I checked out Catholicism for Dummies from my local library. I cannot remember how I first came across the book, but as it is written by two priests (both with doctorates) from EWTN and offers a simple look at the Catholic faith I thought it was worth a peek.
I realize there is only so much to be expected from a “for Dummies” book, but considering that there are 67 five-star ratings (out of 81 total) on Amazon as well as the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, I expected a good overview of the Catholic faith. I was particularly interested in how the authors would handle the Catholic views on salvation.
Chapter 1 is entitled “What It Means to Be Catholic” and has an interesting opening paragraph:
“Being Catholic means living a totally Christian life and having a Catholic perspective. To Catholics, all people are basically good, but sin is a spiritual disease that wounded humankind initially and can kill humankind spiritually if left unchecked. Divine grace is the only remedy for sin, and the best source of divine grace is from the sacraments, which are various rites that Catholics believe have been created by Jesus and entrusted by him to his Church.” (pg. 9)
All people are basically good? Have the authors not read the third chapter of Romans? A “basically good” humankind simply wounded by sin – sounds like all we need to pull ourselves up out of the muck is a little help. And that actually appears to be a correct assessment:
“Grace is a totally free, unmerited gift from God. Grace is a sharing in the divine; it’s God’s help– the inspiration that’s needed to do his will. …Like a spiritual megavitamin, grace inspires a person to selflessly conform to God’s will, and like the battery in the mechanical bunny rabbit, grace keeps the soul going, going, going, and going. Granted purely out of God’s love, grace is necessary for salvation. Catholicism says that grace is an undeserving and unmerited free gift from God that wasn’t owed to his people. As a gift, however, a person can accept or reject it. If accepted, it then must be cooperated with. Grace is given so that the will of God may be done. Grace must be put into action through those who receive it.” (pg 11, emphasis mine)
Note that the cooperation of man with grace isn't just about acceptance of grace (as I have heard asserted by some RCs), grace must be put into action by the recipient to accomplish its purpose. How is that salvation by grace alone??
From here the book moves into the basics of Catholicism and a “who is who” in the Church (priest, cardinal, etc.). Chapter 3 and 4 actually address “faith” and Christ, but I could not find a basic definition of the Catholic gospel. The closest things I could find were scattered across a couple of chapters:
“As Christ died, so, too, must mere mortals. As he rose, so shall human beings. Death is the only way to cross from this life into the next. At the very moment of death, private judgment occurs; Christ judges the soul. If a person was particularly holy and virtuous on earth, the soul goes directly to heaven. If an individual was evil and wicked and dies in a state of mortal sin, that soul is damned for eternity to hell.” (pg. 60, emphasis mine, discussion of The Apostle's Creed)
“In addition to getting rid of original sin, Baptism also imparts or infuses sanctifying grace, a special free gift from God. Sanctifying grace makes the new Christian a child of God and applies the merits of Jesus Christ, his suffering and death for sins, to the new Christian personally, because the person being baptized is mentioned by name. Catholicism believes that sanctifying grace allows human beings to enter heaven. It justifies them in the eyes of God by uniting then with the Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ…Normally you receive this special grace only through the sacraments, but God does provide some means to make sure all men and women have the potential and possibility of salvation.” (pg. 96-97, emphasis mine)
“The Catholic Church believes that the saints are ordinary and typical human beings…who made it to heaven not by being perfect but by persevering…Catholics believe this means that the saints were sinners who never gave up and never quit on God. They never stopped trying to do and be better.” (pg. 286)
“Heaven is so fantastic, wonderful, and desirable, that human beings should want to go there more than wanting anything else in the universe. Catholics believe that everybody should be willing to do anything to get there, which means that loving and obeying God is a must.” (pg. 287)
“St. Augustine taught that God offers everyone sufficient grace to be saved, but it only becomes efficacious (successful) for those who freely accept and cooperate with that grace. In other words, God gives every human being the chance and possibility of going to heaven. Whether they get beyond the pearly gates, however, depends on the individual person” (pg. 100, emphasis mine)
"Catholicism teaches that it's by grace alone that we are saved and that both faith and works are necessary for salvation" (pg. 371)
To that last quote I respond, "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace" (Romans 11:6).
To be fair, I did not read the whole book so perhaps further explanations of Catholic salvation were included in unexpected chapters. But what I did read showed the same inconsistencies in claiming salvation by grace alone but then negating it with an emphasis on the works of the recipient of that grace (a recipient who only needed a bit of help to overcome the "wounding" of sin). In the end I was reminded of what Gerstner said: “The Protestant trusts Christ to save him and the Catholic trusts Christ to help him save himself.”
In discussions with online Catholics I am often accused of not comprehending the depths and finer points of the Catholic soteriology, yet my viewpoints were entirely consistent with this book. Yes, this isn't an official source of church doctrine, but it is a contemporary, simplistic rendering of the Catholic faith by two well-educated Catholic priests (with an imprimatur). Certainly their interpretation of Catholic doctrine carries a bit more weight than the lay Catholic e-pologist.
Front cover of the book, the author’s credentials:
Rev. John Trigilio Jr., PhD, ThD – priest, pastor, EWTN co-host of Council of Faith, and President of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy
Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, PhD - priest, pastor, EWTN co-host, and managing editor of Sapienta magazine
One Amazon reviewer said: "As a retired college professor and as a former Director of a Pontifical Center for Catechetical Studies, I fully endorse and highly recommend this book to both non-Catholic and Catholic alike. Long ago in the seminary, we referred to a few indispensable books as VADEMECUMS, from the Latin "vade" (to take) "cum" (with). In other words, a 'vademecum' was any book which you wanted and needed to "take with you" wherever you went since it was so helpful. "Catholicism for Dummies" can and will be a vademecum as many people who read this will hopefully dispel erroneous ideas, prejudices, false conclusions, myths, fears, lies, and misinformation on Catholicism yet prolific in our time." Rev. Robert J. Levis, PhD