I Wonder: What are We to Think about the Catholic Church?
With the process of justification underway through the sacramental system, this baptized person can begin to merit for herself the graces needed to attain eternal life. As already mentioned, Catholics believe this is accomplished by receiving the Eucharist and by living a virtuous life. When she commits a mortal sin—a serious transgression by which she falls away from God and loses saving grace—she must observe the sacrament of Penance. She participates by expressing contrition (genuine sorrow over her sin) and confession (recounting her mortal sins) to a priest. Upon hearing the confession, the priest forgives (pronounces absolution) in the name of Jesus and determines the manner of satisfaction or penance: reparation for sin through such activities as prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service, or self-denial. Through this process, she who has fallen away from salvation experiences restoration to grace (and thus a fresh justification) and thus to friendship with God.
If this Catholic believer successfully reaches the end of her life in a state of grace (that is, she is not guilty of a mortal sin), she will ultimately be saved. However, it is likely the case that she must first spend a period of time in “purgatory,” an experience of suffering that involves punishment. Purgatory, as the term suggests, is an experience that “purges” or purifies the soul, conforming her to the holiness of God. When she has passed through this experience, she is finally prepared to enter the presence of the One who abides in unapproachable light.1 This concludes the process of salvation, having originated in her baptism, having grown throughout her faithful life, and having been finally perfected in the divine presence
For now, we summarize by asking the question “Why are people accepted by God?” Catholics respond that “grace infused through the sacraments enables them to do good works and become righteous in God’s sight.” Protestants reply that it is “because of the finished work of Christ on the cross, the righteousness of which is imputed to the believer, accessed by faith alone.”