‘Why Don’t Catholics Preach About Salvation?’
That question — as I’ve paraphrased it above — was posed to me recently by a Protestant reader who is beginning his journey into the Church.
The question veils an accusation and my reader already had a sense that it was wrong. He just wasn’t sure what the right answer was.
The perception indeed is widespread that evangelical Protestants preach about salvation and Catholics don’t. I’m sure I once believed that. And it is grounded in a kind of truth: I’m sure that, on any given Sunday if you go to your garden variety evangelical church chances are likely you will hear an explicit message on salvation whereas it won’t be so obvious in a Catholic parish.
So do Catholics not preach about salvation then?
As I was mulling over this question, I thought back to the recent homilies I’ve heard. The two last ones were simple expositions of the gospel reading. One was on the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep in John 10. The other was the story about Doubting Thomas in Luke 24.
The Sunday before that, the reading was on the miracle of the fish in John 21, and I recall the preacher talking about how we join our sacrifice to Christ’s in the Mass, which fits the gospel story about how disciples brought their fish to the fish Jesus was already cooking on the beach. And, on Easter Sunday, my local bishop delivered a homily centered on the question of whether we have encountered the resurrected Lord.
I don’t recall any of those preachers saying anything explicit about how we are saved. But were any of these homilies not about salvation?
I don’t think so. How can someone be saved without encountering the resurrected Lord? How can the sacrifices we join to Christ’s sacrifice be completely unrelated to salvation?
These homilies illustrate the difference in how Catholics and Protestants talk about salvation. It’s not that one does and the other doesn’t. It’s that everything in Catholicism is ordered towards our salvation. In feeding the hungry or caring for the sick we are doing what Jesus commanded was necessary in order to inherit the kingdom in Matthew 25. In fasting, renouncing attachments to material things, and cultivating a poverty of spirit we are heeding Jesus words’ to the rich man in Luke 18. And in receiving the Eucharist we are assured that ‘eternal life’ is within us, as Jesus said in John 6.
Still, the question deserves more of a direct answer.
There are a few different ways we could answer this. In terms of sacraments, we need baptism to wash away the stain of original sin, the Eucharist to participate in Christ’s sacrifice for us, and confession to be absolved of the sins we have committed since our baptism.
We could also speak of one’s interior life. Faith is critical to salvation, but it’s just the beginning. For faith works through love (Galatians 5:6). So, one also needs love (see 1 John 4:8). Salvation thus comes through not a momentary pronouncement of faith but a lifelong process in which faith grows in love.
This love expresses itself through acts of charity. And it is here that ‘works’ come into the picture. But their proper place must be understood: it is not a matter of accumulating enough good works. Instead, what matters is how bright does the fire of love burn in the soul?
It is this love that makes all the difference. Love doesn’t ask, ‘What is the minimum I can do?’ Love asks, ‘How can I give everything I have and everything I am for the sake of my Beloved?’ Love has no limit, no end. There is not some point at which we’ve banked enough love in order to be saved—because that’s not what we’re trying to do. That’s not how love thinks. Love is hard work indeed. But, lest we think any of this is due to our own effort, both Scripture and Catholic teaching make clear that all of this comes through grace.
Every time we say the rosary, pray a novena, or sit silently in Eucharistic adoration we are performing a work of faith and love: we are stating our faith in the truth about Jesus and expressing our love for Him. Abstaining from meat during a Lenten Friday, making a small donation to help the homeless, or simply gazing lovely upon a crucifix or an icon are all small things that aid us on our journey to heaven.
For Catholics, then, salvation is more like some sort of thick stew with a little bit of everything thrown into it—chunks of beef and pork and other meats, carrots, broccoli, spices, and maybe even a bone or two. And thank God, because I’d much rather have that hearty stew than some kind of meatless chicken broth.