Many Protestants have mistaken opinions about what the Catholic Church teaches concerning justification. One major aspect of their error has to do with their claim that the Catholic Church teaches a “works-based” justification, by which they mean to say that it teaches we can merit salvation by what we do. This is a false notion. In this post I would like to briefly adduce a certain bit of testimony from the Roman Catechism (also known as the Catechism of the Council of Trent) which demonstrates that the Protestant notion about Catholic teaching on this point is mistaken.
The publication of the Catechism was prompted by the Council, during the fourth session of which (in 1546) “the draft of a decree was read proposing that there be published in Latin and in the vernacular a catechism to be compiled by capable persons for children and uninstructed adults, ‘who are in need of milk rather than solid food’” (The Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. xxviii) This decree (though not, as far as I know, formally adopted by Trent) bore fruit when the Catechism was published in 1566 by St Pius V (just three years after the close of the Council). It is reasonable to say, then, that the Catechism constitutes some of the first fruits of the Council; it is likewise reasonable to say that it represents the views of the Council, since it was published by the last pope to preside over the council.
The Catechism presents its instruction under four heads: the Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments, and the Our Father. In the first section’s discussion of the second article of the Creed (“And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord”), we read this:
That wonderful and superabundant are the blessings which flow to the human race from the belief and profession of this Article we learn from these words of St. John: Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him, and he in God; and also from the words of Christ the Lord, proclaiming the Prince of the Apostles blessed for the confession of this truth: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar–Jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. For this Article is the most firm basis of our salvation and redemption [Source; emphasis added].
“This Article:” namely, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” This, says the Catechism, is the “most firm basis of our salvation and redemption.” There is no other basis for it; this is it. We are saved by Christ alone. Consequently our works—however important they must be—cannot and do not save us.