Reports indicate that only a quarter of Catholics believe in the Real Presence, and even that may be an overestimate. One wonders about belief in other ‘hard truths’, as even the Apostles described Christ’s promise to give us His own ‘flesh’ to eat in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. How many, we may ask, have faith in the hypostatic union, the Incarnation, the efficacy of the sacraments, the Trinity, the divine origin of the priesthood, the infallibility of the papal office, to say nothing of all the liturgical and disciplinary measures of the Church…
To say there is a crise de foi is to understate the case, and Christ’s own question – a warning, if you will – of whether He would find faith upon the earth upon His return has taken on a rather vivid quality. When we hear of relatives or friends who admit, perhaps with a sigh or a shrug, that they no longer believe, that they’ve lost their Faith, it is incumbent upon us to clarify what it is they have lost, and whether we ourselves even have it. A clarification on Faith itself is in order.
Saint Thomas defines the act of faith as an ‘act of the intellect, assenting to the divine truth, by command of the will, moved by God through grace’. (II-II, q.2, a.9; cf., CCC, #155).
There are two objects to act of faith, there is the ‘material’ object, what it is we believe, and there is the formal object, why we believe it, that is, upon what authority.
To take a simple example, we trust the explanations, formulae, and such in a chemistry textbook, based on the presumed knowledge of the author, who holds a Ph.D. from a reputable university. We trust a bridge won’t collapse based on the competence of the civil engineers who designed and built it. And we trust our family and friends since we know – or hope – that they wouldn’t lie to us.
Life is filled with similar examples, and could not be lived without such faith. In fact, the primary reason lying is intrinsically evil is because it undermines our trust in each other, leading to suspicion, distrust and the breakdown of society.
Thomas distinguishes such natural faith from supernatural faith – the kind Christ desires to find in us upon His return – based on their respective formal objects. In natural faith, the authority can eventually be traced back to a human person who, however erudite and virtuous, is to some extent fallible. The formal object in supernatural faith, on the other hand, is none other than God Himself, who can neither deceive nor be deceived; hence, we must trust what He has revealed, completely, with no reserve, nor a shadow of a doubt.
And, here, dear reader, is the rub: For how do we know that God Himself has spoken, and through what means or spokesmen? After all, every religion on the face of this good earth, and all their varieties, claim to speak for God, and we may presume, with some measure of good grace, that most of them are to some large extent sincere in this belief.
I will present the Catholic view, the only true one.
In our Faith, God has spoken through various prophets and redactors in the Old Testament, all pointing towards the fullness of His revelation in Christ, the Word made flesh. Christ established an Apostolic College, at the head of which He placed His vicar, Peter and his successors in the office of Pope, the basis of apostolic teaching authority. Christ granted to His Apostles all that He had to say, to which words nothing may be added or subtracted.
The teaching office of the Church, the Magisterium, the Pope and the bishops in union with him, do add or change revelation. Their task, rather, is to guard, expound and apply Christ’s teaching authoritatively and often infallibly through the ages and their historical circumstances, until the eschaton.
Yet even this Magisterium only acts with Christ’s authority under certain conditions, in official documents and pronouncements, and only acts infallibly, as the First Vatican Council taught, when the Pope, with or without the rest of the episcopate, teaches a matter of faith and morals in a definitive way to all the faithful. The Second Vatican Council, in a nota explicativa at the end of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, taught that the bishops on their own, without the Head, have no universal authority and no infallibility; pace, Cardinal Marx and the German episcopacy. We must use our own reason and wits to determine when and how even papal teaching may bind our conscience, more necessary than ever in some of the confusion and ambiguity of our modern Church.
As a general principle, we interpret the less authoritative, and the less clear, in light of what is more authoritative, and more definitive. The precise proscriptions of Familiaris Consortio are the hermeneutic to interpreting the amorphous ambiguities of chapter 8 of Amoris. And it is in this light that we should interpret recent, perhaps unsettling, statements from the Magisterium and episcopacy.
That, in sum, is the formal object of our divine and Catholic faith.
These other religions also have their formal objects, but they are either not so clearly defined, or are amorphous, or are so clearly not ‘of God’ as to scarcely warrant our attention (as in various cults, Scientology and such, along with sundry and transient gurus).
Protestants have their truncated Bible, Muslims have their Qur’an, and each have their own traditions, their quasi-Magisteria, their councils, synods, hadiths, pastors, imams, caliphs, and scholars. But try, if you will, to capture what it is any of them, as a body, are bound to believe. The suras of their Qur’an, written well after Muhammad’s death, are open to about as many interpretations as there are Muslims.
And while on the Bible, what of Protestants? They claim the Holy Book as their sole source and guide – sola Scriptura, but what of it? From the Bible alone, one may derive any sort of ‘Christianity’, as the bizarre cults of the early Anabaptists so clearly evinced. Reading the exploits of Jan of Leyden, with his concubines and his slaughters makes one realize quite clearly with the Ethiopian’s lament to the Apostle Philip, how can one understand Scripture, without an authoritative interpreter?
We Catholics, from the lowest to the highest, are bound to the Church and her definitive teachings. Even the Holy Father – should we even say ‘even’? – is bound to what his predecessors have declared to be de fide, of the faith.
Saint Thomas asks whether a heretic who denies just one article of faith may keep supernatural faith in the rest. His answer is, of course, no, for said heretic has not simply rejected one part of the material object, but in doing so, he has rejected his faith in the formal object, in this case, God – through Christ and His Church – Who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Hence, as Thomas pithily puts it, one “who obstinately disbelieves one article of faith…has not faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will” (II-II. q.5, a.3)
Thus, Thomas puts paid to cafeteria Catholicism, or those who attempt to redefine articles of Faith according to their own a priori notions or whims. The Catholics who disbelieve in the Eucharist are in an objective sense no longer Catholic.
Then again, we ourselves know not what transpires in the hearts and minds of men, and we must make room for those brought up in a state of invincible ignorance, of which often enough they are not even aware.
The key is that we are all bound to the truth once it has been made known to us, and woe to us if we reject the truth, making a shipwreck of faith, and our conscience, as Saint Paul pithily puts it.
So keep up the good fight of the Faith, regardless of what ambiguities, amphibolies and scandals there be, which Christ said were sure to come. For only he who perseveres to the end may hope to be saved.