I'm in an email discussion with a Protestant. I am thankful that she is willing to open up a dialogue with me about faith issues. Anyhow, we got into a theological discussion and the grace-works thing came up. Since becoming Catholic, I see the old grace/works issue as a prime example of Protestants misunderstanding Catholic theology. Catholics believe we are "saved by grace" . . . but we also believe that "faith without works is dead." Both faith and good works - the Bible tells us - are necessary. Both come from the gift of grace in our lives. It's the "both/and" perspective. It never was an "either/or" way of thinking. We never really did believe in works-only salvation, though we have been accused of that often enough.
But the one topic that did come up - the one we do disagree on is the topic of total depravity. We (Catholics) simply do not believe that humanity is totally hopeless.
We are not worms. (Okay, so the Psalmist calls himself a worm in chapter 22, verse 6, but that is because he is despised by others. This passage, by the way, has long been considered a prophetic passage, describing Our Lord's Passion. Read from the beginning of the chapter and you'll have to agree. And Jesus Christ certainly is no worm. And neither are we. Those who are in Christ are a new creation. Precious in the eyes of the Lord.)
So what are we if we are not worthless, hopeless worms?
"We are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them" (Ephesians 2)
So, we are not totally depraved, and our best efforts are not "nothing". We are something. We are hope-filled. Redemption and restoration are possible.
In short, we can become holy.
Sure, we are pretty wretched without God. Before we enter this life of grace, we are rather pathetic. But we are worth redeeming. That's how God sees us. The Protestant idea of "total depravity" simply isn't Biblical. You don't command something that is totally depraved to become holy. Why? Because it can never do it.
"Total Depravity" is inconsistent with Christ's command: be holy as I am holy.
Jesus Christ has not only made it possible for us to become holy, but he has told us that it is necessary for salvation. We must become holy.
There is, however, a necessary thing. On our own, we cannot become holy. It all comes down to grace. God's grace.
Oh, yeah, and one more thing. When grace shows up, say "Yes" to it. Grace & freewill. Another both/and.
Thomas Aquinas declared that special grace is necessary for man to do any supernaturally good act, to love God, to fulfill God's commandments, to gain eternal life, to prepare for salvation, to rise from sin, to avoid sin, and to persevere.[Summa Theologiae (hereafter ST) I:II:109:2-10].