The theologian Herman Bavinck, in his little book, The Certainty of Faith, commented on Roman Catholic piety from his Dutch Reformed perspective. Of course general statements like this are always dangerous since life is messier than our theoretical categories and so something will be missed in the process. On the other hand, this formulation rings somewhat true to me, based on friendships with Catholics over the decades, on the sad Protestant tendency to be dismissive of all things Catholic, and on what tends to be a foundational issue, at least on a popular level, separating the two.
Anyway, first Bavinck’s comments and then a couple questions I’d love people to comment on.
In Catholicism there are always two kinds of Christians: those who occasionally go to confession and mass, observe the required fasts and for the rest live quite a superficial, carefree life, trusting in the church for their salvation; and those who are dissatisfied with such externalities and attempt to live a purely religious life through mysticism and asceticism, in separation from the world and denial of the flesh, thus to come before the face of God.
Far be it from us to immediately denounce the latter with the protestant judgment that since such piety issues from a false principle—righteousness by works—it is therefore worthless to God. For no matter how much truth that judgment may contain, before we utter it we must remind ourselves that the Catholic righteousness by good works is vastly preferable to a protestant righteousness by good doctrine. At least righteousness by good works benefits one’s neighbor, whereas righteousness by good doctrine only produces lovelessness and pride. Furthermore, we must not blind ourselves to the tremendous faith, genuine repentance, complete surrender and the fervent love for God and neighbor evident in the lives and work of many Catholic Christians. The Christian life is so rich that it develops to its full glory not just in a single form or within the walls of one church.
Nevertheless, Catholic piety, even in its best form, is different in character from that of Protestantism. It always remains unfree, unemancipated, formal legalistic. Complete inner certainty of faith is lacking. It always leaves room for the question: Have I done enough, and what else should I do? (p. 36-37)
Now, three questions that I’d love to see answered in comments on this post:
1. Roman Catholic readers (past or present)—do you find this description rings true in your experience? How did/do you address the uncertainty provoked by “the question: Have I done enough, and what else should I do?”
2. Protestant readers (past for present)—do you find that your pilgrimage of faith also “always leaves room for the question: Have I done enough, and what else should I do?” How did/do you address the uncertainty?
3. Roman Catholic and Protestant readers—to what extent do you find Bavinck’s statement helpful/unhelpful? Why? Can you discuss such issues with charity, humility, and civility?
Source: The Certainty of Faith by Herman Bavinck (Paideia Press, 1980) 97 pages. A free copy of Bavinck's book (pdf format) is available here. Thanks to Steve Froehlich for the Bavinck quote.