We do not need religion to tell us that there is a God. The Church teaches that the existence of the Creator can be known with certainty through His works by the light of natural reason. Furthermore, our unaided human intellect can and should lead us to the knowledge of important truths about God’s nature and about our relationship with Him. We can know that God must be infinite, that He is perfect and that He knows His creation. Our very experience of being human should lead us to the conclusion that man is free and responsible for his actions, and that he has a soul which is spiritual and therefore potentially immortal.
Even if he possesses the brains and the time to arrive at such knowledge, however, the thinking man will then find himself troubled by questions that he cannot answer with any certainty. If God is perfect, how can there be such imperfection in the universe that He has created? What is the source of sickness, natural disasters and moral evil? If man is free and responsible for his actions, then where do we find justice in a world where the oppressed often die in wretchedness while their oppressors seem to escape scot-free? And if man’s soul is immortal, then where does it go when body and soul are separated at death?
The answers to such questions lie beyond the grasp of human reason. The likelihood is that, left to his own devices, man will formulate his own responses. Perhaps that which is evil in the universe is the creation of a lesser god, or ‘demiurge’? And when a man dies, why should his soul not take up residence in another body – perhaps in a fruit fly, if his conduct in his last body has left much to be desired? Thus we have the birth of man-made religions based on speculation and myth.
Often these home-made religions will contain valid insights. With the hindsight of Calvary we might concede that the Aztecs were on to something with their cult of human sacrifice; but the torrents of blood from thousands of victims that flowed down the steps of the Mexican temples illustrate the grotesque fruits that come from a skewed appreciation of religious truth.
Having created man with the capacity to ask questions about his own origin and destiny and about the meaning of life, it surely makes sense for a good God to provide some answers, in order to save His creature from stumbling into the blindness of mythology and paganism. Throughout the Old Testament we see God gradually revealing these answers, and revealing Himself, to His Chosen People. After the Fall of Adam and Eve the human intellect becomes clouded, and so God reveals even truths that man could in theory know by the unaided light of natural reason. He constantly reminds His people that He is One, and He reveals the core of the ‘natural law’ in the Ten Commandments. He also reveals His name – “I Am Who Am” – which allows a glimpse into His Nature. Through His prophets He reveals the coming of a Messiah who will save His people.
It is with the arrival of this Messiah that Divine Revelation reaches its climax, when God comes to us as one of us in the Incarnation. The Incarnate Word founds His Church on St Peter and the Apostles, and gives to this Church the mission to transmit the Gospel to all nations and all generations henceforth. With the death of the last Apostle, the Deposit of Faith is sealed, meaning that there will never again be any public Revelation until Our Lord’s return in glory at the end of time. Henceforth, it is the task of the popes and bishops, as successors of Peter and the Apostles, to guard, unpack and teach in all its fullness this Deposit of Faith, which contains all we need to know and to do to be saved.
In Divine Revelation, then, God intervenes in history to answer those questions that rise up from the depths of the human soul. He tells us the purpose of life, He reveals the source of suffering and death, and He gives us the blueprint for and the means to achieve eternal salvation. He reveals that within the substance of His perfect oneness there are Three Divine Persons, whose life is characterised by an eternal outpouring of perfect knowledge and love; and He reveals to us the wonderful truth that we have each been created to participate in this Divine Life, through Baptism in this life and through the Beatific Vision in the life to come. He also reveals how, at the end of time, our bodies will be raised from the dust and reunited with our souls to participate in our eternal destiny.
Faith is our response to this marvellous gift of Revelation. And Faith itself is a gift. According to the old Penny Catechism, which contains some of the most eloquent and concise definitions ever crafted, “Faith is a supernatural gift of God which enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed”.
The fact that Faith is a ‘supernatural gift’ means that we cannot manufacture it for ourselves. We cannot argue ourselves, or anyone else, into the Faith. We may prepare the ground by means of rational deliberation and prayer; but ultimately Faith must be freely offered by God, and freely received by us. When a small child is Baptised, his parents make that decision on his behalf, and the ‘theological virtue’ of Faith is planted in his heart like a tiny seed that needs to be nurtured and nourished as he grows up. Once he reaches the age of reason it is then up to him to decide what to do with that gift. It is in the nature of a gift that it must always be free, so the possibility of rejecting or losing the Faith always remains.
In some religious systems faith and reason are presented as unrelated and even incompatible. Faith without reason, however, gives us fundamentalism, and the Catholic Church does not ‘do’ fundamentalism. God is the author of all truth, whether we are talking about those truths which may be established by natural reason or the great Mysteries of the Faith that He reveals to us. The gift of Faith does not supersede our human reason or leave it behind. Rather, it elevates the faculty of reason to the level of supernatural truths, so that by God’s grace we can now apply our intellect to exploring the inexhaustible Mysteries of Divine Revelation that He has made accessible to us.
In the words of the Penny Catechism, Faith is a gift which enables us to believe “without doubting, whatever God has revealed.” This might strike a jarring note in modern ears that are used to hearing that doubting is a sign of maturity and humility, and is therefore virtuous. Today it has become fashionable to say that Faith is a personal encounter with Christ, rather than an assent to a list of ‘propositions’. The result of this is that the contents of Divine Revelation have taken on a secondary importance, and so there are now whole generations of otherwise well-educated Catholics who are surprisingly ignorant of Catholic doctrine.
For our Faith to be genuine it must include both the inter-personal aspect and our assent to the contents of the Faith. Yes, my act of Faith consists in a personal adhesion to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. But it must also embrace everything that my Saviour teaches, as expressed in the doctrines of the Church which He endowed with His authority to teach all nations. If I knowingly deny a single doctrine that the Church proposes as de Fide, or binding on the faithful, then I am essentially saying that Our Lord’s promises to His Church – that the gates of hell will never prevail against Her, for example – are false. This is a breach of faith. I can now no longer be said to hold the Faith as a theological virtue (a supernaturally infused habit inhering in the soul). I am a heretic.
As Bl. John Henry Newman wrote in his Apologia pro vita sua, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” Newman’s lifelong quest for religious truth is perhaps one of the greatest examples of Faith seeking understanding that we have in the English-speaking world. Newman was forever searching and forever questioning. Once he had acknowledged that the Catholic Church was instituted by Christ for the salvation of all men, however, he never again expressed any doubt about Her divinely-invested authority to teach the Gospel. Having been received into the Catholic Church, never once did he utter a hint of doubt towards any one of the Articles of Faith that She proposes as de Fide.
Blessed John Henry Newman would be a good patron to guide us through the coming Year of Faith that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI will inaugurate on the 11th of this month. Do you have any difficulties with certain aspects of Catholic teaching on faith and morals? Then please use this coming Year of Faith as an opportunity to address them. You are very welcome to come and talk about them with a priest. An important ‘charism’ of the Oratory is the availability of the Fathers for those who seek guidance in the Christian life.
Perhaps there was a time when western society provided structures that supported the Faith, so that it was almost possible to take it for granted. In this post-Christian age those props no longer exist. The apostles of militant secularism look forward to a religion-free future in which society is organised on purely ‘rational’ principles. What we actually find, however, is that man’s irrepressible appetite for the transcendental increasingly finds expression in the weird and not-so-wonderful world of New Age superstition and other manifestations of neo-paganism. We should use this Year of Faith as an opportunity to refresh our knowledge of the contents of the Faith and to deepen our practice of the Faith. We should be willing to tell anyone who will listen that our Catholic Faith is the most enriching and the most beautiful thing in our lives. Modern society is actually thirsting for Divine Truth. We must be willing to share this extraordinary gift of our holy and life-saving Faith.
Fr Julian Large