[5] Ibid, 33-4.

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 1999. Please note that this catechism, while published by the Vatican, does not carry the same level of authority as some other statements of Catholic doctrine, such as the decisions of Church councils or statements made by the Supreme Pontiff ex cathedra.

[7] Ibid, 2011.

[8] Pohle, Joseph. “Sanctifying Grace.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909). 11 May 2020 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06701a.htm>.

[9] Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 34.

[10] Callan, Charles J. “The Bible in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas”, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 1 (January, 1947), pp. 33-47.

[11] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica, Second and Revised Edition, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, hosted online by New Advent, Prima Secundae Partis 110.2. https://www.newadvent.org/summa/2110.htm#article2

[12] There was some difference of opinion among medieval Catholic scholars about the interaction of divine sovereignty and human free will in salvation. The anti-Pelagian writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and the decrees of the Council of Orange ensured that a certain degree of divine sovereignty was always upheld by the orthodox. On the other end of the spectrum, the following phrase is often attributed to the medieval theologian Gabriel Biel: “facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam.” It is usually taken to mean that if you do what is in you, God will not deny you grace. There is some dispute over how to understand Biel’s words and the extent to which he was truly representative of Catholic thought. Luther, for his part, objected strongly to Biel’s writings, and his assessment was in some ways associated by Protestants with the whole of Roman Catholic thought.

[13] Ibid, 113.3.

[14] Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 35.

[15] Ibid, 43-6.

Additonal Notes:

All scripture quotations are from the 1995 New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

The quotations in these articles often include bolded and italicized highlights. These have been selected for emphasis by the author of these articles and not those of the original quotes. Words that are only italicized and not in bold were emphasized by the original author(s).