They say that religion is one of those topics you don't discuss, but I've never been one to follow that social rule, and I've learned a lot because of that.
I was once talking to a very sweet girl who was Lutheran about the differences between our faiths. At some point, the conversation went something like this:
Her: So what do Catholics believe about salvation? For us, if you believe Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior, you are saved.
Me: Well we believe that that's the start, but you may or may not go to Heaven, depending on how you live your life. If you die, and your soul is not quite ready for Heaven, you first spend some time in purgatory getting purified.
Her: Wow, that makes God sound really mean. Our God loves us and takes us into Heaven even if we have failed, as long as we believed.
Her comment replayed in my head as I left and I thought, "wow that does sounds like a mean God...God is Love...would He really turn us away from Heaven for coming up short, even if we really did believe?". I am grateful to have had this conversation with her, as it led me to research and a deeper understanding of my faith.
Many Protestant religions (although not all) believe that, through Jesus' death and resurrection, the doors to Heaven were opened wide for anyone who declares belief in Him. An oft-cited passage (among others) is Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this not your own doing, it is the gift of God - not because of works, lest any man should boast". The point here is that we should not be so prideful as to think that we can merit our salvation. But the interpretation often ends up being something like: It would be nice if your life's actions reflected your faith, but it's not required for entering paradise. Which by extension means that, even if I have deliberately chosen to live a life of serious sin, I am covered as long as I declare Jesus as my savior.
But this creates an inconsistency that departs from truth. To receive justification is to be deemed "justified", meaning our lives and our actions are declared "right" and in keeping with God's law. If our actions in this life are not actually right, then to say that they are would be false. Think of any of the many unjust verdicts that have come out of our court system. Someone who is in fact guilty can legally be declared "not guilty". But that does not change the fact that that person did commit an unjust action. The verdict, in this case, does not reflect the truth. This is why this interpretation of justification is problematic. God is Love, but He is also Truth, and therefore would not pass a false verdict.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, teaches that God gives us the grace to actually be transformed, allowing us to truly become justified. His grace is a free, undeserved gift, that we can never merit. Only by God's mercy and by Jesus' passion and resurrection, can we be sanctified by his Spirit that dwells within us. But as free beings, we can choose either to live like Christ or not. To become truly justified, we have to acquiesce to becoming Christ-like. In the same book of Ephesians cited earlier, in the very next sentence, Paul says, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10) and later, "Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us" (Eph 5:1-2). How did Christ love us? By simply declaring he loved us and then acting in a way that was contradictory to love? No. He physically offered up his life, becoming a loving sacrifice for his beloved. He ACTED.
So coming back to my conversation with a friend, does the Catholic perspective of salvation depict a mean God? Au contraire! It reveals a God that cooperates with our own free will, that adheres unceasingly to Truth, and that lovingly transforms our hearts. If we allow Him, He will lift us up from our natural sinful tendencies to reach a level of goodness that we alone could never achieve. Through Christ, we able to actually transcend our limited human nature, which is a far greater gift than simply being "let off the hook". Let us thank God for his great mercy and grace, and never stop discussing and researching our faith.