Has the Roman Doctrine of Justification Changed?

It’s often said that Rome “doesn’t do that anymore.” I’ve heard that said about indulgences. “We don’t do that any more, not since Vatican II.” Really? Holy Mother church offered plenary indulgences at late as 2000 when there she offered a plenary indulgence, like the sort offered by Tetzel in the early 16th century! Vatican II ended in the early 1960s. Further, indulgences remain a part of Canon Law. You can read all about them right here on the Vatican website — did you know the Vatican has its own web domain? How weird is that? I know the Vatican has its own secret service and diplomatic corps but can you imagine the outrage if Billy Graham or Wheaton College has their own web doman? .whe or .bga?

A friend who, for his sake shall remain anonymous, sent me this Roman fundraising letter as part of the program to achieve beatification of John Paul II in record time. I don’t know if this program is authorized. This could be an example of popular Roman Catholic piety, but should we think that this is fundamentally alien from magisterial Roman dogma and piety?

In case you’re unsure here is a relevant passage from the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 1190
§1 It is absolutely wrong to sell sacred relics.

§2 Distinguished relics, and others which are held in great veneration by the people, may not validly be in any way alienated nor transferred on a permanent basis, without the permission of the Apostolic See.

§3 The provision of §2 applies to images which are greatly venerated in any church by the people.

Here’s the pitch: 

The Sale of Relics, a Sacrilege
Bones, more precious than jewels and more expensive than gold.
The early Christians affirmed that the devotion to the holy martyrs and their relics is a demonstration of veneration towards Jesus. The veneration of relics goes back to the times of the first Christians and the cross of Jesus is one of the first relics. Through the intercession of our saints, we turn to our God, and to be nearer to them we visit the places where they lived. We search for their memories and their imprints.

While the process of Beatification and Canonization of John Paul II continues, we desire to have at least one memento of him to feel closer to him. Every memento of him we can revere in a private way, for now, in the silence of our hearts, until the day the Church proclaims him a saint. Mnsgr. Marco Frisina, head of the Liturgical Office for the Vicariate of Rome, explains to us some things necessary to be able to better understand the mystery of relics.

What is a relic and what does it represent in the Catholic Church?

The word “relic” has its origin in the Latin word “reliquiae,” “remnants”. It is a physical memory, the living testimony of a saint or of a blessed. In the Church, a relic has always had great value because, as a remnant, a presence of the historical passage of this saint, it puts us in touch with the historical concreteness of his or her life. A relic has another value for the physical relationship that the saint had with the Eucharist, with the Lord, a relationship that is also sacred. The significance of the body of a person baptized, through the union of grace, is that it is a body-temple of the Holy Spirit, but the body of a saint is even more so because he has lived in his flesh this holiness, a communion of grace with God, and his body has been inhabited by that same grace in a solemn way. A relic allows us to almost be in contact with that body. In history, relics have also had an important role in the fight against the spirit of evil because relics are not loved by the devil since they are a physical reality that has special relationship with grace.

There are two classes of relics…

A first-class relic is made up of parts of the body; a second-class relic, instead, is from the garments or objects that have been in contact with the body of a saint, alive or dead. The objects that have been in contact with the tomb instead have a symbolic value, an affective one, and are called “mementos.” The gesture of touching an object that we use every day, a rosary for instance, to the tomb of a saint has only a devotional value.

When can we start to revere a blessed or a saint?

The veneration begins during the rite of beatification. The relics are brought solemnly to the altar, and from that moment on the Church allows the veneration of the relics of that saint in a public way. During the process of Beatification and Canonization it is not permitted to revere the Servant of God in that way. In the case of John Paul II, whom we all have revered during his lifetime for the affection that we had for him and for the holiness of his life, we can, for now, use in a private way the prayer card with ex indumentis – bits of his clothing – as a memory of a dear person. One needs to be always prudent and have a lot of patience obeying the Church, waiting for the Church to proclaim him a saint, and this will bring a lot of human and spiritual joy.

Who can have relics?

A first class relic can clearly only be given for public veneration, in which case to a church, an oratory, or a seminary. They have always been put under the altar so that the altar where the Eucharist is celebrated may have as its base a living memory of those persons that have been united with the sacrifice of Christ by means of their lives. You absolutely cannot buy or sell relics (of any kind) because they are something sacred, they do not have a price. The sale of relics on the Internet has become very problematic and allow me to say that this is also a sacrilege. Obviously relics are authentic only when the bishop countersigns them.

What are the most ancient relics in the history of the Church?

The relics brought from the Holy Land by Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine I: the nails of the Cross, the stairs of the building of Pilate or the relics of the Cross of Jesus, which you can find in Rome or in the Basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem. These are relics that tradition has revered for 1700 years, and obviously they have a lot of value for us and for our prayer because they bring us directly to the time of the Lord. The Shroud of Turin also is a famous relic, impressive for its value. In Manoppello, the veil of Veronica is one of the relics that has great probability of truth but on which however we cannot express certainty.

Often people are moved by curiosity or popular devotion and visit a sanctuary only to see the head of Saint Catherine or the tongue of Saint Anthony. Doesn’t the devotion to relics distract from the living presence of Christ in the Tabernacle?

We always have to maintain the hierarchy: the first place is occupied by the Eucharist; then there is the Word of God and then the relics, including sacred images, keeping in mind that images are useful to prayer. It is important to have the proper devotion for a relic because it is easy to fall into superstition. A relic is not an amulet. So then, when I go to church, first I kneel in front of the Eucharist, and then I go to revere the saint because I sense his protection. The Saint prays for us and we can pray to the saint, who in turn intercedes with the Lord, the ultimate addressee of our prayer. When I kiss the relic of a saint, it is as if I am kissing the Mercy of God that is realized in this saint. When I pray in front of the body of a saint, I thank God who sustained this person on the way to holiness. We always have to remember that through the saint we adore God, as John Paul II taught us.

Aleksandra Zapotoczny

To Request a Holy Card with the ex -indumentis

In order to receive a holy card with the “ex indumentis,” simply send a request along with your complete mailing address to the Office of the Postulation either by mail, fax or e-mail.

On the back of every holy card is the prayer to implore graces through the intercession of the Servant of God John Paul II. Holy cards are available in Italian, English, French, Polish, German, Spanish, and Portuguese.

The holy cards are free, but we ask that you consider making a donation in order to help cover the costs of printing and postage.

Please forward your request to the following address:
Vicariato di Roma – III Piano
c/o Postulazione
Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, 6/A
00184 Roma (Italia)
Fax +39 06 69886240

Calvin dissected all of this in the sixteenth century. Apparently all the sites that hosted Calvin’s Inventory of Relics are gone but it’s all there in print in Selected Works of John Calvin, vol. 1.289ff.

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  1. Thanks for this post RSC. If the RC doctrine of justification had really changed so would the Mass would HAVE to change with it … While the Mass and priesthood remain so does a works based justification.

  2. I agree, Marty. Well, come to think of it, about 90% of Rome’s invented traditions would have to change if their view of justification changed. Purgatory, the treasury of merit, saintly intercession, the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass, the sacrament of penance, et al. All would be rendered meaningless if the biblical doctrine of justification were embraced by Rome.

  3. Scott — this type of thing is useful in that it helps Reformed people understand what’s going on in Catholic circkes, but it really isn’t “official” and it really isn’t much different from the “Grilled Cheese Sandwich on Ebay” story.

    There’s plenty of official stuff to comment on, including this direct swipe at Reformed churches: “Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of “Church” with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?”:


    According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.

    You and I know that’s bunk, but lots of Reformed folks who are going to be pastors and scholars aren’t even aware of this document (and others of its pedigree). This is a 2007 comment on Lumen Gentium.

  4. I really appreciate this post. I can almost sympathize with Noll in an academic way, but in a church setting (where the reformation started) it’s not over. The differences are astounding.

  5. It’s important to see documents like this for the odd teachings they contain. I remember recently talking with a Catholic friend of mine who endeavored to explain relics and prayers to saints to me in much the same way. Oddly enough, my friend isn’t a big fan of those practices, and there are some who think that Benedict (being Augustinian) may bring about a downplaying of some of the loopier-sounding aspects of Roman Catholic theology.

    Just a note though: do you think your comment about the domain names at the beginning might have to do with the fact that the Vatican is a country? I know Canada has a .can domain name (as do many other countries), and the .va domain may be a reflection of the vatican’s state identity more than anything else. Of course, if Wheaton or Graham claimed a state identity, people would be outraged, but I just wanted to humbly offer an explanation for what struck you as weird.

  6. Hi Donald,

    Thanks for this. Yes, that’s exactly why the Vatican has a domain. That’s the point. Can one imagine the Apostle Paul or even the Apostle Peter establishing a civil entity? If so they must have done it just before they were martyred by, uh, the civil authorities! I was just pointing out the incongruity of a church having it’s own civil domain. The URCNA has a .info or .org site. So do other churches but not the Vatican!

    As to potential reforms in the cultus, yes, Popes do change the emphasis but Roman piety is ultimately normed by the magisterium and that’s one of the things I cannot seem to get evangelicals to see, that two guys, even two influential guys talking doesn’t amount to a hill of beans relative to official Roman dogma and practice. It may lead to change (which is what Chuck Colson is saying now) but that isn’t change in itself and for the Protestants to be satisfied, Rome should just about have to go out of business–and that seems unlikely. Although, who would thought that Shearson-Lehman Bros and those companies would go under? I wonder if the Vatican was invested in derivatives? That could be the one thing to do them in!

  7. I wonder though if the Roman church could in fact change while not officially “changing.” In my own (limited) experience speaking with Catholics, one of the most frustrating aspects of their theology is that it’s not falsifiable.

    Catholics had a very certain understanding of indulgences circa the Reformation, but these days they admit that freely selling indulgences was wrong and seem to maintain that that’s not what the pope was really doing back then.

    Look even at their definition of how they can still believe in salvation by grace and claim to be focused on Christ. They essentially practice idolotry, but say instead that the real value of a relic or a saint is its proximity to Christ’s throne. Even in speaking to a friend about veneration of Mary, he only said they follow the model of the saints insomuch as the saints are models of Christianity and prayers to saints simply highlight the value of the prayers of all believers for one another.

    I think you’re right when you talk about how difficult it would be for the Catholics to actually change their dogma, but if American jurisprudence has taught me anything, it’s that if you don’t like what the law says it is, you just change what the definition of “is” is.

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