The Crisis of Faith | By Father John Hardon, S.J.
Every rational human being believes. When we believe we accept the word of another person. Someone knows that something is true, either from experience or reason, and we accept what he tells us because we trust that he knows what he is talking about and is not deceiving us.
On this basis the only unbeliever would be a person who is completely out of his mind. We believe that the persons whom we call our father and mother are our parents. We believe that what we are buying is what the store tells us is worth paying for. We believe that the lessons we learned in childhood are true. Who would even enter marriage unless both partners believed in the spouse with whom they were entering matrimony?
In a word, faith is part of our very nature as rational human beings. However, it is one thing to believe in other people and something else to believe in God. To believe in what people tell us is called human faith. To believe in what God has revealed is called Divine faith. To be still more clear, Divine faith properly so called is the assent of our intellect to what God has revealed, not because we comprehend what God tells us it true, but only because we accept a truth on His authority who can neither deceive, or be deceived.
God cannot deceive because He is all good and therefore cannot tell a lie. He cannot be deceived because He knows all things and therefore can never be wrong.
St. John the Evangelist raises one of the most embarrassing questions in the Bible. How is it, he asked, that we who are so ready to believe in men are so slow to believe in God? The answer is painfully obvious. We are so slow to believe in God because what He demands of us is nothing less than to accept incomprehensible mysteries which are beyond our human capacity even to conceive before they are revealed, and beyond our grasp to fully penetrate even after they are revealed.
We see that faith and revelation are related as cause and effect. God reveals Himself, who He is and what He wants; if we respond we believe.
All of this has been a prelude to the real message of this article, for the present crisis in the Catholic Church is really a crisis of faith.
What is the Crisis?
A crisis in general is a situation that was unexpected but that poses certain grave problems for urgent solution. It is in the nature of a disaster, but not quite. More accurately, it could be described as impending disaster that calls for immediate and drastic action. If action is promptly and properly taken, the impending disaster will not occur. In fact, as a result of meeting the serious problems that a crisis raises, great good will come from having risen to the critical situation.
When we say that the Church is faced with a crisis of faith, we mean just that. It is a critical period in the Church's life when millions of her faithful are confused about their beliefs. They are uncertain about what as Catholics they are to hold. And as a result they are emotionally insecure, bewildered and, in Christ's words, wandering as sheep without a shepherd.
Wherein precisely lies the crisis? It might be described as a communitarian state of mind which differs somewhat in different people. But many of them are in one of three mental attitudes towards even the most sacred mysteries of Divine revelation.
Some are in open rebellion against the faith of their fathers. They resent the fact that, as some will tell you, they had been brainwashed to believe what modern science, or scholarship, or study, or the social sciences, or psychology now show to have been useful props in the past, or perhaps convenient labels for the unknown, but these beliefs are no longer tenable today.
Other people are not yet ready to discard the Faith they may still cherish with one part of their being, maybe for emotional or ritual or personal reasons. But they have serious doubts about so much of what Catholics used to believe with the naivete of children. Some articles of faith they are willing to admit, but others they have strong reservations about.
There is so much talk nowadays about collegiality that what used to be called the papal primacy is, for such people, no longer an established article of faith.
There are so many theories going the rounds about transfinalization and transignification that belief in the real bodily presence of Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist, for such people, is uncertain to say the least. That is why some priests are so casual in their indiscriminate giving of Holy Communion to anyone, whether Catholic or Protestant or, for that matter, Jewish or Hindu.
There is so much speculation everywhere, they feel, about Christ's personality, that it seems to them that to bring Christ down to our own level we must make Him a human person, who perhaps, in the Nestorian fashion, was also divine; but He only gradually developed His full awareness of who He was. He could not, it is thought, have been truly human if from the first moment of His existence He was conscious of His dual identity.
There are so many problems raised by the demographic experts, and the social scientists about the expanding world population, that not a few people seriously doubt the teaching of the Church on contraception. And besides, rearing a normal family in contraceptive societies like America would place an intolerable burden on Catholics. So they settle for questioning the Church's magisterium and follow instead the teaching of the Church's sworn enemies.
Among priests, they have heard and read so much about being open to the Spirit, so much about problems of identity, so much about optional celibacy, so much about leadership instead of authority, about relating to the world, about cultic mentality instead of sound involvement, about the Eucharist as a meal, and confession being emotionally harmful, so much about a functional priesthood, so much about the hierarchy as teachers, indeed, but not divinely authorized to command obedience.
We have acquired a whole new vocabulary about relevance, and involvement and harmonization and power politics and the third way and sensitivity programs and ritual preoccupation and respectful disobedience and communal discernment and institutionalism, that it is no wonder so many have serious doubts not only about this or that feature of Catholic life, but even about its value at all.
Given all that is happening, a third group of people are not rejecting the Faith or in serious doubt about Catholic doctrine, but they are bewildered. Modern popes have addressed in their documents the synonyms for bewilderment that besets millions of the still faithful faithful. They are confused, and distraught, and perplexed, and worried and some are all but crushed by the spectacle of a post-conciliar Church that is caught up in an interior convulsion of spirit that has rocked all of Christendom to its foundations.
In spite of brave words to the contrary, anyone familiar with what is happening is concerned; and the spectacle shows no signs of an early abating.
Why the Crisis?
Sheer realism, then, requires that we admit there is a crisis of faith in the Church. What are we to make of it? How to explain it? Why is there a crisis at all? By now many explanations have been given and they all have merit, insofar as they honestly face the facts and concede what those who still believe firmly are convinced is true: that for numerous still nominal Catholics, and for not a few of their clerical, religious and lay leaders, the unqualified faith of Catholic Christianity has been weakened and for some of them has been lost.
What complicates the issue and, in fact, is part of the crisis, is that not infrequently those who no longer interiorly believe in the integrity of God's revelation insist that they are not only Christians and Catholics but frankly better Christians and better Catholics than those whom they condescendingly call pre-counciliar, or anti-intellectual, or simply unaware of what is going on.
There is no point here in answering the learned objections brought up against the historic faith of the Catholic Church. Nor is there room in the present context for dealing at length with those who speak of discontinuity of faith in place of continuity, or who opt for a continuing revelation that erases the notion of a completed revelation in the person of Jesus Christ and the apostolic age, or who insist on redefining every single premise of the Church's perennial teaching, in favor of a process theology in which everything - including God - is said to be in perpetual and never-ending change.
Why did such a crisis come about in the first place? Surely no phenomenon is without some explanation, and this one better be explained. The explanation is not hard to find. There is a crisis of faith in the Catholic Church because there has been an intrusion of alien ideas.
The moment we say this, however, we are immediately confronted with the two terms, "intrusion" and "alien ideas," for the simple reason that those responsible for the crisis will deny either that there has been an intrusion or that the new ideas are anything else except that they are "new," but they should not be called alien.
An idea is alien to any religion when it openly contradicts what that religion stands for. For example: the Catholic Church has always believed that God is all perfect because He is infinite. There are now writers, ostensibly Catholic, who say the opposite, that God is finite and, in fact, He needs us to reach whatever perfection He will eventually attain.
The Catholic Church has always believed that God became man in the Person of Jesus Christ. There are now learned writers who deny this: they believe that Jesus is somehow divine because God was close to Him, but He is really only human, the Man from Nazareth.
The Catholic Church has always believed that Christian marriage is an indissoluble union of one man and one woman until death. There are now presumably Catholic moralists who say that is part of the past. From now on (they say) even sacramental marriages can and should be dissolved with the freedom to enter a second or a third partnership after divorce.
The Catholic Church has always believed that Jesus Christ practiced the counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and those who receive the grace are urged to follow His example. But now there are ostensibly Catholic proponents of a new spirituality that erases this whole tradition. Instead of celibacy they propose meaningful relationships with persons of the opposite or same sex; instead of actual poverty they would substitute a subjective concern for the poor, and instead of obedience they promote shared responsibility or group consensus to replace authority.
But if these ideas are alien, in the sense of foreign to the Catholic philosophy of life, are they intrusions? Yes, they are on several counts, as anyone who knows what is taking place in the world can testify.
They are first of all an intrusion because they are unjustified by the premises of authentic Roman Catholicism. A finite God is not an infinite God; a merely human Jesus is not the Son of God who became man for our salvation; a sacramental priesthood is not a merely functional ministry; an indissoluble marriage is not a dissoluble marriage; and a purely subjective poverty or nominal celibacy or verbal obedience are not the evangelical counsels that the Church has declared were revealed to us in the life and teaching of the Savior.
Either the Catholic Church remains constant in her fundamental articles of faith, over the centuries, or she is no longer the Church founded by Christ.
These alien ideas are furthermore an intrusion because for many persons they have literally invaded people's minds by unsuspected credence being given to things that appeared orthodox but are in fact heterodox.
It is not to lay blame on particular individuals whose names by now are commonplace to anyone professionally in the sacred sciences. What is beyond question is that in many, perhaps most, cases when these vagrant ideas were first ventilated they seemed so plausible, even persuasive, that it is not surprising there have been so many victims of this massive assault on the believing Catholic mind.
But there is one more reason that must sadly be added to explain why it is justifiable to call what we are describing an invasion of alien ideas. An invasion is, by definition, done not only by an outside force and not only surreptitiously. It is also done coercively.
Of course it is not always by physical force, although physical violence even now is being exercised against millions of our fellow Christians in China, and Africa, where the most inhuman means are used to break down the resistance of priests, religious and the laity - to give up their Catholic heritage.
What is meant by intrusion is the coercive pressure: psychological and social, economic and legal, academic and professional, educational and governmental that cumulatively can become all but irresistible to conformity with the people and agencies and institutions that are in control of today's mind-shaping structures and social communications.
That some of these compulsive elements have also entered the sacred precincts of the Church's organization is not strange. There is a crusade of conformism in societies like America. Woe to anyone who dares to raise a voice in protest or who invokes the rights of conscience to protect himself from those who, in the name of conscience, are demanding allegiance to doctrinaire theories of a structure-less Church, or a cult-less priesthood, or a ruleless religious life, or that every marriage is open to ecclesiastical annulment.
Just one more observation, a plea for confidence, which means implicit trust in God.
No one who knows what the situation is, doubts that the Catholic Church is going through a veritable emergency of faith. What is an emergency but a time for urgent decisions, that is discriminating judgment? What leaders of the Church need to do today is not be shaken by the storm that is raging all around them, but to hold on literally for dear life to what Christ has revealed, to what has been defended for us by the champions of orthodoxy like Athanasius, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great, lived out before us by saints and mystics like Benedict, Francis and Ignatius Loyola, like Clare, Margaret Mary and Teresa, like Elizabeth Seton and Thomas More, and experienced by us in whatever span of life we have so far lived.
There are seductive voices everywhere and some are very erudite. They may also claim numbers on their side. But no, the numbers in favor of the true Faith and the true Church are legion. They are all the myriad souls since Christ ascended to His Father who are now in the Church Triumphant. They are our intercessors before the throne of God, as they are also our consolation that we are not deceived. The present crisis is really a challenge or, better, a glorious opportunity to prove our loyalty to Christ the Truth so that one day we may possess Christ our Life who told us not to fear, "I have overcome the world." So shall we, with the help of His grace, and the Church will be the better and stronger for the experience of these critical times.
Lord Jesus, you foretold that your Church would suffer opposition and persecution, even as you did. You declared that, so far from being anxious or worried, we should actually rejoice when the world hates us and says all manner of evil against us, for your Name. Give us the courage we need to resist the onslaught of seductive untruth. Above all, give us the confidence to realize that the trials of this life are a prelude to the glory that waits us, provided we have remained unshaken in our allegiance to you and your spouse, the Holy Catholic Church, of which you are the Teacher and the Guide. Amen.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 1996 of The Catholic Faith. Like many of Fr. Hardons articles, it was both timely and timeless.
Father John Hardon, S.J. (b. June 18th, 1914 - d. December 30, 2000) was the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine. He was ordained on his 33rd birthday, June 18th, 1947 at West Baden Springs, Indiana. Father Hardon was a member of the Society of Jesus for 63 years and an ordained priest for 52 years. Father Hardon held a Masters degree in Philosophy from Loyola University and a Doctorate in Theology from Gregorian University in Rome. He has taught at the Jesuit School of Theology at Loyola University in Chicago and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Catholic Doctrine at St. John's University in New York. A prolific writer, he authored over forty books, including The Catholic Catechism, Religions of the World, Protestant Churches of America, Christianity in the Twentieth Century, Theology of Prayer, The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan and two question and answer catechisms on the Holy Father's encyclicals The Gospel of Life and The Splendor of Truth. In addition, he was actively involved with a number of organizations, such as the Institute on Religious Life, Marian Catechists, Eternal Life and Inter Mirifica, which publishes his catechetical courses. For more about Fr. Hardon, visit this page at Dave Armstrongs website.
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