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Chapter 1: Faith, Religious Assent, and Reverence for God

Question J: How Should One Cultivate and Perfect One’s Faith?

Although God’s revelation in Jesus is the same gospel for all persons, times, and places, the community of faith must continually receive God’s message, and each believer must appropriate it. In part, this is done through prayer: listening to God’s word and responding to it in an ongoing, personal way. Faith also should be perfected by catechesis and study, and strengthened by struggling against difficulties as they arise. One also should attend to facts and possibilities relevant to putting faith into practice.

1. Instruction and Study Are Needed to Develop and Protect Faith

Even though the act of faith is not only a human act but a divine gift, and the content of faith surpasses human comprehension, one should strive to understand the whole of the Catholic faith as fully as possible and to reason within the framework of that faith. Objections and difficulties with respect to truths of faith should be considered thoughtfully, not merely repressed or brushed aside. This effort, necessary to develop and protect faith, requires lifelong docility and inquiry.

a) One should remain receptive to catechetical formation. Having accepted the person of Jesus by faith and turned to him with conversion of heart, one receives catechetical formation to know him better, to fully understand the gospel’s promises and requirements, and to know how to follow the way Jesus marked out for his disciples.107 Preparing for and following each of the sacraments, so that they can be fruitful, catechesis is not only for children, but for Christians of every age and condition. The faith of adults too “should continually be enlightened, stimulated and renewed, so that it may pervade the temporal realities in their charge.”108

b) One should respond to challenges to one’s faith. Faith is often challenged, either by the objections of others or by one’s own experiences. Since the ground of faith, the all-knowing and all-truthful God revealing himself, provides a certitude superior to all others, no challenge really can call faith’s truth into question. Thus, in the face of persistent challenges, one should not in any way qualify one’s assent to relevant elements of faith; but because such challenges also are rooted in something real, simply repressing them or brushing them aside is unreasonable, and leads to dogmatism and obscurantism. To entertain such challenges without trying to respond to them, however, is to endanger, and eventually surrender, one’s faith. Therefore, a sound and satisfying response to objections and difficulties should be energetically sought. Such a response takes into account and does full justice to whatever reality underlies the challenge, something which always can be done inasmuch as faith is not partisan but embraces truth and goodness integrally.

c) Finding the response to challenges should be a communal effort. Like so many other responsibilities of Christian life, this one is hardly likely to be fulfilled adequately unless Catholics really work together to fulfill it. In general, all believers should cooperate to sustain and build up one another’s faith. If one’s faith is challenged, one should communicate the problem accurately and confidently to someone capable of helping. Naturally, children will first go to their parents and teachers, parishioners to their pastors, and so on. But if a first attempt to solve a problem is unsuccessful, one should not let the matter drop, but should seek further help elsewhere. Someone from whom others seek help should take seriously the responsibility to provide it, seeking help in turn with regard to problems he or she finds too difficult. Those who think they have found sound and satisfying responses to challenges to their own faith should share them with others who might benefit.

d) Uninvited doubts which are not difficulties are temptations. When receiving Holy Communion, one may find oneself thinking: “Perhaps the host is nothing more than the wafer it appears to be.” Every believer sometimes experiences such doubts, whose force comes from emotion rather than any defect in the commitment of faith. Faith’s answer is already known to doubts of this kind, and they need not be treated as challenges to which a response must be sought.

Such spontaneous doubts cannot by themselves constitute the sin—against which Vatican I warns (see DS 3014/1794, 3036/1815)—of calling the faith into question. Rather, they are temptations, similar to other temptations to commit a sin of thought (see CMP, 15.F–G). Since they sometimes have their psychological origin in some unrepented sin, when they arise one should examine one’s conscience. If one finds nothing there, one should pray for an increase of faith and turn one’s thoughts to other matters. If the temptation persists, the problem is not moral but psychological, unless the temptation is diabolical, which always is possible but ordinarily should not be assumed (see CMP, 18.1).

2. Faith Requires both Attention to Scripture and Prayer

One person receives another’s self-communication only in conversation: by listening attentively, pondering what the other wishes to share, and responding to it. Christian faith accepts God’s personal self-revelation in Jesus. Scripture bears witness to revelation, and prayer responds to it (see CMP, 29.A). Thus, faith requires both prayer and attention to Scripture.

a) These are necessary to receive and hand on faith. The receiving and handing on of faith is tradition, the continuity of the communion of faith over time. One essential principle by which tradition develops in the Church, Vatican II teaches, is “the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Lk 2.19, 51)” (DV 8). Believers contemplate God’s word and study it chiefly by attending to Scripture, especially but not only when it is read in the liturgy. Furthermore, “prayer should accompany the reading of sacred Scripture, so that God and we may talk together; for ‘we speak to him when we pray; we hear him when we read the divine sayings’ [note omitted]” (DV 25).

b) One should deepen faith with liturgical and other prayer. Vatican II teaches that “when the Church prays or sings or acts, the faith of those taking part is nourished” (SC 33). The sacraments, especially, strengthen faith and express it (see SC 59). The contemplative dimension of each Christian’s life is fundamentally the response of faith, hope, and charity to God’s revelation and to continuing communion with the Father through Jesus in the Holy Spirit.109 This dimension is deepened by listening to and meditating on the Word of God, and by individual, family, and group prayer, not least prayer of adoration for God’s infinite majesty and of praise and thanksgiving for his revelation by which he gives himself to believers.110

c) One should strengthen one’s commitment with explicit acts of faith. The commitment of faith is exercised and thus strengthened through deliberately recalling the truth of faith in general or one or more truths of faith in particular and renewing one’s willing assent. Conscious and active participation in the liturgy includes such acts, not only in the Profession of Faith (the Credo) but also in the acceptance of the scriptural readings as the word of the Lord, the affirming Amen to the reality of the Eucharist as Jesus’ body and blood, and so on. Many devotions also include explicit acts of faith—for example, the rosary begins with the Apostles’ Creed. However, it is right and meritorious for every believer regularly to make personal, informal acts of faith, recalling the wonderful truths of salvation, cherishing them, and being animated by them.

d) One should nourish faith with prayer of petition. The requests for help which members of any community make of one another not only presuppose the bond of community, but also express and enhance the commitment to community and the confidence of those who seek and receive help.

Faith is one’s bond of community with the divine persons, who alone can provide every good, and with the angels and the saints who are their intimate friends. Thus, asking help from the divine persons, either directly or through intercessors, presupposes faith: “Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mk 11.23–24; cf. Mt 17.20, 21.22; Lk 17.5–6).

Jesus frequently commended the faith of those who earnestly sought his help (see Mt 8.10; 9.22, 29; 15.28; Mk 5.34; 10.52; Lk 7.9, 50; 8.48; 17.19; 18.42). Prayer also nourishes faith.111 Therefore, in both private and communal prayer, one should regularly and persistently beg God’s help in every need. (On the necessary qualities of such prayer and the problem of seemingly unanswered prayers, see CMP, 29.D–E.)112

3. Faith Requires Attention to One’s Situation and to Events In It

To live by faith is to live not only in accord with moral truth but in conscious cooperation with God’s saving plan. But God’s wise and loving providence embraces not only the general lines of salvation history but every detail of each creature’s situation and every minute event affecting it (see Ps 145.8–20; Wis 8.1, 14.3–5; Mt 10.29–31; Rom 8.28). Thus, neither the Church as a whole nor her members nor families and other communities within the Church can learn all God wishes them to know about his plan and will by considering revelation alone. What can be called situational factors—that is, the actual situation and what is happening in it—must also be taken into account. Referring to some of these situational factors, John XXIII and Vatican II speak of the Church’s duty to examine the signs of the times in the light of the gospel.113

Paying attention to situational factors does not mean relativizing faith or attempting to judge it by contemporary insights, attitudes, and values; the latter, rather, are to be judged by faith, whose light illuminates the contemporary world and makes its true significance appear. That significance must be grasped and acted upon.

a) One should interpret situational factors by means of faith. God’s revelation in Jesus raises his servants to the status of friends: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (Jn 15.15). The providential plan of creation, redemption, and sanctification is revealed in Jesus (see Eph 1.9–10, Col 1.24–28).

This revelation provides Jesus’ followers of all times and conditions with the general direction they need to play their own roles as God’s friends and collaborators in carrying out his plan. Moreover, every good situational factor is just as it is because God wills it in accord with his plan, while no evil can occur unless God permits it for the fulfillment of his plan as a whole. Thus, faith can be used to decipher the meaning of many situational factors which one can see as relevant to one’s own responsibilities and choices (see AA 4).

In sum, only by using faith to interpret the signs of the times and similar situational factors does one pay attention to everything God wishes to communicate—that is, not only to his general revelation but to his special messages—so that one can play one’s own part in carrying out his providential plan of creation, redemption, and sanctification.

b) Vatican II’s teaching on the signs of the times should be a model. Vatican II teaches that to fulfill her mission the Church must scrutinize the signs of the times (see GS 3–4). These indicate God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs, and desires of contemporary humankind, including Christians. The Council says the Church can decipher these signs because the Spirit of the Lord leads God’s people. The decoding device is faith, which “throws a new light on everything, manifests God’s design for the human person’s total vocation, and thus directs the mind to solutions which are fully human” (GS 11).

The example of Vatican II should be followed in this matter. Not only the universal Church but particular churches, bodies within the Church (such as religious communities), and individual Catholics must read the indications of situational factors in order to discern and fulfill their missions or personal vocations (personal vocation will be treated in 2.E). The signs to be deciphered in each situation are those problems, opportunities, and resources relevant to decision and action. The needs, not only of Catholics but of anyone whom they are called to serve, help make clear God’s plan and will. Faith guides this process of discernment, and the Holy Spirit helps one bring faith to bear on the facts of the situation.

c) Situational factors cannot falsify Christian principles. At each moment of decision, what one discerns as the significance of situational factors helps complete the message God wants to communicate to those who accept his revelation with faith. Thus, reading the signs of the times and other situational factors can be thought of as a continuing effort of faith to accept and act on God’s living revelation. However, the true meaning of situational factors can be discerned only in the light of all the general principles of Christian doctrine and morality. Hence, no sound discernment of such signs can lead to judgments at odds with Christian principles. To suppose the contrary would be like supposing that correctly using a computer to solve particular problems could show that the mathematical principles on which all computation is based are themselves faulty.114

d) Groups should seek consensus in interpreting situational factors. Often Christian action on large-scale problems, such as socioeconomic reform, is seriously impeded because those who should work together disagree in their interpretation of situational factors. Working from diverse and often incompatible analyses of the reality they confront, various dedicated individuals and groups proceed independently, often interfere with one another’s efforts, and always fall short of the impact they would have if they could work together effectively. Plainly, in such cases all involved have the responsibility, which can be grave, to seek consensus in their analysis for the sake of solidarity in acting on behalf of the important goods they wish to serve.

Several steps should be taken in seeking this consensus. Since a correct reading of situational factors cannot conflict with Christian principles, the first step is to exclude interpretations which the magisterium, in reflecting on these principles and applying them, has rejected as unsound. The second step is for those concerned to engage in sincere dialogue, with the twin aims of developing points in which their understandings can complement one another and of overcoming differences insofar as possible. The third step is for those subject to some authority governing their action in the relevant field to subordinate their personal insights to the judgment of the proper authority. Of course, throughout this process, all involved should pray together for the light and healing of the Holy Spirit, who alone can overcome blind spots and biases.

Despite every effort, however, the consensus often will not be as complete and widespread as desirable. Yet those who see matters diversely will have to act on what they believe to be the sound interpretation of relevant situational factors, even when that means they will be working to some extent at cross purposes. When this happens, everyone concerned should be eager to remain united in charity (see Eph 4.3) and so should tolerate legitimate differences and strive to minimize conflict.

4. Failures to Cultivate and Perfect Faith Are Sinful

The importance of failures in these matters might lead one to suppose that they are likely to be mortal sins. In fact, however, they are more often venial, although such a failure can be a grave matter in particular cases.

a) Such failures are less important singly than cumulatively. Among the most basic and serious responsibilities of a husband and a wife are keeping their marital relationship always in mind, sharing their thoughts and feelings, listening to each other, working to overcome tensions, and being alert to each other’s signs of need for help and affection. These responsibilities are so constant and pervasive that they cannot be fulfilled by any particular act but only by innumerable small, daily acts.

Most such acts, rather than being individually chosen, flow from and implement the marital commitment itself. So fundamental are those responsibilities that married people seldom are tempted to reject them entirely. Only a proposal to be unfaithful or to stop trying to fulfill the marital commitment carries with it the rejection of the fundamental responsibilities arising from marriage as a communion of persons.

It is much the same with one’s responsibilities regarding faith. To know one’s faith, to respond to challenges to it, to attend to God’s word in Scripture, to converse with him in prayer, and to interpret the signs of his plan and will in the actual situation: these are similarly basic responsibilities. No particular act fulfills them completely, and no one ever rejects them entirely unless considering apostasy.

b) Most failures in these matters are venial sins. In a great many cases, the failure of individuals to fulfill these responsibilities is due to omission without choice. Such an omission cannot be a mortal sin (see CMP, 15.1). (The responsibility of parents with respect to their children’s religious formation will be considered in 9.F.5.)

Even when an individual freely chooses not to perform a particular act suited to contribute to fulfilling these responsibilities, that choice is likely to be, at worst, a venial sin. For in these matters, many particular acts, considered in themselves, are morally optional—for example, praying at certain times of the day or using particular forms of popular devotion.115 And others are morally required only inasmuch as one recognizes them as good and feasible and has no good reason for not choosing them. To deliberately omit such acts out of laziness, an incompatible inclination to amusement, or something of the sort would be a venial sin.

c) Mortal sins are possible in these matters. In some circumstances, however, one can have a grave responsibility in these matters to do something in particular, yet be tempted not to do it. For instance, someone struggling with a sin of weakness has a grave responsibility to pray persistently for God’s grace, but may be tempted to give up the struggle and, in choosing to give in to that temptation, choose to stop praying. Again, a college or university student whose faith is challenged by his or her studies has a grave responsibility to seek help to resolve the difficulties, but may be tempted not to make the effort, and, motivated partly by rebellious feelings, may deliberately allow his or her faith to be subverted.

107. The responsibility to be receptive to catechetical formation is part of the Christian’s “grave obligation toward Christ, our Master, ever more fully to understand the truth received from him, faithfully to proclaim it, and vigorously to defend it” (DH 14).

108. John Paul II, Catechesi tradendae, 43, AAS 71 (1979) 1312, Flannery, 2:788; cf. 20 and 23, AAS, 1293–94 and 1296–97, Flannery, 2:774 and 776. Vatican II teaches that if Catholics neglect their training in the faith, they conceal God from others instead of revealing him to them (see GS 19). CIC, c. 229, §1, declares: “Lay persons are bound by the obligation and possess the right to acquire a knowledge of Christian doctrine adapted to their capacity and condition so that they can live in accord with that doctrine, announce it, defend it when necessary, and be enabled to assume their role in exercising the apostolate.”

109. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, AAS 82 (1990) 362–79, OR, 2 Jan. 1990, 8–10, 12, warns against dangers arising from the use of forms of meditation inspired by non-Christian religions, and teaches that Christian prayer always is rooted in divine revelation and seeks God by way of Jesus; the Congregation explains that authentic Christian personal prayer does not displace the sacraments, harmonizes with the liturgy, avoids impersonal techniques, does not focus on the self and on “experiences,” does not prefer a mental void to Christian images and concepts, is accompanied by moral purification and the renunciation of selfishness, and bears fruit in works of love.

110. See Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, The Contemplative Dimension of Religious Life, EV 7 (1980–81) 470–73, Flannery, 2:245.

111. The parable of the dishonest judge (Lk 18.1–7), which teaches the need to pray persistently, ends by raising the question whether the Son of Man, when he comes, will find faith on earth (Lk 18.8). The implicit answer is: Only if Christians persistently pray. See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke (X–XXIV): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible, 28A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985), 1177.

112. A brief, clear, and practical treatment of prayer: Vincent McNabb, O.P., Faith and Prayer (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1953), 133–215.

113. See UR 4, AA 14, PO 9, GS 4; cf. GS 11, 44; M.–D. Chenu, O.P., “Les signes des temps,” Nouvelle revue théologique 87 (1965): 29–39.

114. Vatican II’s method of reading the signs of the times in no way justifies the appeal, made both by some Latin American liberation theologians and by dissenting theologians in affluent nations, to contemporary Christian experience to try to justify moral views at odds with Catholic teaching. The Council’s method proceeds neither solely by deduction from general principles nor solely by induction from experienced situations but by dialectical reflection on data in the light of faith. This process uses both deductive and inductive reasoning to arrive at synthetic insights, which make it possible to put faith into practice and transform existing situations according to God’s plan and will.

115. See Gerald Kelly, S.J., “How Often Must We Pray?” Review for Religious 8 (1949): 289–96.