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The Theological Virtues — Faith

December 8, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

As we transitioned last week from a lengthy treatment of the four cardinal virtues (and a brief overview of sanctifying grace) to the theological virtues, emphasis was given to the fittingness of the term “theological” (as derived from the Greek Theos and logos), for these virtues have God Himself as their Author, motive, and direct object.
“Infused with sanctifying grace, they bestow on one the capacity to live in a relationship with the Trinity,” explains the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “They are the foundation and the energizing force of the Christian’s moral activity and they give life to the human virtues. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being” (n. 384).
Fr. Francis Spirago, in a comprehensive volume entitled The Catechism Explained (TCE) which was originally published in 1899, symbolizes the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity with a flame: “Faith is signified by the light it emits, hope by its upward tendency, and charity by the heat it radiates.”
He goes on to suggest that a tree is also emblematic of the theological virtues: “Faith is its root, hope its stem, charity its fruit.”
A third analogy Fr. Spirago proposes is the construction of a temple: “Faith lays the foundation of the temple of God, hope raises the walls, and charity crowns the structure” (TCE, p. 442).
Their underlying importance cannot be overstated, for as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) affirms, they make the faithful “capable of acting as [God’s] children and of meriting eternal life” (n. 1813).
The Catechism now examines each of the theological virtues, beginning with faith, which it defines as “the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself” (CCC, n. 1814).
Vatican Council I defined faith as “a supernatural virtue whereby, inspired and assisted by the grace of God, we believe that what he has revealed is true, not because the intrinsic truth of things is recognized by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither err nor deceive” (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, n. 3008).
In Sacred Scripture, faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1); its fundamental importance is emphasized a few verses later with the inspired declaration: “Without faith, it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:7).
It would be helpful to look at the nature of faith in general in order to understand supernatural faith. As defined by Dr. Lawrence Feingold, STD, a general definition for faith is “the assent of the mind to truths, not motivated by their intrinsic evidence, but motivated rather by a firm impulse of the will, based on the testimony of a witness” (Course Notes for Fundamental Moral Theology [FMT], December 2009, p. 136).
In other words, it is not possible to speak of faith unless two elements are present: (1) the object of faith must be unseen, and (2) there must be an act of belief by the mind characterized by firmness. How is this firmness of mind justified? It is motivated by the authority of a witness whom one perceives to be worthy of trust.
If we think about it, we make many acts of human faith each day of our lives. For example, it is an act of human faith to know the identity of one’s parents; it is by human faith in teachers and textbooks that we learn. Even though a person has not personally visited a city in a foreign land and viewed its attractions, he believes in their existence based on the testimony of a trusted friend who has been there.
Countless examples can be given of acts of human faith where one gives firm assent of mind to things because of the trustworthiness of those who communicate them — indeed, societies could not function without continuous acts of human faith by its members.
The theological virtue of faith is distinguished from human faith on account of the authority of the witness in whom we believe. Since divine Revelation rests directly on the omniscience of God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, the certainty of divine faith infinitely exceeds that of human faith. “The great difficulty, however, is to determine where God has spoken” (FMT, p. 137).
In other words, before a man believes, he must inquire whether what he is asked to believe was really revealed by God. This inquiry is a duty, for God exacts of us a reasonable service (cf. Romans 12:1), and warns us that “one who trusts others too quickly is lightminded” (Sirach 19:4) (cf. TCE, p. 88). This is precisely where “motives of credibility” enter into the picture, a topic that was examined earlier in this series (see volume 145, n. 31; August 2, 2012).
As a quick refresher, let us recall that the Catechism, in its exposition on “The Profession of Faith,” provides a brief sampling of the countless motives of credibility on which we can base our firm assent to all that 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).
Our Lord Himself appealed to the importance of the miracles He wrought: “Even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand” (John 10:38). Moreover, despite the fact the many tenets of faith are mysteries that surpass the finite ability of our intellect to understand (e.g., Most Holy Trinity, Incarnation, etc.), they are never contrary to reason. Through the motives of credibility, then, our Lord has powerfully demonstrated His veracity.
The Catechism refers to an insightful paragraph in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council: “By faith ‘man freely commits his entire self to God’ (Dei Verbum [DV], n. 5)” (CCC, n. 1814).
To be precise, it is stated in the conciliar constitution that an “obedience of faith is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him” (DV, n. 5).
How are we to understand this definition of faith?
The “obedience of faith” is an act of obedience by which one commits his whole self freely to God, with God’s aid. It is a gift of the mind to God, offering one’s full submission of intellect and will to God’s Revelation because He has revealed it. It is embracing the entire Deposit of Faith because of the authority of the Revealer, and not because it seems reasonable to us or because we prefer it. It wouldn’t be a gift of self if we retained the power of private judgment to pick and choose what appeals to us (i.e., cafeteria Catholicism). It is only a gift of self to God if we truly give ourselves in such a way that we believe whatever He says, whether it conforms to our understanding or not.
Man has free will — the act of faith or “obedience of faith” is thus a free interior act that we give whenever we see God has spoken. Although we’re free in the sense that we can say no, we are not morally free to say no to God who reveals because He is Truth itself.
Closely connected to “obedience of faith” is a principle formulated by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in his great work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which he wrote during the process of his conversion to Catholicism. Developed at a time when religious liberalism was rampant (which Newman perceived as a great danger to the future of Christianity), his “dogmatic principle” taught that “the act of supernatural faith requires articles of faith or dogmas to which we are obliged to consent because of God’s authority” (FMT, p. 145).
The connection between the “dogmatic principle” and the “obedience of faith” is clear. It is a necessary foundation for divine faith and precludes our power of choice — private judgment (or cafeteria Catholicism) goes against the “dogmatic principle” and thus makes the “obedience of faith” impossible.
If one personally reserves the right of judgment about matters of faith, it is not submission of mind and will to God. It is by adherence to the “dogmatic principle” that one is enabled to realize true liberty, true freedom. Any departure from the Deposit of Faith as it has come down to us through the mediation of Christ, the apostles, and the Church founded on the apostles and the Apostolic Tradition is not true development but corruption of the faith.

Corruption, Not Development

In an outstanding online article in First Things magazine entitled “Development, or Corruption?” former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Gerhard Cardinal Mueller shows how Newman’s dogmatic principle, properly applied, “prevents us from speaking of a ‘paradigm shift’ regarding the form of the Church’s being and of her presence in the world” (see www.firstthings.com, February 20, 2018).
His Eminence states that “a paradigm shift, by which the Church takes on the criteria of modern society to be assimilated by it, constitutes not a development, but a corruption.”
True development in doctrine “means a growth in the understanding of spiritual and theological realities, guided by the Holy Spirit (cf. DV, n. 8).”

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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 a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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