Despite the misunderstandings and caricatures by Protestantism, Catholicism is quite clear that man cannot become righteous and justified apart from God. God’s grace must be at work at the beginning, middle, and end of the process of salvation.
How many Protestants have ever taken the time to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church to actually know with certainty what the Catholic Church teaches?
The following are excerpts from the Catechism explaining Catholic doctrines on the relationship among justification, grace, free will, and merit. Italicized emphases are mine.
1989 The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high.
God’s grace ALWAYS comes first and precedes human will in the process of salvation, in conversion. That is what the Catholic Church teaches and has always taught. Unfortunately, some Calvinists have taken this truth of God’s grace and perverted it, saying that God’s grace is “irresistible” and overpowers human will.
1993 Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent:
When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight. (Council of Trent)
Grace, along with the justification it effects, is not something we deserve or can earn but something freely and generously given by God.
1996 Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.
1998 This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.
Even the reception of grace by human will must first be prepared by divine grace.
2001 The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it” (St. Augustine, De gratia et libero arbitrio, 17: PL 44, 901):
Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing. (St. Augustine, De natura et gratia, 31: PL 44, 264.)
Not only does grace allow for cooperation with human will, but grace also demands and obliges man to freely and willfully respond to and cooperate with grace.
2002 God’s free initiative demands man’s free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man. He has placed in man a longing for truth and goodness that only he can satisfy. The promises of “eternal life” respond, beyond all hope, to this desire….
Any merit of man originates first with the grace of God. But some men and women receive more grace and/or choose to cooperate more fully with that grace.
2007 With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.
2008 The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. the fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.
2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life….