Legal Fiction in Today’s Catholicism

Father John Corapi

Ever since the Council of Trent, Catholic theologians have tended to view the Lutheran position on justification (and sometimes, among armchair theologians, the entire Reformed tradition) as a “legal fiction.” Canon 11 makes the point:

If anyone says that people are justified wither solely by the attribution of Christ’s justice, or by the forgiveness of sins alone, to the exclusion of the grace and charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit and abides in them; or even that the grace by which we are justified is only the good-will of God: let him be anathema (Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 679)

In context, the “attribution of Christ’s justice” is what Lutheran and Reformed theology calls “imputation,” the forensic crediting of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. Catholics of the sixteenth-century protested that in the doctrine of forensic imputation Protestants were guilty of reducing justification to a legal category that merely called one righteous without producing any real change (hence the term “legal fiction”). Accordingly, the Council of Trent opposed Luther’s “justification by faith alone” by citing Galatians 5:6, “fides quae per caritatem operatur” (faith which works through love), which was then translated into Aristotelian categories as “fides caritate formata” (faith formed by love). Although there have been exceptions among some Catholic scholars who advocate on behalf of imputation (e.g., Petavius, Scheeben, Newman, Rahner, Küng), most understand the one formal cause of justification to be (solely) an internal deposit of faith working through love.

Catholics in the News

It is not my purpose in this post to defend the Protestant position of forensic imputation. I hope to do that in the future with reference to Catholic sources such as those mentioned above. In this post I want to consider whether the Catholic Church is vulnerable to the accusation of holding a legal fiction of its own. Here is the issue.

This past week I read two separate articles in the newspaper about significant moral failure among Catholic clergy. The first was in Reuters concerning the steady stream of leaked documents from the Vatican (so called “Vatileaks”), which have revealed an unholy nest of conspiracies, backstabbing, and ambition among upper level prelates. Charges of financial impropriety figure prominently in the scandal, such as letters from an archbishop to Pope Benedict warning of “corruption and abuse of power” in Vatican finances. The other story reported on the sentencing of the first Roman Catholic official in the U.S. to be convicted of concealing sexual abuse of children by priests. Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said that Monsignor William J. Lynn, age 61, had allowed “monsters in clerical garb” to “destroy the souls of children, to whom you turned a heard heart.” Lynn had been a former Cardinal’s aide and one of the highest-ranking officials in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

I mention this with some hesitation. As a policy, I avoid writing about moral failures in the Catholic Church. We Protestants have more than our own share of moral failure and shame on us for showcasing the spec in our brother’s eye when we have a forest of logs in our own. But in this instance, I want to raise a theological question that has bearing on a central issue in the conversation among Catholics and Protestants.

The Catholic Legal Fiction?

Catholics may eschew what they consider to be a legal fiction in the doctrine of justification, but I wonder if they have something of their own ecclesial version. According to Catholic teaching, there is a proper distinction between the office of a priest and his personal piety. The former is the sancta (the holy thing) and the latter is the sancti (the holy person). As a result, an ordained priest, according to the Sacrament of Holy Orders, is a “priest forever” (Hebrews 7:17), an identity that is unassailable. This is, for instance, how Catholic historians typically explain spiritual malnourished Popes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, such as Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), Innocent VIII (1484-1492), Alexander VI (1492-1503), Pius III (1503), Julius II (1503-1513), Leo X (1513-1521) and Clement VII (1523-34). Certain rights and privileges of the clerical position may be withheld, but the office is permanent. Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church states it, followed by a citation from Canon Law:

1583 It is true that someone validly ordained can, for grave reasons, be discharged from the obligations and functions linked to ordination, or can be forbidden to exercise them; but he cannot become a layman again in the strict sense, because the character imprinted by ordination is for ever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently.

According to Canon Law 290, “After it has been validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid.”

Notice what is happening here. According to Catholic teaching, there are two categories: lay and ordained. Sacramental grace is understood to sanctify the latter of these in such a way that it is distinct (though not separate) from faith working through love. In other words, a priest’s moral life can fail miserably without the validity of his priesthood ultimately being impugned by his behavior. From my perspective, this logic is remarkably similar to the way Protestants define our doctrine of justification by forensic imputation. Of course, they are different doctrines, but they bear a resemblance in the way our actual righteousness is distinct from the judicial state in which we stand before the living God.

At the end of the day, the important question is which forensic vision is taught by Scripture. Is it the ordained priest (as Catholics assert) or the one whose identity is crucified with Christ and raised to the heavenly realm (Protestantism). The answer, of course, will be debated by Catholic and Protestants until our Lord Jesus returns. But in the meantime, let us recognize that both of our theological traditions make significant use of the forensic category.

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. Hello Chris,

    From my perspective, this logic is remarkably similar to the way Protestants define our doctrine of justification by forensic imputation.

    It is not a question of logic. The gift given in ordination is a charism imprinted on the soul, just as baptism leaves an indelible ‘mark’ on the soul. That charism is something other than sanctifying grace and agape, but it is in the soul, and remains in the soul even if, upon mortal sin, both sanctifying grace and agape are driven from the soul. The priest in a state of mortal sin is not simultaneously just and unjust. In that condition he is unjust, at enmity with God, because he lacks sanctifying grace and agape. But he retains the charism of ordination the way all baptized persons retain the indelible mark of their baptism, even when they have evicted sanctifying grace and agape from their soul. Because this charism (acquired at ordination) is in the soul, it is not “fictional.” By contrast, the “righteousness” declared in the case of the Protestant conception of justification is extra nos, and hence susceptible to the charge of ‘legal fiction.’

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  2. Thanks Bryan. Yes, the terms are quite different, but I think the concepts are similar nontheless even with the extra nos versus internal charism caveat. The ordained priest remains in a (secure) clerical state by virtue of his ordination. He may fall from his personal state of grace, but his identity as a priest is inviolable. So likewise, the one whose identity is “in Christ” is secure, even when he fails morally. In reality, the sharp contrast between extra nos and the internal charism is an unhelpful distinction outside of Luther (and even in Luther, the righteousness that justifies is the same righteousness that sanctifies). The Reformed tradition, in keeping with Calvin’s teaching of double grace, insists that regeneration preceeds justification so that there is in fact a double grace, internal and external. This is the logical pattern that applies to priestly ordination–a charism that begins internally has implications that reach beyond the internal, namely, the identity of the priest which remains secure even if there is no infusion of sanctifying grace. Obviously, the above picture of Fr. John Corapi, who walked away from his ordination vows, is illustrative.

  3. Chris,

    The similarity is that something good remains even when a person sins. But lots of good things remain when a person sins, and that doesn’t justify calling them a “fiction;” nor does it make “legal fiction” non-problematic. You titled your post “Legal Fiction in Today’s Catholicism,” as if Catholic doctrine also has a “fiction,” and this thus offers a tu quoque response to the Catholic claim that Protestant imputation is a legal fiction. Justification by extra nos imputation is a legal fiction, because it calls something that is not righteous, as though it is righteous. But in the case of ordination, the charism is not treated (either by God or by the Church) as though present when in fact absent; it is treated as present because it really is present, in the soul of the priest. So, the title of the post is highly misleading, because the enduring charism is not a fiction.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  4. Thanks, Bryan. It’s more than simply something good that remains. It’s a state that one enjoys by virtue of his association with Christ without reference to his actual righteousness. Of course, from a Catholic perspective the charism of ordination is not a fiction. That’s kind of the point. Protestants don’t recognize a sacrament of ordination, at least not in the Catholic sense, so that from our perspective–with all due respect–it is in fact a legal fiction.

    I have several priest friends whom I value and respect. None of this is intended as a personal critique. It is simply a statement of how Protestant theology disagrees with the teaching of the Catholic Church with respect to the nature of the clerical office.

  5. Hello Chris,

    I wanted to give you a heads up that there is a huge article on Imputation that I wrote and is posted online:

    Not to toot my own horn, but you’ll not see a thrashing of Imputed Righteousness like this anywhere, especially since it’s largely based on a documented track record of dishonesty and ignorance from numerous major Reformed theologians since Calvin.

  6. Thanks, Nick. Are you aware that there is a Catholic tradition that heartily affirms imputation? John Henry Newman, for example, states, “to ‘justify’ means in itself ‘counting righteous,’ but includes under its meaning ‘making righteous;” in other words, the sense of the term is ‘counting righteous,’ and the nature of the thing denoted by it is making righteous.” (John Henry Newman, “Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification,” Third Edition (1874), 65.

  7. Hi Chris,

    To justify can mean regard as righteous, which is precisely what happens in forensic contexts when a judge looks at the evidence, and if the defendant is innocent he will acquit them. This is very different from the idea that ‘counting’ or ‘reckoning’ involve transferring, and that’s the key here. The Greek word Paul uses does not mean “to transfer,” which is why Protestant scholarship is largely bankrupt on this matter, because they’ve never studied Logizomai and only went by hearsay. When big names like Turretin, Hodge, Buchanan, et al, are making claims about Logizomai that are flatly unbiblical, then that’s serious matter.

  8. Nick. I appreciate your zeal, brother, and the time and energy you put into your study. But your thesis is irremediably flawed. You write: “It is for these reasons why I say logizomai is the lynchpin of Protestantism. Once one examines the plain evidence, they will see Protestantism has not a single leg to stand on.” First of all, what do you mean by “Protestantism?” Do you mean to say that you are going to summarize ALL of Protestantism by one Greek word, which is in fact hotly debated even among small sub, sub sections of evangelicals (to say nothing of Protestantism at large)? Furthermore, is there any reputable scholar in the world who shares this view that logizomai is the “lynchpin.” Finally, it is a bit overly confident, to say the least, and reductionistic to suggest that the evidence is so “plain,” leaving Protestants without a “single leg to stand on.” It is good to make a case with conviction and resolve, but the “It’s so clear that they must be morons” approach rings a bit hollow.

  9. Chris,
    I am a little puzzled when you imply that Catholic theologians don’t completely agree (even have some significant disagreement) when it comes to the issue of imputed righteousness (some accept it, some don’t). I thought the existence of a Magisterium was supposed to solve the differences of interpretation.

  10. Of course they do, but it seems that Catholic theologians should demonstrate the unity of the Church on such a central issue as the nature of imputation. My Catholic friend (converted Protestant) tells me that one of the main reasons that he converted to Catholicism was because the interpretative certainty of Magisterium offers a sharp contrast to the multiplied interpretations of Protestant theologians.

  11. Bill,

    When Chris says “Although there have been exceptions among some Catholic scholars who advocate on behalf of imputation (e.g., Petavius, Scheeben, Newman, Rahner, Küng)” this grossly oversimplifies and misleads, because it makes them all appear to take a Protestant conception of imputation. So there is an equivocation going on here with the word ‘imputation.’ Catholics affirm imputation (the term is in Scripture), but they don’t mean by the term what Protestants mean by the term. And when/if any Catholic does claim that justification is based on an extra nos imputation of Christ’s obedience, he contradicts defined Catholic dogma and places himself in [at least] material heresy.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  12. Thanks, Bryan. So I should not find any Catholic thinker who affirms imputation in the Protestant sense? Just to make sure that I am understanding you correctly, any Catholic who agrees with the Protestant view of imputation is in direct contradiction to defined Catholic doctrine. Also, what if I find a Catholic theologian who disagrees with you opinion about this issue?

  13. Bryan, my Ph.D thesis is on Newman’s doctrine of justification, which defines justification as a forensic declaration, an “imputation” that eventually runs into infusion. There are other Catholics who share his perspective. If I wasn’t sitting in a conference auditorium poking at my iPad, I would provide more details, but you really should retract your accusation that it’s grossly oversimplified and misleading.

  14. Bill,

    The Protestant and Catholic conceptions of imputation are not identical, but there is conceptual overlap. So a Catholic way of understanding the “does not impute iniquity” of Psalm 32:2 is as forgiveness of sin. But this is not conjoined to a simul iustus et peccator way of thinking about forgiveness. Sin can be forgiven only if it is removed, and the soul made righteous. Hence in Catholic doctrine, repentance is necessary for justification, for those who have attained the age of reason. (See Chapter 6 of Session Six of Trent.) But the Protestant conception of justification by the extra nos imputation of the active obedience of Christ is directly contrary to canons 10 and 11 of the Sixth Session of Trent.

    Also, what if I find a Catholic theologian who disagrees with you opinion about this issue?

    Let me know.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  15. Chris,

    which defines justification as a forensic declaration, an “imputation” that eventually runs into infusion

    “Eventually” is also misleading, because it implies “not immediately.” Of course for Newman we subsequently grow in righteousness, in the Christian life. But infusion of righteousness, for Newman, is immediate. The divine declaration immediately effects actual righteousness in the soul. No one is divinely declared righteous who is not immediately internally righteous. And that’s not the Protestant simul iustus et peccator conception of extra nos imputation of the obedience of Christ.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    1. This is a good point, Bryan, concerning the time sequence of declaration and renovation in Newman. Frankly, it depends on which part of Newman you read. He says “justification leads to Sanctification.” Elsewhere he presents them as correlatives. I think you are probably correct, however, that there is more evidence to support the latter, especially toward Newman’s later years.

  16. A more accurate way to state it is justification “merely” by extra nos imputation…. The Advertisement to Newman’s Lectures on Justification, Third Edition, is one place to understand how this is worked out with regard to Trent’s Sixth Session.

  17. Chris,

    Although there have been exceptions among some Catholic scholars who advocate on behalf of imputation (e.g., Petavius, Scheeben, Newman, Rahner, Küng), most understand the one formal cause of justification to be (solely) an internal deposit of faith working through love

    Since you are a Protestant, speaking to Protestants, and since you do not qualify your use of the term ‘imputation’ here, your statement implies that these five figures held a Protestant conception of imputation, in contrast to most Catholic scholars who hold that justification is by the infusion of fides caritate formata. So which of these five do you think believed or taught the extra nos imputation of Christ’s obedience? To the best of my knowledge, none of them did. And that’s why I said above that your statement “grossly oversimplifies and misleads,” because you imply that these five held a Protestant conception of imputation, when in fact they did not. A forensic conception of justification does not imply or entail extra nos imputation of Christ’s obedience. There’s a Catholic way to embrace a forensic conception of justification. But, that does not mean adopting a Protestant conception of imputation as the extra nos transfer of Christ’s obedience to our account because whatever righteousness given to us internally at that time and at every subsequent moment of our earthly lives falls short of the requirement of God’s holy law.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  18. Bryan,
    Thanks again for your clarity. I can see why the difference between the Protestant and the Catholic view is such a wide chasm in your view. If your view is truly Catholic, then do you think that a consistent Protestant is preaching another gospel?

  19. Bryan. Do you honestly believe that there is just one “Protestant” position on justification? Obviously, it’s not that simple. Yes, a strictly Lutheran view, which sharply distinguishes justification and sanctification, is incompatible with Catholic teaching. But for most other Protestants, such a dichotomy doesn’t apply.

  20. Chris,

    do you think that a consistent Protestant is preaching another gospel?

    Strictly speaking, yes, if he teaches justification by extra nos imputation of Christ’s obedience. Of course there is a great deal in the Protestant conception of the gospel that is in common with the Catholic conception of the gospel. We can see that, for example, in the Joint Declaration on Justification. So, don’t get me wrong; there is much on which we agree. But from a Catholic point of view, the notion of justification by extra nos imputation of Christ’s obedience is outside the pale of orthodoxy defined at Trent, and in that sense, unfortunately (for one such as myself who seeks and prays for Protestant-Catholic reconciliation), is another gospel. The Protestant-Catholic disagreement on this point is not merely a semantic disagreement, nor is it adiaphora.

    Do I believe that there is just one “Protestant” position on justification? Of course not. I’m talking about only those Protestant positions claiming that justification is by the extra nos imputation of Christ’s obedience, rather than by the infusion of righteousness.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    1. I appreciate your candor, Bryan. At least we can disagree with conviction. It’s nice that despite all our differences we can agree over and against liberals for whom truth is relative.

  21. Bryan,
    I also appreciate your candor. If I understand you correctly, then anyone believing or teaching the view of justification that Martin Luther and John Calvin taught is preaching another gospel. They are therefore, anathama.

  22. That is incorrect, Bill. You will want to read the Joint Declaration on Justification where the Catholic Church lifted its anathemas from the Lutheran doctrine, and in its Annex endorses sola fide (so long as it includes the cultivation of charity).

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