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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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