This post is in response to my friend John Shelley's original blog post which can be found here.
Whenever I get the opportunity to talk with an old friend about my impending conversion to Roman Catholicism, the old friend inevitably will have a major problem with only one or two minor aspects of the faith. I and my wife both have been amazed at the apparent lack of real issues our Protestant pals will want to discuss. Lots of them have problems with Mary, or with praying to saints, or with statues. One person I talked to actually said she mistrusted Catholics because "they're always doin' stuff with their hands when they pass cemeteries or churches".
I initially had an issue with these bug-a-boos as well during my burgeoning Catholic days of 2006 (yes, it's been a long ride). Having since dealt with them, I now face a bigger mountain to climb; the Catholic teaching on Grace, Justification, and Sanctification. This is the doctrine that keeps me up at night - the doctrine that makes me suspicious of the rosary on my bookshelf. And, truthfully, this is the doctrine that could topple my Romish ambitions.
John has succinctly explained the traditional Protestant approach to this doctrine at the aforementioned blog. The concept is simple, yet far-reaching: those who rest their salvific hopes on Christ, through faith, are instantiated with a saving grace sufficient to eternal salvation. Any good or evil deeds that a person commits after this "moment" - a tricky word depending on where you fall in the free-will/determinist argument - is not viewed as inconsequential, rather as supplemental to that initial grace. In other words, Justification and Sanctification are unique events in the Christian's life, the latter being the consequence and not the catalyst of the former.
It is this last bit (the separation of the 2 doctrines) where the Catholic distinction begins. The Church teaches, in contrast to the Protestant reformers, that there is no actual difference between "saving grace" and "sanctifying grace". When a man is Justified, his soul is actually cleansed. Therefore, Justification is not viewed in a strictly legal sense, rather a person becomes eligible for Heaven because he has actually been purified of his sins. This idea, of course, is anathema to reformed theology: the idea of "once saved, always saved" seems to go hand-in-hand with "once-a-sinner, always-a-sinner".
Now, that's not to say that Catholics never sin; instead the teaching is that dirty souls need to be re-cleansed. Hence confession, penance, and indulgences (topics for another day). The Church does teach, however, that a man may sin so grievously as to have all justification removed from his soul. Can he then be re-graced? Yes, but that falls under another, yet related, topic.
While I understand and appreciate the various Biblical texts that seem to support the Protestant rendition of Justification, I now have trouble seeing anything but the Catholic version when I read the Bible. Even the best proof-texts which come from the book of Romans don't bear out the "legal" view of Justification because I now understand that all of Romans 1 - 11 are building up to Romans 12, which is a diatribe on proper Christian living. Why would Saint Paul write so complex a document as his letter to the Romans just to build up to the climax of "how to live as a Christian" if his intent was to showcase an imputative grace that was not effectual to actually change a soul? He wouldn't, and he didn't. Even a cursory reading of Romans 6 will show that Saint Paul understood the efficacy of justification to make a soul pure and the ability of that soul to err after being justified.
The nuances of Saint Paul notwithstanding, you'll have a tremendously difficult time trying to find the legal view of justification anywhere else in Scripture. Try the Gospels, or John's epistles, or the Epistle of St. James, or the Old Testament. Nearly the entire Bible (including all of Paul's letters) has one central message: "Look what God has done, now live rightly".
Please don't misunderstand this post as a confident defense of Catholic soteriology. I'm still making my way through this mire, but I'm beginning to accept what generations of Church Fathers have always believed and preached. If I am honest with myself, this interpretation scares the hell out of me, but I guess that's the point.