I graduated from Dominican University of California in 1977. As you can probably deduce from its name, the school has Roman Catholic origins. During my time there, nuns comprised roughly half of the administrative and teaching faculty, as well as a cigar-smoking priest who brought me much amusement.
But if I enjoyed Father Conrad, I absolutely loved Sister Nicholas, my academic adviser and the professor who taught several of my English Literature classes (I majored in English Lit with an emphasis on writing). Looking back, it seems as if the medieval literature this lady loved to teach permeated her whole being. While the other nuns dressed in more updated habits, for example, she retained the ankle-length tunic and scapular (both white in accordance with the Dominican order), a stiff white wimple and a black veil that taped well below her knees. I still think of her as a highly romanticized emblem of medieval culture.
I say all this to point out that my current stance against the teachings of Roman Catholicism in no way demonstrates hostility to people in that religion. Both Father Conrad and Sister Nicholas hold special places in my heart, and I admit to having greatly enjoyed my four years at Dominican. I appreciate having experienced those years in a predominately Catholic environment, and I regret only my doctrinal weakness as I went through my education.
During my college years, I did have a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, but I fellowshipped in evangelical groups that minimized the differences between Catholics and Protestants. This theological blurring became obvious in a Religious Studies class one afternoon when Father Conrad saw my Protestant affiliation as an opportunity to demonstrate the fundamental difference between Catholic and Protestant theology to the class on Thomas Aquinas.
We had read the Question “Whether to believe is meritorious” in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and he naturally assumed I would take issue with it. He had planned to engage me in a debate to highlight the issue of justification by faith in a way that would show Martin Luther’s “misunderstanding” of Catholic teaching.
In part, I wanted to have fun with Father Conrad. He and I had a playful friendship, and I loved throwing him off his game. But Aquinas had appealed to my pride, disarming my intellect with the comforting possibility that maybe I had contributed to my salvation after all. So when Father asked for my response to the Question, I saw a perfect opportunity to both mess with his mind and answer honesty (with my priorities decidedly in that order).
“Well Father,” I began in a tone signaling my intention to draw things out, “when I started reading this question, I was prepared to disagree. But as I followed his line of reason, I realized he might be right.”
Father Conrad’s stunned expression and ensuing loss for words sent the entire class into fits of laughter. After class, several of us assembled, gleefully recounting how stymied he had been and how I’d thrown a monkey wrench into his lesson plan. Actually, I have been chuckling as I’ve typed the story today.
My chuckling, however, turns to grief over my glaring doctrinal error in Father Conrad’s classroom that day. That priest knew, better than I did, that Martin Luther’s entire Reformation hinged on the doctrine that no human act–not even faith–can possibly merit anything from God.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. ~~Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
Luther had rightly understood that Roman Catholicism has replaced the Scriptural teaching of grace and faith with a system of works and sacraments whereby we “earn” grace. Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers took tremendous risks (some even dying as martyrs) to restore the Biblical doctrines of grace and faith.
Sadly, I spent decades ignoring the importance of this doctrinal distinction, even long after I saw that Aquinas got it wrong. Once again, the cry for “unity” between evangelicals and Catholics demanded that I minimize the importance of doctrine. Indeed, my passionate desire to believe that Sister Nicholas went to heaven upon her death in 1986 has made me reluctant to acknowledge the crucial nature of this doctrine. At times, largely depending on the prevailing attitude among the various evangelical circles I frequented, I might argue that faith couldn’t merit God’s favor, but I avoided a dogmatic stance. Now I regret my compromise.
Obviously, the Lord has now shown me that I must no longer equivocate on this matter. Aquinas taught falsely. Furthermore, in this false teaching he attacked the sufficiency of Christ’s shed blood on the cross, again implying that we play a pivotal role in securing our place in heaven. And that suggestion that anything we do–including believing–could merit salvation, completely undermines the Gospel. So, even though Dominican rightly claims feelings of affection from me, I now stand firm in the conviction that compelled Martin Luther to trigger the Protestant Reformation.