History of the Doctrine of Salvation
Roman Catholicism's belief in salvation through Jesus is a reflection of how the church understands human existence and the human condition. If Christ chose to save us, then one can easily conclude that there must be something worthy of salvation in us. If we are totally without worth, what does this say about Christ's redemptive work on our behalf? If humanity was not worth saving or if there was no reason to be saved, then there would have been no need for God to send his son into the world, especially to suffer and die in such an ignominious way.
Nature and Grace
Catholicism's doctrine of salvation is integrally associated with the connection between nature and grace. Nature is understood as human existence apart from God's self-communication. Theologically this means that we are bodily creatures who are intelligible and open to full human growth apart from the divine. However, in Catholic theology, the human person has a radical capacity for the divinizing grace that only Christ can give. The Catholic Tradition teaches that the grace of God is given to us, not to make up for something lacking as human persons, but rather as a free gift that elevates us to a new and unmerited level of existence. Hypothetically it is possible to have a natural state alone, but since grace, the gift of God, permeates humanity, a state of “pure nature” does not exist. If grace presupposes nature, nature in its own way presupposes grace inasmuch as grace sustains us in our actual existence and orients us toward a supernatural end.
How is grace understood in the New Testament? First, it is understood that grace is charis, the gift or good will of God; it is the principle of Christian life, action, and mission. Grace is God's self-communication to humanity. Important especially for history, grace stands in opposition to the law. Paul in Galatians 5:4 makes this clear: “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourself off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Additionally, grace stands in opposition to works. Again, St. Paul provides a good example. He writes, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:5–6). Grace refers to a divinely given capacity and, thus, to a future salvation event.
The association of grace with faith and its break with the law and works is synthesized in Ephesians 2:8–9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Catholic Church doctrine with respect to grace was drafted in response to two principal distortions. First, Pelagianism in the fifth century exalted and presented a far too highly optimistic idea of human freedom. On the other hand, Protestantism, as illustrated best by the theology of John Calvin, held a far too pessimistic view of human freedom. Thus, church doctrine seeks a middle ground between these two extremes. The Second Council of Orange (529), in opposition to Pelagius, spoke of the necessity of grace in one's life from beginning to end. In response to Calvinism, the Council of Trent (1545–1563) asserted that Christians are transformed internally by the grace of Christ.
The Problem of Nature and Grace
The centrality of the relationship between nature and grace with respect to the whole subject of salvation can be addressed by analyzing two basic questions. First, does grace change human nature, and if so, how is human freedom preserved? In other words, does God's grace in any way lessen or possibly obviate human freedom? Secondly, how is the human person able to accept freely the self-communication of God in grace? If grace is so pervasive in nature, can humans accept it freely and without coercion?
As suggested above, Catholicism answers these questions by traveling the path between Pelagianism, which emphasizes the superiority of nature over grace, and Protestantism, which places grace over nature and effectively submerges the dimension of human freedom and cooperation in salvation. Catholicism teaches that the intrinsic orientation of the human person is toward God. This is referred to as the supernatural existential. This is a permanent modification of the human person that transforms the individual from within and orients him toward the God of grace and glory. In this context sin is understood as an exercise of human freedom that seeks to destroy the supernatural existential. However, grace cannot be destroyed by sin. Thus salvation history is the story of how God's grace endures and conquers all challenges presented by sin.