The Catholic Understanding of Faith and Works

An Explanation From Saint Gregory the Great

Gregory the Great
Saint Gregory the Great by Unknown Roman artist, oil on canvas, 1620-29. DEA/Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Getty Images

The Common Explanation of Faith and Works Is Incomplete

Trying to explain the Catholic understanding of the relationship between faith and works is hard, and most often Catholic apologists (and I am no exception) fall back on the idea that true faith shows itself in works, and that a lack of works, therefore, is a strong indication of a lack of true faith. As an apologetical argument, it has a certain strength: Most Protestants who get nervous at the discussion of works have no desire to deny the importance of living out our Christian faith, and the argument fits well with that thorny verse from Saint James (James 2:26): "For even as the body without the spirit is dead; so also faith without works is dead."

But on another level, this argument is incomplete, because it doesn't express the fullness of the Catholic understanding of the relationship between faith and works—a relationship that runs both ways, not just from faith into works.

Gregory the Great on Faith and Works

To understand that relationship, we turn today to Pope Saint Gregory the Great.

On Easter Monday in the traditional calendar, and Easter Wednesday in the current calendar, the Church offers as the Gospel at Mass Luke 24:13-35, the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. As they are walking and discussing (and debating) the events of the Easter Triduum, Christ approaches them and, Luke tells us, "their eyes were held, that they should not know him."

In the traditional Office of Matins (Morning Prayer) for Easter Monday, the Church includes a selection from Gregory the Great's 23rd Homily on the Gospels, explaining why the disciples were prevented from recognizing Christ:

Dearly beloved brethren, ye hear, how that while two of His disciples walked together in the way, not believing in His Resurrection, but talking together concerning Him, the Lord manifested Himself unto them, but yet held their eyes that they should not know Him. This holding of the eyes of their body, wrought by the Lord, was a figure of the spiritual veil which was yet upon the eyes of their heart. For in their heart they loved and yet doubted: even as the Lord drew near to them outwardly, but showed not Who He was. To them that talked together of Him, He revealed His immediate presence; but hid, from them that doubted, the knowledge of His Person.

So far, Gregory's homily is probably fairly close to that which your own parish priest has delivered when preaching on this passage from Saint Luke, but things are about to get a little more interesting:

He spoke to them; He rebuked the hardness of their heart; He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself: and, nevertheless, seeing that He was yet a stranger to faith in their hearts, He made as though He would have gone further. These words  He made as though would here seem to mean He feigned, but He Who is simple Truth doth nothing with feigning: He only showed Himself to them in bodily manners, as He was towards them spiritually; but they were put to the proof whether, though they loved Him not yet as their God, they could love Him at least as a wayfarer.

Love and Doubt: The Weakness of Faith

These two disciples have, in their hearts, a mixture of love and of doubt. They love Christ, but they are having a hard time accepting what the angels told the women at the tomb, when they discovered that Christ's body was not there. Their faith was weak—or even nonexistent: "not believing in His Resurrection"; "seeing that He was yet a stranger to faith in their hearts"; "though they loved Him not yet as their God" (which would require faith that Christ is God).

But they do have love for Christ, even though they doubt that they will see Him again; and Christ, by suggesting that He might go on farther while they stop to rest and eat, is testing whether their love, even in the absence of faith, could extend from Christ to their fellow man—whether, as Saint Gregory writes, "they could love Him at least as a wayfarer," since they think Him someone other than Christ.

And now Saint Gregory cuts to the heart of the matter:

But since it was impossible, that they with whom Truth walked, should be loveless, they asked Him as a wayfarer to take of their hospitality. But why say we that they asked Him, when it is written: And they constrained Him? From their example we learn that we ought not only to bid, but also to urge, wayfarers to our hospitable entertainment.

Loving Christ Means Loving Our Fellow Man

In other words, their love for the Christ they had known manifests itself in love for the man with whom they are walking (and whom they do not think is Christ). And that, Saint Gregory says, should be a lesson to us. Loving their fellow man,

They laid a table therefore, and set before Him bread and meat; and that God Whom they had not known in the expounding of the Holy Scripture, they knew in the breaking of bread. In hearing the commandments of God they were not enlightened, but they were enlightened in the doing of them: as it is written: Not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified ( Romans 2:13). Whosoever therefore will understand that which he heareth, let him make haste to practice in his works that which he hath already been able to hear. Behold, the Lord was not known while He spake, but He was contented to be known when He brake bread.

Works Give Rise to Faith

And here, we can see in its fullness the Catholic understanding of the relationship between faith and works. Works do not simply flow from faith; works can give rise to faith. Living as we should, practicing the charity to which the law and the gospels call us even when we do not understand why we should do so—such actions produce faith within our hearts.

Of course, our works themselves do not and cannot produce faith without the action of God; faith, rather, is granted (or strengthened) by God in response to our works. True faith should give rise to charity; but charity also gives rise to faith, through the response of God to our actions.

Faith Flows From Action

The way to become virtuous is to live a virtuous life; the way to grow in faith is to act as if we believe, even when we may be struggling to do so. Had the disciples let their lack of faith in Christ's Resurrection overwhelm them, had they not in charity urged the stranger to come and rest and eat with them, they would not have known Christ in the breaking of the bread. The Scriptures would have remained a mystery to them, even though Christ had explained the verses concerning Him to them on the road to Emmaus, because the faith that unlocked the meaning of the Scriptures would not have taken root in their hearts.

Act Like You Believe, and Faith Will Follow

Twenty-five years ago, walking in the shade of Beaumont Tower on the campus of Michigan State University with my professor of religious studies, Thomas Ryba, I mentioned that I was struggling with my faith. I hoped that he would offer me something to read that would make it all clear to me, that would set my mind at ease and help faith to blossom in my heart.

Instead of naming a book or two, however, Dr. Ryba offered advice that I was not expecting, advice with which Gregory the Great would undoubtedly agree: Pray. Go to Confession. Go to Mass. Receive Communion. Make the Sign of the Cross. Genuflect in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Try your best to love your fellow man. Act like you believe, and faith will follow.

And I did. And it did. And whenever I find my faith flagging, I remember that advice.

And I remember, too, the doubt of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and how, in response to their charity, Christ opened the eyes of their heart, and they believed.

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Richert, Scott P. "The Catholic Understanding of Faith and Works." ThoughtCo, Apr. 9, 2016, Richert, Scott P. (2016, April 9). The Catholic Understanding of Faith and Works. Retrieved from Richert, Scott P. "The Catholic Understanding of Faith and Works." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 19, 2017).