In the modern world, what does it mean to lose one’s faith?
In response to my previous On the Culture essay (“Marginalization Gamesmanship” and Catholic Love), I received a very thoughtful message wondering whether I had been unfair to the sisters in dissident religious institutes. This question was raised on three grounds: (1) It seems to be true that orthodox Catholics are less concerned about the poor than are those who dissent from Church teachings on life and sexuality; (2) It seems unfair to suggest that sisters in dissident communities have lost their faith (I wrote, “this [marginalization gamesmanship] perpetuates a myth that is very useful to those who have lost the faith”); and (3) It seems wrong to suppose that these sisters do not have good Christian motives for their work with the poor.
I readily grant the third point. I did not mean to imply that those who engage in “marginalization gamesmanship” were not also often motivated by a genuine concern for the poor; my point was only that it is disingenuous to frame conflict with the Holy See in terms of opposition to such genuine concern. To be sure, I was not generous with the sisters in that particular essay, and it might have been wiser to give what praise I could in the course of my critique. But my critique is not at all dependent on the presumption that the sisters have no human feelings or no genuine concern for those in need.
The first and second points, however, prompt a more complex reflection, which I will offer here.
The Charity of the Orthodox
In my experience, it is not at all the case that Catholics who self-describe as “orthodox” are less concerned about those in need than those who self-describe as “progressive”. While progressive parishes will often be very one-sided in their group ministries, with a more or less exclusive emphasis on helping those who are materially needy, my own experience suggests that group ministries in “orthodox” parishes are far stronger across the board, with robust programs for the poor joined by a strong pro-life focus and keen attention to continuing spiritual formation.
In addition to this anecdotal evidence, polls and sociological studies have established that those who self-describe as “conservative” give 40% more from their personal income to charitable work than those who self-describe as “liberal” (see Arthur Brooks’ 2006 book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism). This does not mean that deeply-committed Catholics are doing enough, or that Catholics as a group should not do more. I have argued in several previous essays that a deeply sacrificial Catholic engagement with those in need is not only good in itself but essential to the formation of an authentically Catholic culture (see, for example, Public Life and Godly Mission: What Are the First Things Today?).
But there is at least a strong argument that the alleged lack of concern for the poor on the part of orthodox Catholics is largely a misperception. I believe this misperception arises primarily from two related problems.
First, liberals (including dissident religious) tend to politicize everything; what they want above all is government programs. But conservatives (including most orthodox Catholics) argue that government programs seldom work—that they are inefficient, wasteful, and bureaucracy-prone; that they tend to regulate non-governmental initiatives out of existence while also creating the illusion that a serious problem has been solved; that they tend to create a dependent class (a class which also becomes a deeply-biased voting block); and that they fail to address the needs of the whole person, which is absolutely vital to real change.
Moreover, modern secular governments very definitely tend to weaken the very thing on which economic well-being most depends—namely, family ties. That family strength is the most important predictor of economic well-being is well-established in sociological studies. Consequently, in most high profile debates (which are typically political debates), “conservatives” (including a large proportion of orthodox Catholics) appear to be less concerned for the poor simply because they do not trust government programs to make things better.
Second, the current situation in America, just as if it were being orchestrated deliberately to put religiously serious people in a bad light, can be justly described along the following lines: Promote promiscuity, kill babies, break down the family, destroy marriage. Force seriously religious people to devote their energies to fighting against these attacks. Then, when they make opposition to these things their priority, accuse them of not caring about the poor.
This is not the whole story, of course, but surely it raises significant doubt about the conventional wisdom on this question of the charitable impulses of the orthodox.
The Meaning of Faith
Now, to address what I regard as the more important issue, I really do understand how judgmental it sounds to suggest that members of dissident religious institutes—along with many other Catholics who self-describe as “liberal” or “progressive”—have lost the faith. But I think we have to be very careful here to avoid taking as our standard an essentially false view of what it means to possess faith in the first place. A false standard is all too common in our society, which is not only marred by division among Christians but also has come to view faith as a sort of pious sentiment, a vague emotional attachment to the idea of God with a few values loosely drawn from Christianity, and without any sort of deep commitment to Revelation.
For St. Paul (and so for all Christians) to have faith means to believe, trust and obey God. In other words, possession of the gift of faith means that we believe what God reveals as true, we trust in His promises, and we obey his commands. The very existence of faith presupposes that God has revealed specific truths, made particular promises, and enjoined certain commands. Among the truths revealed is that the content of the faith is entrusted to the Church, with Peter and his successors providing infallible guidance which makes it impossible for people to disagree for very long about what the authentic content of the faith really is. Acceptance of this immeasurable gift is what constitutes having the Catholic faith—that is, the Christian faith whole and entire.
In this connection, I would like to remind everyone again of Blessed John Henry Newman’s observation that there cannot be such a difference in dispensation between ourselves and the first generation of Christians as that they should have had a living infallible guide to the faith while we have not. But in contrast to Newman’s perception, the modern notion of faith is a vague and sentimental attachment to whatever spiritual notions happen to suit one’s desires. On this reading, there is no more accounting for faith than there is for taste. For a genuine Catholic, then, the common contemporary idea of faith is utterly meaningless.
Losing the Faith
The acid test of the Catholic faith or, if you prefer, of the Christian faith, is that it is revealed by Another, that it is not something we make up for ourselves. We believe, trust and obey what has been specifically revealed based on the authority of God revealing. We do not pick and choose. We do not shape the “faith” into whatever we happen to find congenial, or whatever suits our cultural prejudices.
What, then, does it really mean to lose the faith? It does not mean being confused or even ignorant on certain points. It does not mean struggling with doubts. It does not mean having difficulty living according to the faith’s moral content. But losing the faith does mean abandoning the essential understanding of the content of the faith as something specifically revealed by God and transmitted through the authority of His Church. It means refusing to submit the content of our faith to a God-given standard beyond ourselves. It means rationalizing the faith to mean whatever we want it to mean. To fall into these traps is, quite simply, to lose the faith.
We do have to remember, of course, that what we might call “spiritual trajectory” is extremely important here. People can go through a process of emerging from an inferior understanding of the faith into a deeper and more complete life of faith. But they can also go through a process of devolution, of gradually abandoning one aspect of the faith after another as they fall prey to personal and cultural temptations.
The bottom line is that we must have deep reservations about any claim to Catholic “faith” which reduces the content of this alleged faith to whatever we want it to be, or whatever the larger culture wants it to be. And it is in precisely this truest of all senses that many or most of these sisters in dissident religious communities have lost the faith. At the very least they do not retain it in sufficient numbers to regain control of their own orders. To insist on this fundamental reality of faith does no injustice to those who have lost it. But losing sight of the reality of faith does a grave injustice to those who have not lost it, including some women in these wayward institutes who, powerless except for prayer, have had to spend a harsh season in the Garden of Gethsemane, watching for such a long and weary hour with their afflicted Lord.
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Posted by: bnewman -
Sep. 04, 2013 1:29 PM ET USA
This essay makes points usually overlooked by people who think politically: and simplistically. “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor.......and have not charity it pofiteth me nothing” 1Cor. 13,3, KJV. St. Paul seems to be telling us to be careful: giving to the poor does not necessarily translate directly as a loving act. Sometimes for example it may be a political act: ultimately it may be all about my power.
Posted by: rubbergloves012524 -
Sep. 03, 2013 7:55 PM ET USA
Thanks for that last paragraph, Dr. Mirus. Faithful sisters, keeping their vows, while constrained by dissident communities receive little attention. Yet the offerings of their sufferings is a great act providing many graces to the Church and its members.