Was Fr Cantalamessa’s Good Friday homily “evangelical”?

In a combox to a previous discussion, I raised the point that on Good Friday Fr Cantalamessa, the pope’s preacher, preached on the topic “Justified as a gift through faith in the blood of Christ”.

Lutheran Pastor Mark Henderson commented “I can only rejoice if Fr Cantalamessa preached the Gospel as Lutherans confess it”, and Josh, who confessed that on a quick perusal he thought “How very Lutheran!” went on to say: “Since I’m Catholic, of course, I may have been quite mistaken as to how Evangelical it was – Pastor Mark and ex-Pastor David, how Lutheran was it?”

Well, on the level of what is truly “evangelical”, I think it passes muster by a long shot. Especially towards the end as it precisely emphasises the call to evangelise the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ. As to whether it is “Lutheran” I also think that any faithful, catechised and practicing Lutherans listening to it (and there were not many who did) would barely distinguish it from what they hear preached in their own parishes, except that it was in Italian (not many Italian Lutheran Churches, although there is one in Rome).

oHowever, On the level of whether it would satisfy a Lutheran dogmatician of the confessional variety (such as our own Pastor Mark), I think the answer would be “no”. Despite Fr Cantalamessa’s repeated emphasis that justification is a gift and that we do nothing to earn it (music to a Lutheran’s ears), there was too much emphasis on faith as our free response to this equally free and gracious act of God in Christ. Lutherans of the confessional variety would stipulate that it is not only the justification which is given as a free unmerited gift, but also the faith which is necessary to receive it.

Remember that Fr Cantalamessa is not only a Franciscan but a member of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. You will find stuff on the internet where he has written in defense of “baptism in the Holy Spirit” as something different from Baptism or confirmation – something which I am not prepared to accept is orthodox Catholic teaching (none of this usually comes through in his public preaching). So even in this sermon we find some stuff that is not unlike Billy Graham’s “decision theology” coming through, in passages such as:

What is required is only that we do not hide from the presence of God, as Adam and Eve did after their sin, that we recognize our need to be justified; that we cannot justify ourselves. The publican of the parable came to the temple and made a short prayer: “O God, have mercy on me a sinner”. And Jesus says that the man returned to his home “justified”, that is, made right before him, forgiven, made a new creature, I think singing joyfully in his heart (Lk 18:14). What had he done that was so extraordinary? Nothing, he had put himself in the truth before God, and it is the only thing that God needs in order to act.

Of course, orthodox Catholic teaching teaches that even the response of faith to the grace of God in Christ is the result of pre-venient grace that leads us to that point, nevertheless the one remaining fact which (for Lutherans like Pastor Mark) brings the whole evangelical edifice crashing to its semi-Pelagian conclusion is that the human will remains free and acts freely in the response of faith. It is this which (for Lutherans like Pastor Mark) undermines the Gospel in Catholic teaching and preaching, and ultimately makes even a sermon as evangelical as the one which Fr Cantalamessa preached on Good Friday as anathema as the preaching of the Tetzel on indulgences.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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20 Responses to Was Fr Cantalamessa’s Good Friday homily “evangelical”?

  1. David Kennedy says:

    David, if Lutherans don’t believe that “human will remains free and acts freely in the response of faith”, what do they believe? I’d like to know.

    • David (Kennedy, not Schuetz),

      Are you theologically literate? (serious question – not having a go at you; this topic can get very theological and is open to misunderstanding at several crucial points.).

      What Lutherans believe (if David S. will permit me the plug) can be found here: http://bookofconcord.org
      If you do a search of the phrase ‘free will’ on that site it will throw up all references to that term in the Lutheran Confessions. From there the topic is yours to explore as much as you wish. I would also strongly suggest a review of the topic in historical theology generally, especially Augustine and the Pelagians and the semi-Pelagian response to Augustine, the decrees of the Council of Orange (II), and the later debate between Lutheran and Erasmus on free will when the topic once again broke out oin Western theology.

      Interestingly, the Melbourne-based Catholic (lapsed?) sociologist John Carroll regards the Luther-Erasmus debate as a turning point in Western cultural history (see his ‘The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisted’). Most Catholics think (because they have been taught it, I suppose) that Luther wanted to see a less “religious” world and was an agent promoting secularisation; nothing could be further from the truth of the matter. What Luther was opposing were deeply secularising forces within medieval catholicism with roots in the pagan Greek world-view which would spring forth in the southern and northern renaissance movements (the latter represented by Erasmus) which took a fundamentally pagan view of human nature. Against this Luther proposed a profoundly religious conception of man under God. Tridentine Catholicism was in many ways a compromise with the southern renaissance and its pagan conception of man, especially his freedom in religious matters and indeed in all matters of the will. That’s a thumbnail sketch!

      Lutherans don’t deny free will, btw; we more or less have free will in mundane matters (although note the insights of modern psychology into how much our wills are bound by factors beyond our conscious control), but in spiritual matters the will is bound to evil since the Fall into sin. We are like spiritual “black holes” who suck light – even religious light – in to serve our own ego. Or, as someone once said, we are bad trees who cannot produce good fruit. Spiritual awakening, then, must necessarily involve a radical action of God upon the human soul in which, theologically speaking, the human soul is passive.
      That is why David is quite correct to note that once Fr Cantalamessa speaks of man’s “free response” to God’s grace alarm bells go off for me. I can’t help but think that Catholicism is Evangelicalism (Billy Graham-type decision theology) with a decent liturgy, great art…and oh yes, an infallible magisterium!

      I’m working on a series of blog posts on this topic that will be coming out sporadically over the next month or so that may help too.

      • Schütz says:

        Dear Pastor, on the SCE blog, we do not ask people about the level of their…ahum…”theological literacy” – as gentlemen and scholars we make the natural assumption that our interlocutors are also gentlemen and scholars!

  2. Joshua says:

    So if the will is not free, how is that different to Calvinism or Jansenism? It certainly doesn’t seem very evangelical to be told we are as robots, or puppets on strings, some of whom God makes to believe (and eventually saves) and others he makes not (and eventually damns) – since apparently our free will is an illusion.

    The Catholic view is that we (as we experience in our own lives) truly do have free will, even if it is more or less affected by external and internal compulsions (e.g. fear of punishment, entanglement in vice). According to the Lutheran view, I assume, free will is not really free – certainly the Jansenist view (with which I am more familiar), the human will is so vitiated by the Fall that, since then, either a celestial delectation (the appeal of heavenly things, i.e. grace) or a terrestrial delectation (the seductive power of earthly things, i.e. the world, the flesh, sin) so captivates the will that it is not really free at all, but is irresistably yanked one way or the other.

    I will of course (pun intended) recall that the Catholic doctrine is that God freely chooses whom He will save, not on account of their merits but by His grace, by granting them such graces as they will freely cooperate with (which He foreknows from all eternity), while, with regard to others, on account of their foreseen sins, He does not give such graces as they will freely cooperate with (as He foreknows also), and thus, not having chosen them, and seeing them freely willing to rejecting His graces, and going from sin to sin, in His justice He consigns them to their fate.

    God predestines no one to Hell, save on account of their sins richly deserving such (as is just). God does predestine those whom He chooses, calls, justifies, sanctifies and saves, bringing them to Heaven, as they have freely cooperated with His saving grace.

    The mystery is, if to a hardened sinner God instead chose to grant other graces than those He in fact offers and which are rejected, surely that sinner could – if granted yet greater graces – freely choose to follow them, and end up being saved; so why does not God do this? This is the famous distinction between sufficient and efficacious grace: some graces are merely sufficient (but are not in fact freely cooperated with, yet, if they had been, they would have sufficed), whereas others are truly efficacious (they are freely cooperated with, and have their effect).

    This may sound very similar to a rather darkly Augustinian view, but it is distinct from the errors of Calvin et al.

    • Joshua says:

      Sorry about the grammatical errors above!

      I should have added that, while God in His justice is perfectly free to condemn (since all have sinned and fallen far short of God’s glory), in His mercy He chooses freely those on whom He bestows mercy.

      He is under no obligation to save everyone, though that is His will – that all be saved. Having given us free will, He cannot force us to be saved against our will. As Augustine said somewhere, God, Who made thee without thee, will not save thee without thee.

      Alas, despite having sent, first all the prophets, then finally His Son to die for us, and to teach us all righteousness, and despite ever showering upon us all the riches of grace won by Christ’s Sacrifice, ever leading us to holiness by the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, ever setting before us His saving Word, His Sacraments, the example of His saints, ever and always making all things work together for good – yet there are many who spurn all this, and by their own fault take the wide way that leads to perdition.

  3. Fraser Pearce says:

    Hello David,

    You said, ‘Of course, orthodox Catholic teaching teaches that even the response of faith to the grace of God in Christ is the result of pre-venient grace that leads us to that point, nevertheless the one remaining fact which (for Lutherans like Pastor Mark) brings the whole evangelical edifice crashing to its semi-Pelagian conclusion is that the human will remains free and acts freely in the response of faith. ‘

    Hmmm

    Are you saying that Catholic teaching is, in fact, semi-Pelagian?

    Are you saying that Lutherans accuse Catholic teaching of being semi-Pelagian (but are in face making a wrongful accusation)?

    Do you think Lutherans have reasonable concerns when free will is spoken of in a way that may lead people to trust for their salvation in their act of free will, rather than in Christ (and in him crucified)?

    And, finally,

    Have you read Adam G Cooper’s paper on the will in the FOC?

    That’s all for now!

    • Schütz says:

      Fraser: “Are you saying that Catholic teaching is, in fact, semi-Pelagian?”

      No, of course not – although I would be interested in comparing what Catholics regard as semi-pelagian and what Lutherans do. Is the notion of “cooperation with grace” really “semi-pelagian”?

      Fraser: “Are you saying that Lutherans accuse Catholic teaching of being semi-Pelagian (but are in face making a wrongful accusation)?”

      Yes – but again, what is at issue here may indeed be the definition of “semi-pelagian” – Lutheran dogmatists seem to have a more comprehensive understanding of the term which would exclude any cooperation with grace on the part of a free human will.

      Fraser: “Do you think Lutherans have reasonable concerns when free will is spoken of in a way that may lead people to trust for their salvation in their act of free will, rather than in Christ (and in him crucified)?”

      I think such concern would be entirely valid – if or whenever free will is spoken of in such a way. But I di not think that this is the way in which Catholic dogma speaks of the matter. It seems to me that the emphasis – the locus of trust – is always in the grace of God in Christ. Free will is upheld for two purposes – 1) so that the appeal of evangelical kerygma has a real purpose and not simply a illusory one, and 2) so that the believer might be held responsible for his act of faith before the world (cf. Benedict XVI Porta Fidei para. 10)

    • Schütz says:

      Sorry, forgot to say that I do not recall the good Doctor’s paper on that subject – although I may have read it.

      • Fraser Pearce says:

        Hello David!

        AGC’s paper is, ‘The role of the will in conversion: rereading the Confessions with Thomas Aquinas’ LTJ 42 No 1 2008. I’d be happy to make a copy if you can’t get it. It deals directly with the sort of issues discussed here in the comments.

  4. Stephen K says:

    Far be it for me to weigh into an argument between Lutheran heavyweights such as David and Pastor Mark on their own professional grounds: but if I may be permitted to offer a few lay thoughts of my own?

    It seems to me that we have to beware of erecting unnecessary barriers between us by arguing over the niceties of God’s relationship with us, sinners all. For a start, no Christian knows how God works save by hints we glean from the way the Gospels express often enigmatic passages of Jesus. We are conscious of a sense of free will – at times – and of a sense of doom or inevitability – at others. This suggests to me that the truth is elusive, uncertain, a bit of both.

    It seems also that Pelagius thought that our human nature gave power to our will to choose good, but that Augustine’s view of our impotence derived from his conviction about the notion of original sin, a fundamental lack that could only be remedied by grace. My understanding of Luther is that he was pure Augustinian on this point. (I accept that I, untutored and un-Lutheran, may be corrected on this.) Semi-Pelegianism is essentially, it seems, a position that rejected St Augustine’s view and thought that the action of grace depended on a co-operation between human will and divine will.

    It does seem to me that, notwithstanding the condemnation of formal semi-Pelagianism at the Synods of Orange and Valence in 529, the Catholic position is effectively semi-Pelagian in this sense. Like all middle, bet-each-way formulae, it is apt to elude clear, neat or consistent articulation. (That may, for those who think truth is of such a character, be an argument in its favour.)

    But I am not sure that advocates for any of the three positions can be so sure, though it is attractive to think one of them must be more right than the others. My marvellously concise “Protestant Dictionary” (H&S, 1904) says, interestingly, at page 502:

    “The defeat of Pelagianism in all its forms was doubtless due to the fact that it failed to grasp the deepest truths of the Christian Gospel………But……(Pelagius) desired to raise a protest against the growing disposition to trust in churchly professions and observances, to the neglect of Christian character……..the overthrow of his opinions fostered the steadily increasing tendencies to sacerdotalism. It weakened the sense of individual responsibility and threw men more than ever upon the Church, with her priesthood and sacraments, as the one depositary of the grace necessary for salvation.”

    What do you all make of that? Over to you!

  5. Salve! I have put you up for a Liebster Award, so much do I appreciate your Lutheran-hued Catholicism.

    http://wp.me/p15nQz-NQ

    Pax.

  6. Joshua says:

    Pelagianism is the belief – is it not – that we can get to Heaven by our own good deeds, without necessarily needing God’s grace. Obviously, since Heaven is a supernatural state, it cannot be attained by purely natural means – we need God’s grace to elevate our souls to a supernatural level, to say nothing of all the rest.

    Semi-Pelagianism, if I recall correctly, is the idea that we can merit the first grace (of conversion, or justification) by our own unaided, merely natural efforts. Again, it is clearly ridiculous to think that our natural efforts, be they ever so good, could ever deserve supernatural reward or elevation.

    It appears Lutherans retroject their own interpretation onto the term “Semi-Pelagianism”, by striving to exclude the free cooperation of man’s graced will.

    Am I right in this?

  7. Joshua wrote, “It appears Lutherans retroject their own interpretation onto the term “Semi-Pelagianism”, by striving to exclude the free cooperation of man’s graced will. Am I right in this?”
    Joshua,
    I would venture to say that the fathers at Trent tried to chart a ‘via media’ between the Augustinianism bequethed to the western church by the second Council of Orange and the semi-Pelagianism that council condemned. Thus, they don’t strictly speaking fall into the error you describe, although at times I think they lean in that direction. But, I would contend, neither does Trent do complete justice to the Council of Orange, the insights of Augustine behind that, or, more importantly, the Bible. For that matter, but for one or two individuals, they grievously misread Luther too (hence 20th C. Catholic theologians admitted the decrees may have largely missed their target) .
    I must say that to my mind the Tridentine decrees read like a buffet table was before the fathers but they could only afford one plate so they tried to please everyone with what they picked but satified no-one. Give me the full “steak and glass of shiraz” of the Lutheran Confessions any day (with apologies to Chesterton).
    After Trent, not surpisingly, different interpretations of the decrees floated about for some time leaning towards this or that school, but eventually from what I can see even the rather mild Augustinianism mediated to the medieval church by Aquinas became a dead letter in the Roman church until dialogue with the Lutherans started up in the mid-20thC.
    Anyway, the nub of it all is that Trent and the CCC both posit that an act of free will on the part of man is part of the conversion process. We say man, under original sin, is not capable of such an act. There is nothing in man that is untouched by original sin, no part of man that can respond positively to God’s grace, man under original sin is spiiritually dead and in enmity against God. Cf Ephesians 2:1-10. Theologically speaking, conversion is all the work of God. It is not the case that an injured man’s wounds are attended to, enabling him to walk himself. Rather, new life is breathed into a dead man – he owes his new life to his saviour. Jesus is not a spiritual St John Ambulance officer, he is a miracle worker – the miracle is new life! Cf John 3, Jesus & Nicodemus.

    • Schütz says:

      Quick reply between meetings:

      You see the Catholic “both/and” as a weakness rather than a strength. But remember that Martin Luther himself was not only capable of holding paradoxes together but he actually reveled in such paradoxical theology.

      Is it possible, Pastor Mark, that we are dealing with such a paradox here? That man’s response of faith to God could be an act of complete freedom and yet entirely dependent upon God’s grace? Or, to put it the other way, that the entire dependence of man upon God’s grace for salvation does not exclude the exercise of his free will in the act of faith?

      Thus both are affirmed: the entire dependance of man for salvation upon the grace of God in Christ, and the entire freedom of man’s act of faith in God in response to this grace.

      This may not fit a purely philosophical logic (any more than the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation does) – but it does, to me, seem to fit the rational nature of the experience of faith itself.

  8. Matthias says:

    it is with some timidity that i write here,knowing that i am in the presence of Brethren-Catholic and Lutheran- who are theological giants .
    i looked at Fr Cantalamessa’s homily and thought I was reading a sermon from the Pastors in the Churches of Christ who I grew up under. It was an extremely evangelical sermon. In fact i am reminded of the old Revivalist hymn when i read this sermon :
    “I know not why God’s Wondrous Grace to me hath been made known
    nor why unworthy as I am He made me for His own

    But i know Whom I have believed and ampersuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that Day”

  9. David Palmer says:

    David says (and good morning, David!),

    “Despite Fr Cantalamessa’s repeated emphasis that justification is a gift and that we do nothing to earn it (music to a Lutheran’s ears), there was too much emphasis on faith as our free response to this equally free and gracious act of God in Christ. Lutherans of the confessional variety would stipulate that it is not only the justification which is given as a free unmerited gift, but also the faith which is necessary to receive it.”

    Which of course is what not only Lutherans but Calvinists say. Not only can we cite scriptural support (e.g. Ephesians 2:8) but we can also cite our own human experience. Who can argue against the notion that in order to believe I need the grace of God working in my life. Surely we understand how deep human rebellion lies in the human heart – shaking the fist against Christ’s right to rule? Only the prior work of God, including the aspect of choice on God’s part can break my proud, stubborn angry resistance. None of this is to deny that in believing, it is me believing, but that this is so is due to the grace of God in my life mediated through the Holy Spirit.

    I know Catholics derive some pleasure (at times?) in pillorying John Calvin, but I wonder what you make of this quotation from his The Institutes of the Christian Religion

    “Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 11, Section 1

    Implicit in this definition, is that while the grace of justification is received as it were in a moment of time, the grace of regeneration and sanctification is something the believer grows into throughout the rest of his/her life as a believer.

    • Schütz says:

      Thanks very much for dropping by and contributing to this discussion, David. I appreciate the “argument from experience” as well as from scripture, because when we are talking about faith, we are talking about something of which every believing Christian has experience. And I think there are two experiences that cannot be denied in the act of faith. Firstly, as you say (and as Catholics also agree) “in order to believe I need the grace of God working in my life”. Absolutely no argument there. We know our inner rebellion, and so we know the miracle of faith as a pure gift from God. And yet at the same time I know that it is I who am doing the believing (as surely as Descartes knew that it was he who was doing the doubting), and that my act of believing is not coerced by God – I am not “forced” to believe – and so there is indeed a real sense in which I am a free agent in the act of believing. And this means also that I must take responsibility for my act of faith. Since I have said (at my baptism or at my confirmation or at some other point in my life – for me, most recently, at the Easter Vigil renewal of baptismal vows) “I reject” and “I believe”, I must also LIVE my faith in love and charity. As such, I have no personal difficulty with the quotation from Calvin’s Institutes which you have cited.

      By the way, it is not only Catholics who enjoy pillorying John Calvin. I think Lutherans enjoy this pastime even more!

  10. David Palmer says:

    I agree with you that Lutherans can be rather naughty at times.

    Just a few brief comments interspersed with yours:

    “And yet at the same time I know that it is I who am doing the believing,” – as I’ve already agreed – “and that my act of believing is not coerced by God – I am not “forced” to believe” – the Calvinist would never use the language of coercion, rather than of enabling, always acknowledging the prior action belongs to a sovereign God who acts according to his own will and purpose – “and so there is indeed a real sense in which I am a free agent in the act of believing” – no, by myself I would never choose God (Jn 15:16 gives the sense of what I’m getting at). “And this means also that I must take responsibility for my act of faith” – agreed.

  11. Peter says:

    Mark Henderson said: “I would contend, neither does Trent do complete justice to the Council of Orange, the insights of Augustine behind that, or, more importantly, the Bible. For that matter, but for one or two individuals, they grievously misread Luther too.”

    By the time Trent came around, the Catholics were not merely responding to the views of one Martin Luther, they were responding to a bewildering number of views claiming to be based on his starting point.

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