On Faith

I have often been amazed by how intelligent people can fail to understand and accept what I have found easy to accept and usually understand with regards to Catholic teaching. How can non-Catholics read John's Gospel and not believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist:

John 6:51-66

To me it has always been clear as to what Jesus meant. Yet many fail to accept the Church's teaching regarding the Real Presence.

I work with a man who is not Catholic but shares my difficulty in understanding how intelligent people can hold or fail to hold certain beliefs. He wonders at how an intelligent person can believe in certain doctrines of the Church such as papal infallibility. As a fan of William F. Buckley, Jr. he finds it incredible that Buckley can be so intelligent and yet also be Catholic.

What is it that causes intelligent people to look at the same thing, to read the same materials, and one will say, "Yes, I believe" and the other will look on in disbelief and say, "Are you kidding?" The answer is Faith.

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., presents a nice explanation of the virtue of faith in his book The Catholic Catechism. (I recommend this book to all as a very fine supplement to the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Hardon states:

 We often apply the term faith to the body of truth to be found in the Creeds, the teachings of the Church and, above all, in the words of Sacred Scripture. The terminology is familiar, but we are referring to something else here; namely, our subjective counterpart to God's objective communication of himself to us.

Faith thus understood is the first of the three theological virtues set by St. Paul side by side with hope and charity. They are called theological because they not only go to God, as all virtues do, but they also touch him. They are virtues because they are good habits, as distinct from vices, which are bad habits. They are infused virtues, other than habits we have to acquire by repeated practice, because they are directly infused into (Latin infusum, poured into) our souls.

Viewed from another angle, we may say that sanctifying grace vitalizes the human substance and thereupon affects all our faculties of activity. These elevated qualities of action are the infused virtues, from the Latin virtutes, meaning "powers," which enable us to act far beyond our natural capacity.

Among these virtues, faith is essentially the power to know God as he has revealed himself. . . .

As a divinely conferred power of the spirit, the virtue of faith is already present in a newly baptized infant. As a virtue of the intellect, elevated by grace, it responds to the environment in which a child is reared and its development corresponds to the training received from the dawn of psychological influence.

This development of the virtue of faith is the fundamental purpose of Christian education. (Hardon, p. 33)

The (First) Vatican Council said many things about faith, but notably that: Faith is an assent of the mind in co-operation with the will under the influence of grace and a free gift of God; the object or focus of faith is God's revealed word, and once embraced, God will provide that the true faith will be retained firmly and faithfully and not denied or brought into positive doubt.

As a sort of preamble to the nature of faith, we are first asked "Why faith?" The underlying reason is that "since man depends entirely on God as his Creator and Lord and because created reason is wholly subordinate to uncreated Truth, we are obliged to render by faith a full submission of intellect and will to God when he makes a revelation.'' Furthermore, since the content of faith (in the mysteries) is beyond the ken of human understanding, "We believe that what God has revealed is true, not because its intrinsic truth is seen with the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God who reveals it, of God who can neither deceive nor be deceived."

A negative reply to, "What is faith?" says "It is by no means a blind impulse,". . . . Rather, we give "an assent of faith," by which a person is able "to consent to the Gospel preaching.'' This reflects St. Augustine's famous definition that "Faith is nothing else than thinking with assent."

Faith is a free gift twice over. Once because "no one can consent to the Gospel preaching as he must in order to be saved without the enlightenment and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who gives all men their joy in assenting to and believing the truth." Consequently, "faith itself is essentially a gift of God, even should it not operate through charity, and the act of faith is a work that pertains to salvation.'' Thus, without supernatural grace from the Spirit, it is impossible to accept the truth that God has revealed. Moreover, even if a person is in grave sin, he can still believe, and his faith is salvific.

But faith is also a voluntary response on our part. By his act of believing, "man offers to God himself a free obedience, inasmuch as he concurs and co-operates with God's grace, when he could resist it." Our freedom, therefore, meets the divine freedom, and the meeting is divine faith. It is divine because the revelation came from God; it is faith because the liberty of co-operation comes from us. (Hardon, pp. 35-36)

Faith is the power to know God as He has revealed Himself. I find this very enlightening. Our intellect, while helpful in understanding and applying what we know about God, is not as helpful in enabling us to know God as is the virtue of faith.

But, if the virtue of faith is infused into the soul at baptism why do those who are validly baptized, whether in the Catholic Church or into another Christian church, still not know God in the same way? Why this disagreement over matters of faith? Because faith must be nurtured through education in the faith and we must cooperate with the grace we have received.

I have been fortunate to have been raised in a Catholic family. In a way I am thankful I attended public schools and attended "catechism class" on Saturdays. Why am I thankful for this? Because I think I avoided many of the errors that were taught unintentionally in the parochial schools. Let me give you an example.

The only time I had nuns for teachers was in second grade for First Communion. (This was pre-Vatican II) I remember one Saturday morning the nuns stating "only Catholics can go to Heaven". A short time later I was playing outside my house with some neighbor kids. Most of them were not Catholic. I repeated what I had been taught at catechism about only Catholics going to Heaven. My father overheard this statement and called me into the house. He told me that teaching was wrong and I shouldn't be repeating it to my friends.

Now, my father had been told this same thing, that only Catholics can go to Heaven, when he had been in school in another state and from different nuns thirty years earlier. I have also been told by many others who went to parochial school that they were taught the same thing. This is not Church teaching now and it wasn't Church teaching when these nuns taught it.

So what's my point? Just this. Sometimes members of the Church teach things in error. Often it is unintentional, such as what the nuns taught in my example. Other times it may be intentional. In either event, it is our responsibility to search out the truth of Catholic teaching. Obviously this requires the use of our intellect. We need to read and question and discuss and sometimes debate. However, it will all be unfruitful if we don't do this in light of the virtue of faith.

philneri, 5/7/2000

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