A Catholic Who Loved Imputation

I am in the middle of teaching a six week series on Catholicism, Wednesday evenings in Oakbrook. Last night we covered the topic of justification. After enjoying a rich conversation (the class is full of both Catholic and Protestants), I woke up this morning with the topic on my mind, thinking, in particular, of how some Catholic leaders have advocated the evangelical doctrine of imputation. One such person was Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542), no small cookie in the 16th century Catholic hierarchy (Contarini helped Ignatius Loyola to obtain approval from Pope Paul III for his Jesuit order. He also served as  Papal prefect at the Colloquy of Regensburg). Here is what Contarini had to say about imputation.

Living faith is that which both appropriates mercy in Christ, believing that the righteousness which is in Christ is freely imputed to it, and at the same time receives the promise of the Holy Spirit and love. Therefore the faith that truly justifies is that faith which is effectual through love [Galatians 5.6]. Nevertheless it remains true, that it is by this faith that we are justified (i.e., accepted and reconciled to God) inasmuch as it appropriates the mercy and righteousness which is imputed to us on account of Christ and his merit, not on account of the worthiness or perfection of the righteousness imparted to us in Christ.


Gasparo Contarini, Letter on Justification, expounded in light of the Colloquy of Regensburg’s Article 5. Quoted in Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 219

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. “no small cookie in the 16th century Catholic hierarchy”

    Yes Chris but ultimately he submitted his beliefs to the Church and died in unity with Catholicism.

    From the Catholic Encyclopedia:
    In many of these writings Contarini touched upon the questions raised by Luther and other Reformers; in stating the Catholic view, however, he was not always fortunate. Thus, in describing the process of justification, he attributes the result largely to faith — not to faith with incipient charity in the Catholic sense, but to faith in the sense of confidence. However, he departs again from the Protestant view by including in the preparatory stage a real breaking away from sin and turning to good, a repentance and detestation of sin. Thus also, in describing the essence or the causa formalis of justification, he requires not only the supernatural quality inherent in the soul, by which man is constituted just, but, in addition to that, the outward imputation of the merits of Christ, believed to be necessary owing to the deficiency of our nature. It would be unjust, nevertheless, to class Contarini among the partisans of the Reformation. The above-mentioned views were taken only in part from the teaching of the Protestants; as yet the Church had given no definite decision on these matters. Moreover, Contarini wished always to remain a Catholic; at the Conference of Ratisbon he protested repeatedly, that he would sanction nothing contrary to the Catholic teaching, and he left the final decision of all matters of faith to the pope.

  2. Thanks. This nice summary failed to mention that G.P. Caraffa (to become Pope Paul IV) put Contarini into house arrest where the old Cardinal remained until his death. That’s a remarkable kind of “unity.”

  3. Chris:
    I realize that Diarmaid MacCulloch, wrote in his history of the reformation that Cardinal Contarini died under house arrest. I was unable to confirm that anywhere else. Elizabeth Gleasons biography on Gaspari did not mention that he was under house arrest when he died. A curious omission given her reputation as an academic historian of that period. Is there another source where I can find that information ?

    Cardinal Contarini was made a papal legate to Charles V of Germany after his work at Regensberg, but Charles rejected him because of his being too sympathetic to Catholicism.

    Contarini may have made statements regarding justification in an effort to attempt to heal the schism of the reformation which would paint him as a proto-protestant. However he was unwilling to compromise on the sacraments and in particular, you guessed it, the Eucharist! (and confession as well)

    In the colloquy he would not compromise on the definition of what the Eucharist was. “I will never depart one iota over Catholic truth or place it in doubt behind a screen of words…. In no case should the word transubstantiation be omitted, because if that were to happen, we will do great harm to the truth and ourselves.”

    He also dug in his heels regarding the sacrament of penance (confession) and would not yield to the protestant protests rejecting auricular confession.

    My question to you Chris is this: Which of the ideas of Cardinal Gasparo Contarini should we accept? Justification by imputation, or the insistence that all 7 sacraments of the Church were valid.
    Was he correct about imputation and wrong about the Eucharist and confession? Or was he correct about the Eucharist but wrong about imputation?

  4. Thanks TJ. The other two sources where Contarini is said to have been on house arrest is “A Short World History of Christianity: by Robert Bruce Mullin
    and Stephen Tomkins’ “A Short History of Christianity.”

    Yeah, as you might expect (coming from a Protestant) I believe that C. was right on imputation and wrong about the sacraments. Thanks TJ, best to you and yours!

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