By DON FIER
In last week’s installment, we began an examination of the characteristics of faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) first pointed toward the all-important truth that faith is a grace (see CCC, n. 153). Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, using the classic formulation of St. Thomas Aquinas, expresses it as follows: “Divine faith is an act of the intellect, assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace” (The Faith, p. 36). The Catechism then asserts that believing is “an authentically human act…[by which] the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace” (CCC, nn. 154-155). Next, we discussed motives of credibility — actions by which God “bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles” (Heb. 2:4) to assist our ability to believe without acting blindly or impulsively. These miraculous divine actions are yet another example of God’s divine condescension — ways by which He stoops to our level, adapting to man’s finite intelligence (cf. CCC, n. 156). Finally, it was shown that faith is certain, that there is no room for doubt (cf. CCC, n. 157).
We will now embark on a discussion on how man has built into his rational nature an innate desire to seek to understand that which he comes to believe through faith. St. Anselm of Canterbury, a 12th-century Benedictine monk and doctor of the Church, put forth in his famous work, the Proslogion, that “faith seeks understanding.” As skillfully expressed in the Catechism, “it is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in Whom he has put his faith and to understand better what He has revealed” (CCC, n. 158). It stands to reason that a cyclic phenomenon will begin to occur: The more one knows about one’s God and Creator, the stronger one’s faith will become; as one’s faith becomes stronger, the more one will desire know God; and so forth.
It is similar to the relationship between knowing and loving God which was discussed in one of the first articles of this series: By loving God, one wants to know more about Him; by coming to a fuller knowledge of God, one desires to love Him all the more; and the cycle continues.
Turning now to Sacred Scripture, we can see how St. Paul prays with insistence that our understanding be increased — that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, . . . and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power in us who believe, according to the working of His great might” (Eph. 1:17-18).
As St. Augustine profoundly expressed in the fifth century when he described his relentless search for truth, “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe” (Sermo, 43:9). For this great saint, as can be discerned in reading his Confessions, it was reason that initially set him on a path toward God, but it was faith that informed and elevated what he could grasp intellectually and ultimately brought him to the fullness of the Catholic faith. The more he came to believe, the more he sought understanding.
The Catechism next addresses faith and science. An erroneous current of thought that pervades much of society in today’s world, especially in technologically advanced countries, is one of rationalism. Fr. Hardon, in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, defines rationalism as “a system of thought or attitude of mind which holds that human reason is self-sufficient and does not need the help of divine Revelation to know all that is necessary for a person’s well-being” (p. 456).
It is a train of thought which claims that only what can be demonstrated through scientific methods, proven with empirical techniques, and/or understood by reason is to be held as true. What this thought process fails to admit is that faith is above reason — that there exists an omnipotent God who is the Author and Master of all creation. While it is true that faith and reason can never contradict one another (see CCC, n. 159), it is also eminently true that many of the revealed truths of an infinite God transcend what can be known by reason alone.
As articulated in the First Vatican Council document Dei Filius (DF), “there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason . . . nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth (DF, chapter 4 §§ 5-6). And as stated in the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (GS): “If methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God” (GS, n. 36 § 1). As Dr. Peter Kreeft so astutely states: “There are thousands of truths that make up the Catholic Faith and billions of truths that the sciences have discovered; yet there is not a single real contradiction between any two of them” (Catholic Christianity, p. 26).
A warning (and perhaps a digression), however, is in order. If mankind disrespects or blatantly ignores the Law of God and acts as if created things do not depend on the Creator, chaos and calamity will surely ensue: “For without the Creator the creature would disappear” (GS, n. 36 § 2). Is this not precisely an ever-increasing danger in today’s world, a world in which basic Christian tenets and moral values are often removed from the public square? Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly warned of the dangers of a Godless society. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (CV), the Holy Father stated that “a humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism” (CV, n. 78).
Now, let’s consider an example where some contend that faith and reason contradict one another — the theory of evolution. Once again, I cite Dr. Peter Kreeft: “The doctrine of creation does not say how or when God made man’s body ‘of the dust from the ground’ (Gen. 2:7); and the theory of evolution…does not say how souls were made, only bodies….Nor does evolution say where the very first matter that began to evolve came from” (Catholic Christianity, pp. 26-27).
Fr. Hardon, in The Catholic Catechism, states that “theologians have come to agree that…the evolution of the first man’s body from a lower species is compatible with the Faith. Two provisos are added, however: that the soul was immediately created by God out of nothing, and that somehow God exercised a special providence over whatever process preceded the origin of man’s body, so that the first man was not literally generated by a brute beast” (p. 93).
In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis (HG), Pope Pius XII stated that the Church’s Magisterium does not forbid the theory of evolution “in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter — for the Catholic Faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God” (HG, n. 36). In other words, Pius XII affirms that scientists may investigate the hypothesis that the body of the first man came from pre-existing life; however, the human soul is not the product of any evolution. Pope Benedict XVI more recently stated in 2007 that the theory of evolution cannot be proven — that it “implies questions that must be assigned to philosophy and that in and of themselves lead beyond the scope of the natural sciences” (Creation and Evolution, pp. 161-162).
In closing this discussion on faith and understanding, I draw upon Fr. Hardon’s answer to the question: “Are we to understand our faith?” Says Fr. Hardon, “Yes, with God’s grace and our own effort we are to grow in our understanding of what we believe. Of course, we shall never fully understand or comprehend God’s Revelation. We have a duty to grow in our grasp of the meaning of what we believe. Otherwise, as Christ warns us in the parable of the sower, we run the risk of losing our faith” (The Faith, p. 37).
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)