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Vices And Sins Opposed To Faith

December 22, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church crisply summarizes the Church’s fundamental teaching on the theological virtue of faith, as unpacked in the last two installments, in three brief sentences:
“Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and all that he has revealed to us and that the Church proposes for our belief because God is Truth itself. By faith the human person freely commits himself to God. Therefore, the believer seeks to know and do the will of God because ‘faith works through charity’ (Gal. 5:6)” (n. 386).
To be sure, faith is absolutely necessary for salvation. Our Lord Himself said, “He who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). However, as demonstrated last week, it must be a living faith, a faith animated by charity. “A faith that does not include works of love toward God and neighbor is empty and, therefore, does not lead to salvation and holiness,” affirms The Didache Bible (TDB). “Faith, in its true sense, always involves the practice of charity in the form of prayer, self-denial, and deeds of mercy and love toward others. Unless faith is expressed in acts of charity, it remains ineffective” (p. 1580).
St. James announces this principle clearly: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). Moreover, believers are obligated to profess and defend their faith: “Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1815).
Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, provides a list of responsibilities that are incumbent upon followers of Christ if they are to authentically practice the virtue of Faith. They must: preserve the Faith, live the Faith, profess the Faith, courageously bear witness to the Faith, spread the Faith, be ready to confess Christ before others and follow Him along the way of the Cross, be ready to suffer persecution for the Faith, and be willing to die for the Faith if necessary (cf. The Faith, p. 163).
We will now consider vices opposed to faith, beginning with the sin of disbelief (incredulity), which the Catechism defines as “the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it” (CCC, n. 2089). A distinction, however, must first be made according to St. Thomas Aquinas: “A man [may] be called an unbeliever merely because he has not the faith,…[or] by way of opposition to the faith, in which sense a man refuses to hear the faith, or despises it” (Summa Theologiae [STh] II-II, Q. 10, art. 1).
In the first instance, the person lacks faith in the one true religion due to invincible ignorance (i.e., through no fault of his own, he has not had access to God’s revelation with apt motives of credibility). In such a case, sin is not imputable. It is to this situation Jesus referred when He said: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin” (John 15:22a).
However, if a person is presented with the one, true faith and willfully rejects it, he is guilty of the sin of disbelief. As Jesus continues on to say, “But now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22b).
What is the underlying cause for the sin of disbelief? “Unbelief, in so far as it is a sin,” says the Angelic Doctor, “arises from pride, through which man is unwilling to subject his intellect to the rules of faith, and to the sound interpretation of the Fathers” (STh II-II, Q. 10, art. 1, ad 3).
In other words, a person willfully chooses to not submit his mind to God, the Church, and the one true faith as manifested in Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.
The gravity of the sin of disbelief is great because it separates one’s mind from being guided by God. “Apart from the sins directly opposed to the other theological virtues (i.e., hope and charity),” states Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, “unbelief is the greatest of sins, because it severs a man completely from God and falsifies his very notion of God” (A Tour of the Summa [ATS], p. 193).
Three forms of the sin of incredulity are listed in paragraph 2089 of the Catechism: heresy, apostasy, and schism. As defined by the 1983 Code of Canon Law, “heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; and schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (canon 751).
Citing St. Thomas, Dr. Lawrence Feingold, STD, points out: “Objectively, heresy and apostasy are the greatest of the sins of disbelief because they involve rejection of something already received (cf. STh II-II, Q. 10, art. 6)” (Course Notes for Fundamental Moral Theology [FMT], December 2009, p. 148).
We see scriptural evidence attesting to this from St. Peter: “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Peter 2:21). Thus, it may be inferred that “those who have come to know the truth and yet return to their former sins are worse off than those who never knew the truth in the first place” (TDB, p. 1674).
When speaking of heresy, an important distinction must be made between formal heresy and material heresy. Formal heresy implies a culpable resistance to an article of faith; as such, it indicates obstinacy in rejecting something that God has revealed. Material heresy, in contrast, consists in making a mistake about a matter of faith or denying a matter of faith out of ignorance. It only becomes formal heresy and a sin against the virtue of faith if one is informed of his mistake and still persists in his obstinacy. Heresy, then, properly speaking, is formal heresy.
As discussed two weeks ago, for an act of faith to be virtuous, there must be motives of credibility upon which belief rests. Indeed, it would be imprudent to make an assent of belief if motives of credibility were not present. But we have miracles, prophecies fulfilled, the four marks of the Church, and the sanctity of God’s Revelation as motives of credibility. If one has been presented with motives of credibility (or could and should have been aware of them), he is culpable for the obstinate resistance to an article of faith and falls into the sin of formal heresy.
It is interesting to note that even Church doctors such as Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine fell into material heresy, but would have been the first to recant if the Church taught otherwise. On the other hand, the stubborn obstinacy of Martin Luther who went so far as to burn Pope Leo X’s bull of condemnation is a textbook case of formal heresy.
Every act of formal heresy has the result that one loses the virtue of faith entirely. By denying one article or tenet of faith, the heretic is necessarily putting himself in the position where he no longer holds any article by divine faith, but just by human faith. In other words, by denying one article of faith, he is setting his own reason, his own judgment, as the criteria for deciding; he is making himself the arbiter. (As an interesting sidelight, the word “heresy” comes from the Greek word for “choice” [see STh II-II, Q. 11, art. 1].) Therefore, anything and everything else that he holds as an article of faith is because he has judged it acceptable by human reason.
The Catechism lists doubt as a potential sin against the virtue of faith: “Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief” (CCC, n. 2088). Since the very definition of faith requires firm assent of the mind to the Word of God, deliberate and voluntary doubt can be seen to be incompatible with the gift of faith. “If deliberately cultivated,” states the Catechism, “doubt can lead to spiritual blindness” (ibid.).

Grave Sin

Involuntary doubt, in contrast, “refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity” (ibid.). This form of doubt is not sinful; in fact, “as long as it is resisted by the will, can be the source of merit. God not infrequently permits terrible trials of faith in His saints to further purify the virtue of faith in the dark night of the spirit” (FMT, p. 154).
One need only look to the great trials of faith experienced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Teresa of Calcutta to confirm this. As related in Come Be My Light, Mother Teresa did not sensibly feel the presence of faith for the last 48 years of her life except for a brief one-month period.
The Angelic Doctor includes blasphemy as a sin in opposition to the virtue of faith (see STh II-II, Q. 13, aa. 1-4). As defined in the Catechism, blasphemy is “uttering against God — inwardly or outwardly — words of hatred, reproach, or defiance; in speaking ill of God; in failing in respect toward him in one’s speech; in misusing God’s name” (CCC, n. 2148).
Msgr. Glenn characterizes blasphemy as “an emphatic form of unbelief” (ATS, p. 195). Its gravity is strikingly demonstrated in that the death penalty was imposed for its commission in the Law of Moses (see Lev. 24:16).

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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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