Is Catholicism legalistic?


I am a Protestant. My wife and I enjoy worship at Catholic churches, but we know that we cannot participate in the Eucharist. We have both attended RCIA. I have read the entire Catholic Catechism. I have studied the early Church Fathers, Augustine’s works, and Aquinas’ Summa. Also, I have read, and thoroughly enjoyed, several books by Pope Benedict XVI. I appreciate the deep roots of the Catholic Church in rationality. I find the Sola Scriptura doctrine within Protestantism to be somewhat fedeistic (reasoning “from” the Bible before reasoning “to” the Bible). In general, there is much about the Catholic Church that is appealing to me. But there are some fundamental Catholic teachings that scare me, and which prevent me from fully embracing Catholicism.

My main concern is that the Catholic Church teaches that our works are necessary for our justification. Although I agree that good works are necessary, I believe they are the fruit of faith, the product of my justification, not the basis of my justification. So a faith without works is indeed dead – a dead faith rather than a living faith. My righteousness is a result of my being alive in Christ, through the indwelling presence of his Spirit, who then produces good works as the evidence of my faith, and for my continuing sanctification.

It is truly scary to me when I begin to trust anything other than the shed blood of Christ for my justification. The apostle Paul said, “I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).

Yes, I believe that we must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling,” but that is because it is “God which worketh in [us] both to will and to work, for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). It is “to make [my] calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) – that is, to confirm to myself that Christ is indeed within me.

Catholic soteriology appears to assert that although Christ has done his part, I must still add my own works to complete my justification. But I, as a sinner, cannot do anything that is without the taint of sin. How can I add to what Christ has already accomplished on my behalf? I can only lift empty hands of faith. To Christ alone be the glory for my salvation.

Every time I begin to draw close to embracing Catholicism, I get caught up in all of the rules and regulations that ultimately become the means of my salvation, and not the fruit of my salvation. Ultimately, it appears that I must justify myself, and not depend entirely upon the completed work of Christ. That scares me. How does the Catholic Church avoid the charge of Pharisaical legalism? What is wrong with my understanding of works as necessary, but only as the fruit and proof of what Christ has already accomplished for me personally through his life, death, and resurrection?


Instead of 6 paragraphs - how about 6 sentences -
legalistic - is always wordy - and brainy.


It doesn’t sound like you really disagree with the Catholic Church on this issue.

It is indeed faith that saves us. Through our works we cooperate with that grace. It is fair to say that our good works are a product of the grace extended to us through baptism.

Catholics don’t believe you are only half justified after Baptism.

But would you agree that you can do things that are pleasing to God? We are God’s creation. He loves us from the beginning. He loves us through and in spite of our sin.

If you agree that you can do things that are pleasing to God, then there is nothing to stop you from cooperating with grace in order that you might maintain your salvation through good works.

Are you from a Calvinist background?

Here’s a good Tim Staples write up on this issues:


All your terms and thought processes in your op seem very ‘other religion’ oriented and gave a major focus on your own salvation.

In all my Catholic years, and I was born and raised Catholic, the focus has never been on my own salvation. The focus has been on being an instrument of God ,allowing God to work through me, to be that lantern shining in the window.

Shift your focus, enter into Catholic culture and start thinking Catholic


I do not normally like to “link and run,” but have you reviewed the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this matter? The Church does teach that we can do no good works apart from God.

I suggest Part Three: Chapter Three: Article Two. It covers the Catholic position on Justification, Grace, Merit, and Christian Holiness.

Also, I might suggest reading the pronouncements on Justification made at the Council of Trent. I am little hesitant to link it as the anethemas might be misunderstood when applied to a modern context, but the canons do state the Catholic positions, both on what we can and can’t do.

(That website is not a website maintained by the Church. It’s a private one. The wording is also a bit archaic and the sentences run on… let us know if there are questions).

You don’t have to read the whole page. The canons start about two thirds of the way down, the first one reading: CANON I.-If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

Go with the Catechism first, thought. Let us know if you have any concerns.


We are children. God is like a father rolling a boulder up a hill who offers his child a chance to “help.” The child really adds nothing but his willingness, but it pleases the father when his child agrees to help. The father wishes to associate the child, by the child’s own will, with his own work. (Certainly good works are more fruitful than just rolling a boulder, but that’s just an analogy.) The Church teaches that our works are both 100% God and 100% us. It’s not mutually exclusive, but about God asking for our cooperation.


This is where your line of thought ends being Catholic. A man, even a sinful man, is quite capable of performing some of his actions without the taint of sin. What makes you think otherwise?

That’s understandable. Catholicism is legalistic. Which major religion isn’t? The point is to see that the legalism originates from faith – in principle at least – and that it is not intended to establish faith (or salvation). For as you know, it can’t.

This may be subtle, but the work of Christ that is called “completed” is the work He performed on earth while incarnate. The work of Christ in you (and in me) is not yet completed. It is an ongoing process of transformation, from sinner to saint.

Nothing. Well… I think it’d be slightly more accurate if you wrote that your works are the fruit and proof of what Christ is accomplishing in you. I think it is your protestant background talking (no offense intended) to think of Christ’s work as having been completed in the past. The Catholic Christ is less historical than the Protestant one, and more actual. (Of course the Protestant Christ is also actual, and the Catholic Christ also historical. It is a difference in emphasis.)


I do not mean to be flip, but your own post shows that you yourself seem to have a very legalistic outlook on things. I think you’re seeing the Church through your own mindset.


I’d like to add my own thoughts to this, as I disagree with the idea that Catholicism is, at its roots, legalistic. Though legalism can be found in any Christian denomination, including Catholicism.

Catholicism does believe we have familial responsibilities in the Body of Christ.

Catholicism does not believe God is out to get you. It does not believe that God is ticking off boxes on a checklist.

God wants us to succeed and wants to help us to do so.


Thanks for all the replies. I will consider each one, and read the suggested links before I respond.


You seem to have a pretty good understanding already about works being the fruit of faith and grace. There are many discussions here on CAF about free will, and where it begins and ends. I brought that up because it’s you using your free will that helps you to complete Christ’s work. You shine His light from you for all to see. That requires your participation, your choice, your will,your cooperation with His grace.

I would like to also point out Roseurekacross’ post. It brings up a good point. The focus of salvation isn’t on justification, it isn’t really thought about in those terms at all. Getting to heaven is really presented more as a list of do’s and don’ts, although that is a very simple way of putting it…you can see how that can be interpreted as legalism. And some people do take the do’s and dont’s in a very rigid way, giving the impression of legalism. But that is not how Catholic children are taught, they are not taught Catholicism in a legalistic way. And that is not how Catholicism is. The Ten Commandments are not presented in a legalistic way, and the Works of Mercy are not presented in that way either. They are presented as choices which naturally have consequences. The consequences of people’s actions are generally not delved into too deeply because each individual’s circumstances in each decision they make are only truly, and fully known to God alone…so we are taught not to judge, but to be an example by the way we live.


This is a really good point. I was catechized pretty well by my mother as well as attending 12 years of Catholic school. I never once heard the word “justification” or had any discussion of how one was “justified”. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I have become aware that many Protestants are very focused on the concept of “justification”.

I was always taught that you just follow the Commandments (Moses’ 10 Commandments and Jesus’ 2 Commandments) and you rely heavily on God to have mercy on your soul. Things like the Works of Mercy were good, virtuous things that Catholics were expected to do as part of being good Catholics. It was not a case of “you do X works of mercy in order to be “justified” to get into Heaven”.

I cannot understand how people see Catholicism as “legalistic” when like I said I’m almost completely unfamiliar with the whole idea of this justification and what not.


The poster has numerous past threads, including a recent one, on the situation with his neighbor. It is off-topic to this discussion in a big way and I flagged his post in this thread as off topic.


The reason why works are not the fruit of faith is because that’s illogical.

Atheists & devil worshipers are capable of good works. But their good works are not enough to earn their way into Heaven.

And there are plenty of mobsters who believe in God. But their faith most likely isn’t strong enough to get them to Heaven.

Faith alone isn’t enough and works alone isn’t enough. We need both to get to maintain santifiying Grace.

I pray this helps.

God Bless


Well THAT’S a new one :roll_eyes:


I am in a lengthy debate at this time on these forums. If you can look at that, it is interesting.
I wanted Catholic baptism as I feel it is more meaningful. I enjoy general bible churches because they leave you alone.
However I could be happy Catholic too. There are more things to agree on than disagree.
I just ran into a lay leader there who was spiritually abusive. If free will is taken away by legalism, run.


Davieemye, you already have a thread going on your situation and it has nothing to do with the OP’s topic in this thread. You posting about your personal situation here is off topic and also duplicates the discussion going on in your own thread. Please do not hijack this thread which is about the OP’s specific apologetics concerns.


There has been ecumenical work done on the question of justification. Yes, it’s a RCC-Lutherans discussion but it covers a lot of the issues raised by various protestants.
It certainly settled my issues about justification.


Are you familiar with the distinction between imputed vs. infused righteousness?


You’re right. At its roots, Catholicism isn’t legalistic. However, I can understand that to someone coming from a protestant background, it seems that way. It’s a side-effect of Catholicism’s inclination toward rationalism and also of its elaborate ecclesiastic organization.

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