By DON FIER
Faith, or the obedience of faith, was characterized in last week’s installment on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) as man’s most fitting and proper response to God’s self-revelation. Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, concisely defines this assent to all God has revealed as “the free submission to God’s Word because its truth is guaranteed by God, Who is Truth itself” (The Faith, p. 35). Our previous column appropriately closed with a brief reflection on the human person whom the Church sets before us as the “most perfect embodiment” (CCC, n. 144) of the obedience of faith — the Blessed Virgin Mary. Is it possible to conceive of a more apt expression to describe “our mother in the order of grace” (Lumen Gentium, n. 62)? For, “throughout her life and until her last ordeal when Jesus her Son died on the Cross, Mary’s faith never wavered. She never ceased to believe in the fulfillment of God’s word. And so the Church venerates in Mary the purest realization of faith” (CCC, n. 149).
Before embarking on the primary topic of this column, the characteristics of faith, it would be good to briefly consider an unwavering teaching of the Catholic Church: “It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what He says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature” (CCC, n. 150).
For, as Sacred Scripture bluntly and unabashedly tells us, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Psalm 146:3-4).
True though it may be that virtuous, trustworthy, and faith-filled friends constitute a great blessing during our sojourn on this earth, it is only God in whom we can place our complete and unreserved faith. Frail, broken vessels that we humans are, even the most reliable of friends can fail us and fall by the wayside in the face of great pressure or persecution. Furthermore, “it is possible for all human witnesses to be mistaken about some fact — as, for instance, scholars may have once thought that the world was flat. . . . But God cannot be mistaken, He cannot deceive; He is infinite Wisdom and infinite Truth” (Leo J. Trese, The Faith Explained, pp. 127-128). Indeed, it is for this reason that “the Church never ceases to proclaim her faith in one only God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (CCC, n. 152).
Now, what are the characteristics of the theological virtue of faith? First, and perhaps most important, “faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by Him” (CCC, n. 153). The Catechism points out that even St. Peter, the first Vicar of Christ who joyfully accepted martyrdom for his faith, was able to profess his belief in Jesus as the Son of the living God only through the gift of God’s grace: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father Who is in Heaven” (Matt. 16:17). And St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles and also a martyr for the faith, admitted the same truth: “He Who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:15-16). As such, “believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit” (CCC, n. 153).
At the same time, it is also completely accurate to say that believing is an authentically human act, and it is in no way contrary to human freedom or reason (cf. CCC, n. 153). As was touched upon last week and more clearly stated in the Vatican Council II document Dignitatis Humanae (DH): “It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: No one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will. . . . [Man] cannot give his adherence to God revealing Himself unless, under the drawing of the Father, he offers to God the reasonable and free submission of faith” (DH, n. 10). St. Thomas Aquinas teaches in his Summa Theologiae (STh) that “believing is an act of the intellect assenting [freely] to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace” (STh, II-II, q. 2, art. 9). Therefore, when submitting in faith, man’s natural faculties of “human intellect and will cooperate with God’s divine grace” (CCC, n. 155).
Moving now to consider faith as it relates to understanding, it is a well-known principle that faith is above, but never contrary to, reason. At the same time, however, “what moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason” (CCC, n. 156).
In fact, many truths of our faith far surpass what our finite, limited human minds can grasp. As Dei Filius (DF) teaches: “The divine mysteries, by their very nature, so far surpass the created understanding that, even when a revelation has been given and accepted by faith, they remain covered by the veil of that same faith and wrapped, as it were, in a certain obscurity, as long as in this mortal life we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, and not by sight” (DF, chapter 3, n. 4). The reason for our firm belief in the sublime, incomprehensible mysteries of our faith as revealed by God, then, is “because of the authority of God Himself, Who makes the Revelation and can neither deceive nor be deceived” (DF, chapter 3, n. 2).
Yet, in His infinite goodness, God has performed and continues to perform many verifiable miracles that testify to the veracity of His Revelation. Referred to as “motives of credibility,” these wondrous realities are “the rational grounds for accepting divine Revelation . . . evidence from reason that God exists” (Fr. John Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary, p. 364). The Catechism puts forth just a brief sampling of the countless motives of credibility on which we can base our acceptance of all God has revealed: “The miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability” (CCC, n. 156).
As Sacred Scripture attests, God “bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His own will” (Heb. 2:4). We can thus be certain that “the assent of faith is ‘by no means a blind impulse of the mind’ (DF, chapter 3, n. 6)” (CCC, n. 156).
Difficulties Vs. Doubts
The Catechism goes on to tell us that faith in God’s Revelation is certain, more certain than any and all human knowledge, because of its Source (cf. CCC, n. 156). Here, we might do well to reflect on a famous quotation by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman: “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” We are called to think about and ponder the truths of our faith. In fact, in his treatise entitled On the Predestination of the Saints, St. Augustine says, “To believe is to think with assent.”
Individuals who have not experienced difficulties when they contemplate the lofty mysteries revealed by God and His Church probably haven’t really taken their faith seriously. Struggling to wrap one’s mind around seemingly obscure mysteries of the Catholic faith will be normal fare for us in this present life. However, the proper disposition is to accept what God has revealed and to seek to understand. In other words, we are called to humbly submit to what is beyond our ability to understand and ask, “How can this be so?” Even the Blessed Virgin Mary inquired, “How shall this be?” (Luke 1:34) when she was told she was to be the Mother of our Redeemer, though she was vowed to virginity.
This is a far different attitude than entertaining doubt and saying, “No, this doesn’t make sense to me and I will not accept it.” Far better for us to join the father in St. Mark’s Gospel whose son was possessed by an unclean spirit and say, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
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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.)