I only believe that we are “saved by faith alone” if that is meant to stand for something far grander and more transcendent. Otherwise, faith takes on the color of striving rather than receiving. In my area of the U.S.A., we Protestants on the whole tend to be a bit smug, or even full of ourselves, in believing that the relationship between faith and works is a simple one for humans to understand and that we get it right by believing we are “saved by our faith” but that Catholics believe that we are “saved by our works.” Our belief is a distortion at best and just plain wrong at its worst. We come to inaccurate conclusions because we forget that “faith alone” is meaningless absent the truth of its origination in “grace alone.” Unaccompanied “faith” is often no more than wandering thoughts and random ideas fashioned to “re-create” in the style of Adam and Eve. Although in history there have been times that the Catholics Church may have distorted the relationship between faith and works, Protestants have often done the same thing, sometimes to the extent of effectively treating works as something to be done if the time is convenient and if doing works doesn’t get in the way of sharing and practicing our faith. I’ve lost count of the number of times that Protestants, sometimes members of my own churches, almost make their heads spin and their eyes pop out as they proudly proclaim, “good works won’t get you to heaven.” Beyond that, quite sadly many Protestants really believe that Catholics are doomed to hell. About the only immediate reply I muster these days is, “Well, your good works won’t keep you out of heaven, either.” I try to say it with an encouraging smile.
There are some subtle distinctions on these matters that can be hashed out in the comments, but for my main point, consider “What Do Catholics Believe? - Section 3” from The Space Mouse:
Wait, you may say. Catholics don’t believe that we are saved by Christ’s death. They believe that we can earn our salvation through works! If you say this, you are probably chuckling a little of the stupidity of those Catholics, for Paul plainly said that works could not save anyone.
But maybe you are a little more enlightened than that. Maybe realize that Catholics believe that we are saved by grace alone (we cannot earn our salvation) and by Christ alone (He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Light. There is only one Way.)
Then what was the big argument with Luther? Why don’t Catholics believe that we are justified by faith alone, if they believe that we are justified by grace alone? Well, the number one reason is because the Bible says quite emphatically that this is not true. Take a look at James 2:24. It may help you to realize that the Catholic definition of faith is ‘assent in truths revealed by God.’ This kind of faith is not enough to save us. What is needed are the virtues of hope and love, as well. As the Baltimore Catechism put it: ‘”we must worship God by faith, hope and charity; that is we must believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart.” Sometimes other Christians use the word “faith” to mean all the same thing Catholics mean when we say “faith, hope and love”. So in this sense, there really isn’t as much disagreement between Catholics and Protestants as there appears to be!
Catholics believe, along with the apostle John, that those who love God will keep His commandments. We believe that sin is a rejection of God; that is our definition of sin, really, since sin means choosing that which we know to be against the will of God.
But didn’t John Wesley proclaim that we are saved by “faith alone”? He did indeed, but he also didn’t mean it in exactly the same way as Luther, for Wesley usually spoke of faith and obedience as a merged concept and in that regard, his view of “faith alone” was closer to the Catholic view than the Lutheran view. When Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can” he was clearly not talking merely with reference to works but summarizing the faith in terms of the expanded “faith, hope and love” or faithful obedience. Faithful obedience, or “living faith” is no less entirely a gift of and by God’s grace than Luther’s proclamation that faith is acceptance of the Messiah. Wesley is simply explaining what it means to believe in the Christ. (Can one believe in Christ without striving by Grace to immitate Jesus?) If Wesley made the distinction of connecting faith to the heart, primarily, rather than reason, he was not downplaying the role of reason in understanding God’s word but rather disavowing the idea that one can acquire faith through reason. In that regard, both Wesley and Luther saw faith as God’s gift, then.
Are there Catholics who act as if they are saved by works? Yes, but no more, so, in my opinion than do Protestants. However, that has more to do with the challenge of trusting God than with theology per se.