You will often come across people who believe that the Catholic Church teaches “salvation by works.” If you encounter this, ask them what they mean. For example, if they are referring to “works of the Mosaic law,” or “works of the first covenant,” this is not true. The Catholic Church teaches that the Mosaic law is no longer in effect because it has been superseded by the New Covenant.
I am reading a book on the Catholic teaching on salvation to help me understand this point better, because “doing” is important in Catholic teaching, yet I know it is not the basis of our salvation. The book is called, “How can I get to heaven?” by Robert Sungenis. I am not very far into it yet, but so far Sungenis says that when Paul talks about “works” or “works of the law” in Romans, Paul is using those ideas to mean that we can’t obligate God in any way to owe us salvation:
“Paul is condemning justification by law only with respect to contractual obligation…” (p. 21)
Any reward or blessing we receive from God is only due to his grace, not due to an obligation that was somehow created in him by us behaving well. Sungenis goes on to talk about the role of works:
“… however, the law, as expressed and practiced in virtue, fully cooperates with grace in justification.” (p. 21)
He then quotes Romans 2:5-10 where Paul discusses the relationship of works to salvation:
5 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 For he will render to every man according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
These good works are done under God’s grace, not in order to obligate God, but out of love for him: “…love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10b).
For me, I think starts with the first commandment. We start by believing in God, loving him, then we love our neighbor as ourselves, then we learn what love really is so that we can do it the way God wants. Doing is important; the Bible is clear that we will be judged based on our works, which I think means we will be judged based on how much we loved and acted on that love. As it says at Fish Eaters:
We are saved by Christ’s grace alone, through faith and works done in charity [ie, love] inspired by the Holy Spirit.