By Caitlyn Teo
Can Catholics work their way to heaven?
A common misconception of the Catholic faith is that Catholics believe that good works are done because we wish to earn our way into heaven. However, this is not the official teaching of the Church. Indeed, if it were, it would indicate that true altruism is not possible on the part of Christians, as all good works would be centred on the self, and concerned with getting the self into heaven. This is ultimately a paradox as it suggests that being selfish grants one entry into heaven, where one would be in communion with a selfless God.
Indeed, when we discuss faith and works in this manner we are likely to get nowhere, as the dichotomy between faith and works is a false one. Rather, the good works that we do are the expression of the faith that we have. Faith is, after all, founded on the relationship that we cultivate with our one good and true God. As such, God’s goodness overflows in us and guides our actions, so that we imitate His selfless goodness and want to share His love to others through our actions. We are, essentially, using the free will that God gave us to cooperate with His plan of love to everyone we meet and reach out to. Good works are the expression of love with no ulterior motive.
Isn’t faith alone enough?
One of the most quoted and most contentious parts of the Bible when discussing this issue is James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”.
Understanding this requires us to first explore what is meant by “justification”. According to the Council of Trent (Catholic councils meet to define doctrine and reaffirm truths of the faith), this term is used to describe the process by which we grow to become more just, and more righteous — this is the process whereby we increasingly reflect God’s nature in ourselves.
In Protestant circles, however, the term is often used to describe how we are forgiven when we first approach God and begin our relationship with Him; justification is when we are made just before God’s eyes. Given this discrepancy, it is easy to see how the Catholic belief could be misconstrued.
Thus, what the Catholic Church teaches is that by good works, we are cooperating with God’s will, and thereby growing in relationship with God to become increasingly virtuous in our lives. This frames our lives within the process of salvation.
Ultimately, when we do good things, we have to try to remember that the source of all goodness is God Himself. We are not doing good works in order to earn salvation, which has already been extended to us, but to share it with others. In this way, we can begin to be truly altruistic and authentic when we do good things. We will not be preoccupied with ourselves, but instead genuinely trying to spread the love and joy God has given to us to others. This can be through small acts of love to those around us, such as being understanding and patient to them; when we use the gifts that God has given us to love those less fortunate than ourselves, such as by feeding the hungry, tending to the sick, and befriending the lonely; or going further to try to change the unjust systems that disadvantage many people today.