“Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” So ends the portion of the second reading that we hear this weekend. In the sixteenth century, a great controversy arose regarding faith versus works. Some theologians said that all that was needed was faith (sola fidei) while others said that we need to earn our salvation by doing good works. The Catholic Church, using this portion of the letter of St. James (as well as tradition), taught that both faith and works are necessary to show one’s relationship with God.
It is true that we cannot earn our salvation. Jesus did that for us once for all on the cross. He died so that we might have life. Salvation is a free gift from God. However, our response to the great gift of salvation is to have faith and to exercise that faith with good works.
This year has been designated as the “Year of Faith” by Pope Benedict XVI. We are encouraged to study more about our faith and how we can best express our faith to others. Those of you who are over the age of 60 probably remember the Baltimore Catechism in which our faith was distilled to a series of questions and answers which were memorized and regurgitated on tests. When I was in religious education, the emphasis was on making collages and going on field trips to nursing homes or reading about peace and justice issues. In other words, our faith was reduced to doing nice things for people. While both expressions are good (a theological understanding of the faith and a focus on doing good works), we cannot forget the “et” (and): faith AND works.
If we overemphasize the academic side of faith we risk intellectualizing our faith and it becomes rote, boring, and distant. On the other hand, if we focus solely on doing good works without bringing any theology into our action, our faith is reduced to merely being a social event. I suspect that this is why many priests and religious left ministry in the 1960’s and 70’s. For some, religion became an exercise in theological social work. They found that since they could do the same good work as a layperson, so why be religious? On the other hand, some priests and religious found that doing social justice work or ministry in the marketplace took them away from the “mystery” of the faith and therefore they retreated back into a more formal and scripted existence.
In the final analysis, both expressions of ministry are necessary. We need those who do social justice as well as those who are more focused on the intellectual side of faith. Problems arise when we pit one side against the other. As one of my theology professors used to say, “Ministry is both…and….”Our faith cannot be reduced to an intellectual exercise nor can it be simply a case of doing social justice work. To truly live our faith, we need to both know the faith as well as know how to apply the faith to concrete situations. May our faith issue forth in good works and may our good works truly reflect our relationship with Christ.