The Hope That is Within You
Sixth Sunday of Easter. Fr Leon Pereira reflects on the relationship between faith and doubt.
It would be odd if Catholics did not question their faith. The lack of intellectual curiosity would be a indication of the capital sin of sloth. We would be like Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, ranking papal infallibility (extending to meteorological forecasts) with sacred monkeys in the Vatican – and accepting both as things to be believed. Happily, most people do question their faith, although our difficulties sometimes worry us, and we confuse them with doubts. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote, ‘Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.’ He distinguished these because the difference is an enormous one. Someone with a difficulty might say, ‘How can this be?’ Someone with a doubt says, ‘It can’t be!’ The difference is between one who struggles within a family fold, and one who no longer struggles, outside the fold in some sense.
It is as a family, or more precisely as a body, that we gather at Mass. When we pray the Creed, we say, ‘I believe’. There is no ‘we believe’ because the Faith of the Church must be a personal faith for us. Indeed, whenever people say ‘we believe’ the ‘we’ is restricted to those presuming to speak on behalf of everyone else. But faith is a personal matter; it must be confessed personally by the ‘I’. St Thomas teaches us that through baptism the Holy Spirit gives us the power of faith (virtus fidei), the capacity to have faith; but this faith must be actualised in a conscious and explicit act of faith (actus fidei). The Faith must be instantiated — it must, under God’s grace, become a personal act, and become an active reality.
This instantiation of faith as an act comes about through our free and graced co-operation with the Holy Spirit. It happens when we consent, as the Jesuit axiom puts it, to feel with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia). This is what pope Francis means when he frequently reaffirms that he is ‘a son of the Church’ — he believes with the Church, and does not invent his own Christianity to suit himself. In other words, all the contentious issues (contentious to the modern world: sexual mores, abortion, women’s ordination etc.) are a given for him: he believes with the Church because there is no other Faith to assent to, not without betraying Christ.
The fact that people think about these issues is good. It is excellent! Problems arise when we apply worldly models to the Church: as though the pope were a CEO who could change ‘company policy’, or that majority decisions could change doctrines or morals. Keeping our perspective, things were worse in the fourth century when the Arian heresy (the error that Jesus was not True God) flourished, when St Jerome could say, ‘The whole world groaned, and marvelled to find itself Arian.’ In our own day, we could not think the widespread use of contraception justifies it one bit — otherwise we should also think lying justified, since practically everyone has lied.
Early in the last century an Anglican cleric warned, ‘The church that weds the spirit of the age ends up a widow in the next [age].’ We should be cautious of any ‘spirit of Vatican II’ which lacks a foundation in the actual texts of Vatican II. Similarly, the ‘spirit of pope Francis’, when not based on the contextualised words of the pope, is simply media spin. In its proper context the oft-quoted ‘Who am I to judge?’ applies to any category of sinner: rapists, paedophiles, tax-dodgers etc. The real Francis most frequently and forcefully stresses the reality of sin and the devil, the need for conversion to Christ, and to take the Church’s teachings as a given; he would cringe at ‘the church of Francis’ — the Church is Christ’s, or it is a lie.
We need the person of Christ, and not poorly-defined ‘gospel values’; we need His Spirit, which the world cannot receive and cannot know. We need to let Christ be Lord: Lord of our boardrooms and bedrooms, our desires, our loves, our needs; truly Lord of the whole person. Then our life-killing and joyless doubts will be vanquished, and our difficulties graced with faith.
Readings: Acts 8:5-8,14-17|1Peter 3:15-18|John 14:15-21