Catholicism 101: Do whatever work is before you for the glory of God

February 18, 2009

James Swan has just yesterday posted an article entitled “Steve Ray Reinvents Protestant Spirituality” on James White’s blog, Pros Apologian. He asserts that the concept of living a daily spiritual existence, in which every mundane task like diaper changing is done for the glory of God, is “Protestant theology 101”. I find his assertion strange, especially since it is that very aspect of the Catholic Church that I find to be most beautiful and true.

Even a superficial look at the Catholic way of life shows an emphasis on doing whatever work is before you for the glory of God. Opus Dei, began by Josemaría Escriva, is a Catholic society dedicated to “Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace” (also a title of a Scott Hahn book). Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium declares the Catholic’s Universal Call to Holiness. Mother Teresa expounded the idea of working every day for the love of God with her actions, but also says, “There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in – that we do it to God, to Christ, and that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.” and, “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” Further back in time, in the 1600’s, we see Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk who wrote Practice of the Presence of God, saying such things as “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” and, “People seek methods of learning to know God. Is it not much shorter and more direct to simply do everything for the love of Him? There is no finesse about it. One only has to do it generously and simply.”

Also, there is a contemporary of Luther, St. Francis de Sales who wrote Introduction to the Devout Life. He says: “It is… an error and even a heresy to wish to exclude the exercise of devotion from military divisions, from the artisans’ shops, from the courts of princes, from family households. I acknowledge, my dear Philothea, that the type of devotion which is purely contemplative, monastic and religious can certainly not be exercised in these sorts of stations and occupations, but besides this threefold type of devotion, there are many others fit for perfecting those who live in a secular state. Therefore, in whatever situations we happen to be, we can and we must aspire to the life of perfection.”

My mind boggles that someone can fail to see this ordinary devotional life in Catholicism, especially since my experience of Protestantism has focused on the exact opposite, in which everyone strove to attain places of honor and get recognition for their own glory rather than God’s. Regardless of what Luther taught or intended, the post-denominational Protestants speak little about striving to serve God in the small things, and are more about winning souls for Christ. Although the Catholic Church meets every individual where they are at and encourages ordinary devotions, they still hold in high regard the sacred life of the devoted religious.

You can see where Swan is coming from, though, that is the medieval perspective of Martin Luther. He says, “Martin Luther joined the monastery because he was serious about his soul and being truly spiritual” which isn’t strictly true. Although from a pious family, the reason Luther joined a monastery is because, fearing for his life during a thunderstorm, he made a vow to God that if he lived he would become a monk. Luther preached on “the sacredness of every calling, whether one was a cobbler, blacksmith, or mother. Whatever one does, one should do to the glory of God”. This is worthy preaching. However, Luther took this too far when he went on to condemn monastic life as useless and believed it was a vain attempt to merit your own salvation. His biography describes the impact of his preaching on monastic life, so that monks were freed from their vows “to take up useful occupations” and those who remained monks were urged to be useful as well in “preaching, physical labor, and caring for others”. (Luther the Reformer: The story of the man and his career, p 179-180)

Luther says: “Hence direct all the good you can do and your whole life to the end that it be good; but it is good only when it is useful to other people and not to yourself… If you find a work in you by which you benefit God or his saints or yourself and not your neighbor, know that such a work is not good.” [Sermons of Martin Luther 1:36]. This is plain wrong and appears to be the foundation of the infamous Protestant work ethic that has led to unbridled competition in capitalism and threatens to destroy the free citizen (see Belloc’s Crisis of Civilization). At the foundation of this admonition to be useful to others is the rejection of the Catholic mantra “life matters”.

If we are only good when we are useful and productive, then our life as a thing in itself has no value. Then the elderly, disabled, or unborn are easily disposable “for the good of the many”. Take it a step further and we see a scene forming from the Twilight Zone’s “The Obsolete Man“. Someone may object that I’m being overly dramatic and that Protestants themselves do not condone the destruction of life, truth, or beauty. However, I still maintain that this is the underlying attitude in Luther’s attack on monastic life. We see the fruits of this in post-Reformation Protestant culture. Liberty and quality of life has become more important than life itself and the sacred is no longer recognized.

Also, this attitude prioritizing usefulness and rejecting the sacred led to the pillaging and destruction of medieval churches in the Reformation revolts as well as the seizure of the Church charities that were placed in the public chest for the poor. This echos a familiar tune:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. (Matthew 26:6-10)

There is honor due our Lord, and it cannot be forsaken in favor of a lesser commandment. God is honored when people sets themselves apart for His service, and like Christ says above, they do a beautiful thing for Him. The Old and New Testament both bear witness to the consecrated lives of different individuals. Nearly all the Old Testament prophets lived consecrated lives, but Samuel in particular is a good example. From before his birth, he was promised as a nazirite to God, destined to live set apart and to dwell at the temple solely in service of the Lord (1 Samuel 1). In the New Testament, John the Baptist lived in the wilderness and ate locust and wild honey so that he might prepare the way for the Lord (Mark 1:1-8). Even Paul advocates remaining single to “live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:35) How can this be considered a bad thing, and how can anyone deny the deeper relationship with God that is found through perpetual prayer and devotion to God?

When Luther rejected the monastic way of poverty, chastity, and obedience, he destroyed the sacred. He undermined the beauty and truth of the Christian way of life, and failed to see the immense value of the prayers of the religious and example in a life set apart. It seems when the innate value of life and the holiness of God are misunderstood, we not only fail to treat God as he should be treated, but also fail to treat others with the reverence we should. As a Protestant, Mother Teresa’s saying “each one of them is Jesus in disguise” was a foreign concept to me. I was told we should be Christ’s light, not that others are like Christ to us. When you lack a piece of the truth, the entire system comes crashing down.

I don’t believe that Luther intentionally did these things or could have known where his reform would lead. He was motivated by a fundament misunderstanding of the Catholic faith. He initially approached it from the perspective of avoiding Hell rather than doing all for the love of God. He obsessed that his sins no matter how small always separated him from God’s perfect righteousness, a righteousness he hated (Luther the Reformer, p. 87-88), and he could never do enough to merit his salvation. In this he was right, since there was no love motivating even the smallest work he did, of course nothing he did would please God in the slightest. Swan promulgates Luther’s misunderstandings by saying “For a Roman Catholic, one must become perfectly spiritual in order to become justified. The soul must become objectively pleasing to God to merit heaven.” This misses the mark and distorts and amplifies only a small portion of the gospel.

There is no need to be “perfectly spiritual” to be justified. Catholics believe they are justified by grace through faith, and by virtue of our baptism. They believe we can do nothing to merit our justification, but that “justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). They teach that faith gives fruit in love, and those who love God keep his commandments, though imperfectly, which does not jeopardize their salvation. They also believe that in adhering ourselves to the divine will, we continue our justification in that we become more like Christ and sanctified. Perfect sanctification is desired to the point of necessity in order to stand before a holy God, which is attained in this life or in Purgatory. They do not believe that you can be saved in Purgatory, but that only those who are saved already are cleansed of earthly attachment to be made holy and fit to stand before a righteous God.

“We are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification.” [Council of Trent, Session 6, Ch. 8]

They, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified, as it is written; He that is just, let him be justified still; and again, Be not afraid to be justified even to death; and also, Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. And this increase of justification holy Church begs, when she prays, “Give unto us, O Lord, increase of faith, hope, and charity.”
[Council of Trent, Session 6, Ch. 10]

“For, whoso are the sons of God, love Christ; but they who love him, keep his commandments, as Himself testifies; which, assuredly, with the divine help, they can do. For, although, during this mortal life, men, how holy and just soever, at times fall into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial, not therefore do they cease to be just.” [Council of Trent, Session 6, Ch. 11]

Thus, neither is our own justice established as our own as from ourselves; nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated: for that justice which is called ours, because that we are justified from its being inherent in us, that same is (the justice) of God, because that it is infused into us of God, through the merit of Christ. Neither is this to be omitted,-that although, in the sacred writings, so much is attributed to good works, that Christ promises, that even he that shall give a drink of cold water to one of his least ones, shall not lose his reward;
[Council of Trent, Session 6, Ch. 16]

It’s no wonder that people like Swan, who see an entirely different Catholic Church than I do, feel the way they do about it. There is no way to make them see what I do, and so my only option is to proclaim the truth and be satisfied that my duty has been done. People may listen, they may not, or they may do as I have done and file away conversations and tid-bits that come back to haunt me when my experience testifies a different truth than the one I have held. Also, I can take a lesson from the subject matter at hand, and give every testimony and blog post up as service to our Lord and for His glory.