Catholics and Protestants disagree mightily on the doctrine of justification. However, a closer look at the concepts involved reveals that the two sides are much closer in understanding than the fireworks suggest.
To begin, Catholics accept three theological virtues: faith, hope & charity.
Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us…because he is truth itself. (CCC 1814)
Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the Holy Spirit. (CCC 1817)
Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. (CCC 1822)
In common Catholic usage, faith is unconditional belief in God, hope is unconditional trust in God, and charity is unconditional love for God.
The Catholic definition of faith (from the Greek, pistis) is derived from the sense found in Romans 14 and James 2; namely, that “faith” means intellectual acceptance of a body of theological beliefs known collectively as “the faith”.
This definition is supported by scripture in three ways: 1) the Romans 14 sense of pistis is the more common one in the New Testament; 2) the New Testament contains more than 40 references to “the faith”, so the connection between pistis and intellectual belief is very strong in this usage, and 3) this view of pistis has the advantage of maintaining the distinction between faith and the other two theological virtues and prevents blurring of their characteristics.
Viewing the definitions given above, one will note the similarities between the Catholic virtue of hope and the common Protestant definition of faith; that is, an unconditional trust in Jesus Christ and reliance on the Holy Spirit instead of on one’s own strength. At the same time, Protestants should have no problem accepting the idea that faith—as they define it—must also contain the intellectual assent to God that Catholics call faith since they should agree that a person with saving faith must believe whatever God says. Thus, the Protestant idea of faith includes what Catholics call faith (intellectual assent) and what Catholics call hope (trust in God).
Further, if a Protestant accepts the idea that saving faith is that which works in love (charity) as expressed in Galatians 5:6, then the Protestant and Catholic positions are equivalent. The reason is that a faith which works by charity produces acts of love. But a faith that produces acts of love is a faith that must include the virtue of charity since the virtue of charity is the thing that enables us to perform acts of love in the first place. Thus, the Protestant idea of faith includes what Catholics call charity.
Putting this all together, we see the following:
Protestant idea of faith = Catholic idea of faith + Catholic idea of hope + Catholic idea of charity
From this formula, we can see that Catholics rightly reject the idea that one can be justified by intellectual belief only. So do Protestants. Misunderstandings occur when Catholics reject justification by “faith alone” according to their definition of faith while Protestants cling firmly to this doctrine according to their definition of faith.
Therefore, if Catholics and Protestants come to a mutual understanding of one another’s terminology and the definitions of these terms, they can also agree on what does and does not constitute the faith needed for justification. Justification by Faith Alone (or sola fide) does not need to be a bitterly divisive issue separating Catholics and Protestants.
*Adapted from “*Justification: By “Faith Alone”?” by James Akin.