Faith must always take precedence over works

Father John A. Kiley

Certainly, the longest running feud within the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the struggle between faith and works. The first generation of Christians inherited from their Jewish ancestors a tendency to favor works. For some time, the keeping of the Mosaic Law had become the heart of Pharisaical Judaism. Jesus had scolded his contemporaries for this imbalance within their religious lives:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity (Mt.23:23).” The early Christian community courageously weaned itself off favoring the works of the Law resulting in a deeper look at the interior virtue of faith.
St. Peter himself had hesitated to renounce the old ways until he was scolded by St. Paul. What might be called the first ecumenical council of the Church was gathered in Jerusalem to discern a suitable answer to the faith vs. works challenge.
St. Luke, in the Book of Acts (15: 27-29), offers the solemn decision arrived at by the Church leaders: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right.” So the Holy Spirit and the Church hierarchy concluded that an obsession with good works was not integral to the Gospel message. Christian good works should originate from a deep interior faith, not from rules and regulations found in a handbook.
The Christian community would face this same challenge in the late Middle Ages when an obsession with practical good works overwhelmed the believing faithful. Extended pilgrimages, visiting shrines, attending and offering multiple Masses, and venerating relics especially absorbed the spiritual life of much of the faithful. Martin Luther and his fellow reformers were clearly justified in speaking out against these excessive pious devotions and against the exploitation of the faithful that often accompanied them.
In the post-Vatican II Church a similar tendency to exalt works over faith briefly took hold. As an understandable reaction to Protestantism, the Church after Luther was heavy on dogma and light on Scripture. Catechetical memorization was the order of the day. This method of instruction was frankly quite effective, as an older generation today can testify.
Once the Council rightly attempted to level the playing field between tradition and Scripture, the catechetical balance on a popular level became greatly weighted toward Biblical stories and religious graphics and a lot of “cutting and pasting.”
Works got the upper hand over faith. Designing crayoned pictures, watching colored slides, staging pious tableaux, collecting foodstuffs, visiting nursing homes — these techniques sadly resulted in the Catholic Lite whose meagre harvest the Church is reaping today. Good works are the fruit of faith; they are not the source of faith.
In the reading from the Book of Revelation heard at Mass this Sunday, St. John emphasizes the importance of building on the foundation of previous generations of believers. He envisions the New Jerusalem to be firmly grounded on the insights and inspirations of the past: “It had a massive, high wall, with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed and on which names were inscribed, the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites. The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Rev 21:10-14, 22-23).”
Authentic Christianity must indeed be sensitive to the signs of the times, as the fathers at the Second Vatican Council earnestly intended. But the true Church will also treasure the discernments of Israel’s ancient tribes and the judgments of Christianity’s apostolic band.
Jesus himself clearly advises that the task of the Spirit throughout church history will be to call the believing community back to its roots, to the firm foundation entrusted by Christ to the first generation of believers.
As this Sunday’s Gospel teaches “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you (Jn 14:23-29).” The Spirit’s task in every generation is to “remind,” to recall the perennial truths first entrusted by Christ to his Church. Faith must always take precedence over works, lest works become mere empty gestures.