“Love your neighbor,” God pokes me.  I flinch, and duck my head.

“But she’s so difficult!” I groan.  “I know she loves You, and You love her. (Chuh! She talks about it all the time!) Isn’t that enough?  What do You need ME for?  I’d just be a third wheel. Besides, I need to get to work now.  At… um, Your church.”

“Love your NEIGHBOR!” He insists.

“Ok.  I admit.  I prayed on my knees for You to move us into the right neighborhood.  And here we are, smack in the middle of what is undeniably a community of saints.  So I know You gave me this neighbor on purpose. But, this fence between us – it’s a doozy, Lord.  She’s a former Baptist, mega-churchy, Scripture-quoting, Catholic-pitier. (Remember the time she was so shocked that Mother Teresa’s writing was consistent with the Bible??)  She’s been given, from her youth, a batch of misconceptions about Catholics; she’s even been told that I’m trying to buy my way into heaven with a checked-off “good deed” list. As if I think I could ever be good enough to earn it!  That one really gets me.  I can’t deal with that any more.  I’m busy.  Working. At. Church.”

“Love YOUR neighbor,” He persists .

“Dangit.”  I surrender.  “Fine.  I know. She is mine: to love in my way, with all the gifts You have given me to use for Your glory.  Yes, that includes the gift of my daily-growing love of You and of the Church that Jesus founded.  But, Father, do You have some tips to get this conversation started?  Maybe we could make a list: A ‘What-Catholics-Really-Believe-About-Salvation’ cheat sheet!  Let’s see, I could say…

1.  Just like you, dear neighbor, The Catholic Church understands that God is all-loving and all-righteous.  We all appreciate that God, by His very definition, can not abide sin (non-love).  As the font and embodiment of justice, God also requires that a price must be paid for all of our non-loving choices, our sins.  So, supremely loving, he Himself pays the price by His very intentional incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection.  That’s how we’re justified.

2.  There’s truth in the matter that, with its wonderfully broad expanse of time and territory, the Catholic Church has umbrella’d some very mistaken people – leaders, even – who have generated honorable protest.  But that doesn’t mean that the premise behind the protest was correct in the first place. Martin Luther, especially, protested what he thought was the Church’s stance on justification by faith.   He thought (as many still do!) that Catholics were trying to buy their way into heaven. What’s sad about that historical moment is that, as Peter Kreeft says, it “began when a Catholic monk [Luther] rediscovered a Catholic doctrine [justification by faith] in a Catholic book [Romans 1:17].”  And we quietly, somehow, have let that protest live out its own stubborn agenda even though it is based on a misunderstanding.  Even though Pope John Paul II shouted the truth from the rooftops in 1999 (co-signing, with the Lutheran World Federation, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification), many people of all faiths still misunderstand our teaching on this fundamental precept. Please know, today.  We believe that we are saved – not by works, which even devils may do, or by mere belief in Christ’s actions, which even Satan could boast of – but by Grace.

3.   Where does that leave the Catholic belief on the importance of good works?  Well, probably right in line with yours, Christian neighbor.  You can easily quote John 3:16 to me; let’s look at the end of that very same chapter:  “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him” (John 3:36). Ah! The two go hand-in-hand: belief, and action.  Acceptance, and follow-through.  Knowing, and doing. Either one without the other is empty and meaningless.  Together, they create holiness.  That’s why I go to work, at my church, to promote good works.  You’re always welcome to join us there. I’ve got a few ministries in mind for you, actually….

“LOVE your neighbor,” God snickers.