Many Protestants accuse Catholics of ‘works righteousness”. That is believing that we can earn our salvation by being and doing good. This is of course not what the Church teaches (Trent session 6 canon 1).
The Catholic church does in fact teach Justification by grace alone through faith. Faith itself is a freely given grace, as is the ability to be faithful. The Church teaches that we must have the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5). That we are empowered by grace to do good. That God has given us free will and we must be willing to cooperate with grace in order to be saved. (James 2:14 Romans 2:6,7) The merits of Christ are integrated into the life of the believer and lived, not merely reckoned in name only. All of this is given by a good God as an unmerited grace, not earned through natural human effort. I’m not going to provide a bunch of references just go read session 6 of the Council of Trent if you need documentation. This works vs. grace talk is really irrelevant to discussion about the difference between Catholic and Protestant theology.
In believing that living the faith has an impact on our salvation there is a danger to guard against. The spiritual classic ‘The Spiritual Combat’ (a favorite of St. Francis DeSales) teaches a very important lesson.
- Distrust yourself.
- Have confidence in God
- If you think you have #2 refer to #1
In examining ones conscience, confessing ones sins, and attempting to chance one’s life in those areas that need change, I can personally say I have encountered a difficulty. As a result of repeatedly confessing the same sins, ones which are habitual and deeply rooted I have at times slipped into despair. Now if I had a good spiritual director (they are not all that easy to find and good ones even more rare) I’m sure I would have been saved a lot of time and effort in this area. The fact is that if you despair over your repeated fallings into sin it is because you are trusting yourself. Only by relying on the strength of our Lord can we make spiritual progress. We cannot save ourselves, yes the divine image in us has not been utterly destroyed but it can only be repaired by Christ. Our sins offend an infinite God, our natural efforts are finite and incapable of overcoming sins which are infinitely offensive.
“Unless you become as a child” Matt 18:3. God desires that we be dependent on him. That we place our trust in him as a child is dependent on his parents. If our faith is in the wrong place he will, if necessary, allow us to be humbled through experience “the bones which thou hast broken will rejoice” Ps 51(50):8. So if you struggle with habitual sin and are feeling helpless it’s because you sort of are. It’s ok, don’t despair but rather 1. Trust God 2. Distrust yourself 3. Repeat.