What is legalism, and how does it pertain to the Catholic Church?


Two or three days ago, I posted on Ask a Aplolgist a question, "What is legalism, and how does it pertain to the Catholic Church?"
I am communication with my brother-in-law, a die hard Baptist,
for every question he poses to me about the Catholic Church, I have been able to give him Bible verses to back up my answers, He tells me not to get to caught up in legalism, and sends me a page of
definitions, which basically say, “having things forced upon you,
without scripture authority”, What does this mean, and how does
it pertain to the Catholic Church, I can’t respond to him on this.
I would appreciate your help. I don’t know why it wasn’t posted,
have I done something wrong by asking this question? I hope
that you will give me a answer.
Thank You,
Richard Duggan


Dear Richard,

This is how Random House’s Webster’s College Dictinary defines “legalism”: “1. strict adherence to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit. 2. the theological doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.”
Neither of the above describes the Catholic Church. There may be some individual Catholics who are legalistic about Church law or even Scripture, but they would not be representative of what the Church teaches. As for the theological doctrine that salvation is gained through good works, such is not a teaching of the Catholic Church. Our salvation has been wrought by the passion and death of Jesus Christ who alone could achieve it because He alone is both God and Man. But this does not rule out the necessity of good works in order to get into heaven, as is clear from many passages in Scripture such as: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23)

To have faith is to freely choose to believe. One cannot be forced to believe. No one forces us to be Catholics. We choose to believe as the result of God’s grace. What he is miffed about is the authority with which the Catholic Church teaches. To him it sounds presumptuous and unscriptural. Actually, it’s quite scriptural. Our Lord was quite clear in appointing Peter as the head of the Church with the authority to bind and loose here on

It is that authority that has preserved the Church from error and has maintained it for over twenty centuries. Not only has it’s doctrinal teaching remained consistent, but so has its moral teaching. Protestantism has been around for only around four centuries. Look at the array of conflicting doctrines and moral teachings! Most denominations have caved under pressure from the culture of death.

For more on authority, see:


Fr. Vincent Serpa, O.P.

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