In my last post, I suggested: (1) that, in a doctrinal sense, Catholics and Protestants generally agree that getting to Heaven isn’t an easy thing; (2) that, despite this, the Reformation mantra of “faith alone” has a tendency to lead people to believe that their eternal destinies are determined solely by the belief system they carry around in their heads; and (3) that because most people don’t want to conclude that their family members and neighbors who don’t believe exactly like them are necessarily headed to Hell, the standard evangelical “essentials of the faith” list seems to be getting shorter and shorter and offering less and less guidance to people on how to live their lives. Implicit in all this is that the Catholic view of salvation is unambiguously based on the concept that none of us should count on it being easy to get to Heaven; that it will require effort/“work” on our part, as well as faith, to get there; and that the journey’s not over until we’ve made it Home.
Even though I fervently believe that all of us, in our heart of hearts, know that it’s not easy to make it to Heaven and that we shouldn’t count on it being so, it might still be something of a downer to be told that this is actually the Church’s official stance on the question–especially when you start looking at some of the specifics about how the Church says life should be lived. So, you might ask, “Jason, why are you so excited about becoming Catholic? Sounds like being excited about being told you’re at the bottom of Mount Everest and are expected to make it to the top. What help does the Catholic Church offer to help you that you can’t get elsewhere?”
I asked myself this last question numerous times, because I so very much didn’t want to become Catholic. Eventually, though, I couldn’t escape the conclusion that there were at least three things the Church offered I could find nowhere else and that I didn’t want myself or my family to live without: complete honesty, joyous morality, and certain grace.
First, complete honesty. If I shouldn’t count on it being easy to make it to Heaven, I’d rather be told that upfront clearly and unambiguously. On this issue, as on others I may discuss later, the Church is nothing if not absolutely truthful. I appreciate that, even if I don’t initially like what the Church has to say.
Second, joyous morality. Because the Catholic Church offers meaningful answers to life’s most important moral questions (like those I discussed in my last post), I don’t have to start from scratch to answer them when they come up in my life. Rather, the clear doctrines of the Church on these issues (and others) form a “hedge of protection” within which I have tremendous freedom. Or, as Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy:
Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
Third, and finally, certain grace. This was the ultimate clincher for me. All my life, I’d been told how amazing God’s grace was. I could only count a handful of times, though, when I could say with a straight face I’d actually felt like I’d experienced that grace. And, even then, I’d wonder to myself: “Was that just me getting emotional or psyching myself up, or was it really God?” Here’s where Catholicism came in with an answer that spoke to the depths of my soul. While recognizing that God can convey grace to us any way He wants, the Church holds that Christ, in His great love for us, instituted and entrusted to the Church certain “sacraments” that are celebrated by “visible rites” and that, with complete trustworthiness, dispense to us grace or (in the words of the Catechism) “divine life” when we receive them “with the required dispositions.” Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) No. 1131.
Sounds complicated, right? Well, here’s the Workmaster paraphrase: a sacrament is something I can perceive with my five senses that without fail conveys God’s divine life to me to help me live–when it’s conducted by the proper minister and I’m in the right state to receive it. Take, for example, the Eucharist. The visible signs there are the bread and wine, the proper minister is a Catholic priest, and the right disposition is for me to ensure I’m not in a state of grave sin. Or, there’s Confession: the visible signs are the words of absolution spoken by the priest, the proper minister is a Catholic priest authorized by his bishop to hear confessions, and the right disposition for me is contrition.
As a Protestant, my primary objection to this sacramental system was that I felt it was somehow “cheap” for God to use things I could see, taste, touch, hear, and smell to convey grace to me. Eventually, though, I asked myself: “If I don’t have a problem with the fact that the God of the universe took on flesh and walked on earth, why do I have a problem with Him using things I can perceive to help me live the Christian life?” I came to see that, in rejecting the sacraments for this reason, I was essentially rejecting the Incarnation of Our Lord.
In the end, the sacramental system swept me off my feet because here’s what it meant: I could walk four blocks from my office in downtown D.C. to the Catholic Information Center, go to Confession and the noon Mass every day if I could get there and, in so doing, be absolutely, 100% sure I had received God’s grace and partaken in His divine life. This meant no more guesswork, no more wondering where grace was to be found. Now THAT’s amazing. And, what’s more, it seems like it’s exactly what a good and loving God would do for His children. Because of this, now, more than ever, I can sing with all my heart:
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.
 I’ll get to some of these issues in later posts. For now, I’ll just note that the Church’s moral teaching–Her teaching on “how we live”–cannot be separated from Her teaching on more overtly theological issues.
 As a Protestant, the only definition of “grace” I ever heard was “God’s unmerited favor,” and the focus always seemed to be on the “unmerited” part, which had a tendency to make me feel pretty worthless. For the Catholic, grace also is the “free and undeserved help God gives us,” but, even more fundamentally, it is a “participation in the life of God.” CCC Nos. 1996-97. To me, this helps explain the point of grace, rather than just telling me over and over again how much I don’t deserve it.
 The necessity for the correct “disposition” on the part of the person receiving the sacrament is what, among other things, puts the lie to the misapprehension that the sacraments are some kind of “magic” worked on a passive recipient.
 In all, there are seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, the Eucharist, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick, all of which the Catholic can count on to receive grace and partake in God’s divine life. Again, this does not mean God’s grace is available only in the sacraments: God “is not bound by His sacraments.” CCC No. 1257. I plan to discuss the individual sacraments in more detail in other posts and have already discussed the Eucharist, at least to some extent, here. In these other posts, I will discuss the Biblical basis for the sacraments.