A professor I have for Reformation History this year is a scholar in the history of Martin Luther's early theology and early Lutheranism. I was telling him (because I'm an arrogant 20 something) last year when he taught the British Reformation that Luther's theology was based on sola fide, faith alone. He told me that he disagreed and that the real problem Rome had with his theology was Sola Gratia, Grace Alone. I quickly repeated something I'd learned from many Catholic apologetics websites, that Catholicism has always taught salvation is by grace alone. Frustrated, he gave up trying to explain to me why I was wrong and we parted ways (I just thought he was another confused Mennonite).
Today I was looking up a word in Wheelock's Latin and found the definition:
gratia, -ae, f., gratitude, favor
I had learned that Protestantism taught that grace was God's favor and that Catholicism defined it as God's help through the Holy Spirit (if you want more detail, read the 10 page treatise on it in the Catholic Encyclopedia).
Now Catholicism has it's super-ecclesiology, patristics, and canon-making powers that Protestantism can't touch. I view Protestantism as a nice house built on no foundation (sola scriptura) or rather built on a Catholic foundation, but I also view Catholicism as a foundation with an extremely ugly building. Or for another analogy, Protestantism is a parasite, it can only survive by clinging to and degenerating Catholicism.
Having said that, I must say that their conception of grace does sound alot nicer, you are saved, simply because Christ died for you and God isn't angry at anyone anymore if they believe in Jesus. God's unmerited favor is the cause of your salvation according to the Reformers. "Grace abolishes Merit"
Grace in Catholicism:
The Catholic/Thomistic understanding that "Grace perfects Nature" means that grace allows you to do good works which is your nature as the image of God. But grace is resistible, and sufficient grace for salvation is universal. So in the end, salvation is based on human response. Theoretically, if no one chose God, no one would be saved, Christ or no Christ. As well, as soon as you've committed a mortal sin (which probably happens every week if not sooner), then that universal grace has been killed in your soul. So basically Catholicism teaches that everyone gets 1 chance, and then after that, they do the work of going to Confession and they get another chance. If you die with a chance left then you go to Heaven. If you die without a chance left, you go to hell.
It's kind of like a giant egg race. God helps those who help themselves was the medieval phrase.
Or to use another analogy. Imagine the difference between these two scenarios. In Protestantism, you're Paris Hilton with your dad's credit card, you can spend as much as you want and he still thinks your just a silly little starlet. In Catholicism, you work in a coal mine, your dad got you the job, and if you screw up you get fired, and slowly little by little you accumulate your own money. In both cases you didn't deserve the job, so it's technically by grace, but one is definately grace alone, and the other is definately grace and works.
So as a Catholic I'm going to have to suggest to other Catholics that we stop teaching that people are saved purely by grace, or by grace alone. Because it's kind of sophistry and doublespeak to say we affirm "sola gratia". It's kind of like when we say we're saved by faith and love - and then when push comes to shove, love actually just means works. So we should just say faith and works. Another Catholic trick is to say that all of our works come from God's grace, which is to use the coal mine analogy, like saying that the 1 dollar a week I make is a gift, because there's plenty of starving children out there who would kill for a chance to work in a coal mine like I get to.
Just a suggestion....
"...at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened" - Romans 11:5-6
"Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’ ‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work." - Revelation 22:11-12
... the clarity of scripture shines once again in blatant contradictions (*read antinomies) ... Now I know why C.S. Lewis said that God hadn't given us the answers to the questions of the Reformation...