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Understand Your Catholic Faith or Lose It

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The announced title for our lecture is, “Understand your Catholic Faith or Lose It.”

Before we go any further, however, some explanation should be made of why we speak of losing the Catholic faith. Strictly speaking no Catholic loses the faith. To lose something is to be deprived of something you possess without intending the loss. We use the expression “losing the faith” only as a loose expression for something which never really takes place.

What then do we mean when we say that persons lose their faith? We mean that they have abandoned their faith. You do not lose anything deliberately. It is the Church’s infallible teaching that once a person was baptized in the Catholic Church and had even basic instruction in the true faith, he does not lose the Catholic faith. We have to say he abandons it.

What does this mean? It means that Catholics who abandon their faith do so culpably. They are responsible before God for giving up the treasure of their commitment to the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ.

There must be a reason for this sobering judgment. There are two reasons. The first is that there are no rational grounds for giving up one’s belief in the truths revealed by God and taught by the Catholic Church for two thousand years. The second reason is that God will never be wanting with His grace to sustain a professed believer in the Catholic religion. All of this was a prelude to our principal focus in this conference, namely that we must understand our Catholic faith or risk the prospect of losing it.

Teaching of Christ

Recall the parable of the sower as described by Our Lord in the Gospel of St. Matthew. The sower went out to sow his seed. It was all good seed. But it was not all good ground on which the seed fell. There were four kinds of ground, and only the last soil produced any yield.

The first ground on which the seed fell was the pathway. It was hard ground and the seed remained on the surface, just long enough for the birds of the air to come along and eat up all the seed that had been sown.

When the disciples asked Jesus to explain the parable, He told them, “When anyone hears the words of the Kingdom without understanding, the evil one comes and carries off what was sown in his heart” (Mt 13:19).

There we have it! It is both that simple and that tragic. The revealed truth has been sown into our hearts at baptism. But that was only the beginning. We must do everything in our power to understand what we believe. Otherwise the devil will come along and steal the faith from our hearts.

Understanding the Faith

What do we mean by understanding the faith? We mean growing in our grasp of what we believe. I cannot tell you how crucially important it is to know what we are talking about.

The core of God’s revelation is the mysteries which He has shared with the human race. By definition a Christian mystery is something which cannot be rationally conceived before revelation, or fully comprehended even after being revealed.

Such are the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Mass, and the Seven Sacraments. Such too are the mysteries of God’s creating the world out of nothing, His infinite love even to dying on the Cross for our salvation, His teaching on the indissolubility of Christian matrimony, His command that we love one another as a condition for a heavenly destiny, His prohibition of sexual experience outside of marriage, His promise of heavenly beatitude if we serve Him faithfully and His threat of everlasting loss of happiness if we reject His merciful love.

It is one thing to believe these mysteries. It is something else to grasp them. Concretely this can be expressed in several words. We grow in our faith by making our faith:

  • more intelligible

  • more clear

  • more certain

  • more effective

  • more apostolic

  • more sacrificial

Each of these six qualities is part of what we are calling growth in understanding the faith we profess.

More Intelligible. What we believe are mysteries which only God fully understands. Even an eternity in heaven will not give us a complete grasp of these revealed truths. However, it is one thing to say that we cannot comprehend, which means fully understand; it is something else to say that we cannot understand what we believe.

To grow in our understanding of the faith means to make it more meaningful, more deeply grasped, more real in our lives.

Take the mystery of the Real Presence. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Protestants who separated from the Catholic Church had no less than two hundred interpretations of Our Lord’s words at the Last Supper, “This is my body — This is my blood.” There is only one meaning to the Real Presence. It is Jesus Christ. It is the Son of God who became the son of Mary, who died on Calvary, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is now on earth in every tabernacle of every Catholic Church in the world. When we receive the Holy Eucharist, Jesus Christ is in our bodies no less than he was in the womb of His blessed Mother the moment she conceived Him at Nazareth.

In just two dioceses in the United States, in less than two years, one hundred and four Catholic churches were closed. By now a dozen reasons have been given for this tragedy. But at root, the basic reason was the loss of faith in the Real Presence of thousands of once believing Catholics.

More Clear. Growing in our faith also means growing in the clearness of our understanding of the mysteries that we believe. Take such a truth as sin, which we believe incurs guilt before God.

What a difference it makes to know that sin is the source of guilt and know what guilt really is. The Catholic Church has no doubt in this matter. Guilt means the loss of God’s grace. Every sin we commit always deprives us, in greater or less measure of the grace we possessed before we had sinned. On these terms, mortal sin is a loss of sanctifying grace that we need to reach heaven. Venial sin is a loss of more or less of God’s friendship, without losing the title to eternal glory.

Moreover, every sin carries with it a debt of suffering which is incurred. Mortal sin deserves eternal separation from God. Venial sin deserves a greater or less degree of what we call temporal punishment.

Most people simply take for granted that sin is sin. The global massacre of millions of innocent children every year throughout the world; the legal protection of murder by one once civilized nation after another; the silence of so many religious leaders about these crimes - all of this is beyond human comprehension and certainly beyond human explanation. One thing, however, we can say. There must be a massive blindness of mind in the consciences of whole nations about God’s authority in the moral order.

Our Catholic faith tells us that God became man precisely to teach us what is right and what is wrong; what is virtue and what is vice. If there is one area of faith that we must grow in understanding it is how we are to use our wills in obedience to the will of God.

More Certain. To be certain means to be sure that something is true. Thus I am certain that I exist. I am certain that I live in the United States. I am certain that Columbus discovered America. I am certain that if I want people to love me, I must love them.

Is it possible for a person to believe that sacramental, consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power on earth, and yet not be absolutely certain that this is true? Not only is it possible but, in my judgment, this is the basic reason for so many professed Catholics getting divorces and soliciting annulments. They have not been absolutely convinced of Christ’s teaching that two Christians who marry become two in one flesh and have His own guarantee of grace to persevere in marital fidelity until death.

More Effective. Our faith is not only a virtue in the mind. We define faith as the assent of the intellect to everything which God has revealed. But that is not enough. We are to put our faith into practice. We are to make it effective in our moral lives.

As Catholics, we recognize the bishop of Rome as the Vicar of Christ. We believe that he has supreme authority to preserve and explain Christ’s teaching for all times. At the same time, what do we see? We see the authority of the Holy Father widely ignored, even openly rejected in circles that are professedly Catholic.

Pope Paul VI declared that contraception is a grave sin against the sanctity of marriage. Yet in 1968, when he published Humanae Vitae, the bishops of more than one nation met in solemn session and decided to tell the people to ignore the Pope and follow their own conscience.

Pope John Paul II declared, as part of the Church’s infallible doctrine that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood instituted by Christ. Again what happened? In one country after another, theologians and even bishops have urged a reversal of this infallible teaching.

We are saying that our faith must become more effective. This is not rhetoric. It is painful reality. Why? Because it requires humility of mind to believe and humility of will to do what we believe is the will of God.

As a culture becomes more academically sophisticated, Catholic believers must become more spiritually childlike. Either we grow in this child likeness, which Christ told us is a condition for reaching heaven, or we may advertise ourselves as Catholics but we become Catholics only in name.

More Apostolic. Nothing that we receive from God is to be kept just to ourselves. We are to share God’s gifts with those whom He places into our lives.

Among the gifts of God, none is more fundamental than the virtue of faith. According to St. Paul, “Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that are not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

Is there anything more precious that we can share with others than this gift of faith? It is the foundation of everything the human heart can hope for. It is the proof that everything in this world is only a means to reach that eternal home where Christ and His Mother are waiting for us.

Without a second thought, when we see a hungry person we want to provide some food. The month I spent sometime ago in Calcutta, profoundly affected my whole life; thousands of people going hungry and so many dying for lack of bodily care.

But the deepest hunger is not for bodily food. It is the desperate need of the human mind for God’s truth. It is almost twenty centuries since Christ proclaimed the Gospel to the world. Yet to this day only a fraction of the human race has even heard that God became man and died on the Cross so we might enjoy Him in heavenly eternity.

Our Lord told us that He will proclaim us before His heavenly Father if we proclaim Him before men here on earth. This is both a promise and a warning. It is not enough for us to believe. We must labor, dare I say exhaust ourselves, to share the riches of God’s truth with others. No one gets to heaven alone. Either we help others reach their heavenly destiny by our apostolic zeal, or we risk our own celestial destiny.

More Sacrificial. I have saved this quality of growing in our faith for last because, in a sense, it includes all the rest.

Sacrifice is the surrender of something precious out of love for God. Unless it is precious to me, I cannot really make a sacrifice. No two people are completely the same. We differ immensely. In fact we define a person as an individual intelligent being. We are all individuals because we are all different from one another in so many ways.

But there are some precious things that all of us have in common. Among these, none is more precious than our own individual self-will. In a thousand ways that we have never calculated, this desire to do my own will, as I want to do it, when I want to do it, for as long as I want - is at the heart of our personality.

We are talking about growth in the faith. It is not too much to say that we mature as followers of Christ in the measure that we have learned to surrender this most precious possession of our being.

Our Lord could not have been more plain when He told us that we are His disciples if we take up our daily cross and follow Him. What is this cross? It is the will of God crossing our wills. We have urges and desires that are contrary to the will of God. We have dislikes, even dreads, that God wants us to accept.

Our faith, therefore, is only as sacrificial as we are ready to choose what God wants, whether we like it or not.

Why Catholics Leave the Church?

We began our conference by making the blunt statement, “Understand your Catholic faith or lose it.” There is a painfully obvious reason for saying this. Never in the history of our nation has there been such a loss of Catholics leaving the Church as in our generation. A single large diocese in the Midwest reports a drop of ninety percent in attendance at Sunday Mass. Under God, someone had better diagnose this religious epidemic.

In my judgment the root cause is that so many once believing Catholics have given up their fidelity to the one true Church because they have not understood the precious treasure of their faith.

We could here begin not just another conference, but a two year series of lectures on the dissemination of error among professed Catholics. All that we have said so far stands. Countless once believing Catholics have abandoned their faith because they did not understand what they presumably believed.

What we dare not ignore is the widespread dissemination of untruth, masked in Catholic vocabulary, which has penetrated our culture.

There is a second parable in the same chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel about the sowing of seed. It is worth quoting in full:

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were asleep, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. And when the blade sprang up and brought forth fruit, then the weeds appeared as well. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, “Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?” He said to them, “An enemy has done this.” And the servants said to him, “Will you have us go and gather them up?” “No,” he said, “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will say to the reapers: Gather up the weeds first and bind them in bundles to burn; but gather the wheat into my barn” (Mt 13:24-30).

No doubt the basic reason for the massive drainage in American Catholicism is that so many academically educated Catholics had not grown up in the understanding of their faith.

But there is a parallel cause for this mass exodus of Catholics in our nation. It is the sowing of the weeds of untruth and the cockle of pseudo-Catholicism in our society.

This sowing of error is one of the principal themes of Pope John Paul’s encyclical Splendor of Truth. He condemns those who are claiming that the Church can only set down certain moral intentions or generalities. They deny that divine revelation and the Church’s teaching include specific moral imperatives. Such interpretation is incompatible with Catholic moral doctrine. The Pope asks, “what are some professedly Catholic moralists saying about the Church’s teaching on sexual and marital ethics.” They are claiming that each person is to decide for himself what is right or wrong regarding: contraception, sterilization, homosexuality, masturbation, pre-marital sexual relations, artificial insemination. They are defending abortion. The result of this moral iconoclasm is to reject even the constant moral teaching of the Catholic Church since apostolic times.

Is it any wonder that so many Catholics have given up their faith? The wonder is that there are still Catholics who remain faithful to the teachings of Christ and the Church He founded.

Our Holy Father speaks of countless consciences being blinded by the deluge of error that is flooding the modern world.

The Vicar of Christ could not be more specific. He includes Catholic universities and seminaries among these sowers of error, with disastrous consequences in the lives of those who are supposed to be Catholics.

What is the solution? It is nothing less than an organized effort to re-educate people in understanding their faith. This faith, we know, is no abstraction. It is the truth revealed by God who became man and who identified himself as the Truth.

Christ tells us, “If you abide in my word, you shall be my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8: 31-32).

As we grow in the understanding of our faith, we grow in our understanding of Jesus Christ. As we grow in understanding Him, we grow in our freedom to love Him with all our hearts and enjoy Him, already here on earth, with something of the happiness that awaits us in eternity.

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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