Indeed, what a question. It asks the seminal question to all of us, and for me synthesized a number of things I read, making me wonder, just what is faith?
What does it mean to be faithful?
NCR in an article entitled, The Had-it Catholics” suggests that once you account for immigrants, the American Roman Catholic Church is bleeding followers at the same rate that all the mainline Protestant denominations are. And the reasons have surprisingly little to do with child abuse and contraception. They have more to do with marriage and divorce rules, homosexuality teachings, and ordination of women. We can discuss any of those issues, but what caught my eye was a fairly common comment that is made against “dissenters.”
It basically goes like this: If we have no settled doctrine to rely on, then we have nothing but what is the fashion of the day. I can as easily reject your “preferential option for the poor” as you reject church teaching on homosexuality. Where does it stop? To be Catholic is the accept this repository of faith as your foundation. No one is keeping you here.
This presupposes I would argue, that there is such a repository of faith that is sacrosanct as it were. Untouched in its basics since the resurrection at least, only added to as we come into a “fuller” understanding of truth. And many believe this is correct–they argue that there is perfect truth, unalterable, and knowable as such by everyone.
I daresay that every generation has thought it had the truth. Yet, civilization progresses over the eons and what was normative in 1350 C.E. is not necessarily so today in terms of moral behavior.
It denies as well, it seems to me, that the Holy Spirit works ever in the human race to help it, individually and collectively to understand who and what they are and what their life is to be. To suggest that even when majorities of faithful Catholics disagree with the Magisterium they are wrong by definition, is to deny that the Holy Spirit is active in the hearts and minds of each of us.
It is to deny, moreover, the value of the gift of intellect, or reason also gifted to us. Are we not to learn from the our pasts and to extrapolate anew, more inclusive morals for our future? Are we not to draw into sanctity all life as a higher level of love? All because such things were not contemplated in the past?
A few days ago, Enlightened Catholicism posted a report of a letter sent out by Archbishop Vigneron, to the Archdiocese of Detroit. It warned that all clergy and laity were prohibited from attending a meeting of The American Catholic Council scheduled to be held next year in Detroit. The Archbishop claims the groups beliefs are contrary to Catholic “Faith” and are contrary to the “spirit of Vatican II.” He said we should “shun efforts which threaten unity.”
Again we get the presumed “never-changing faith” claim. Does not the Archbishop know that this is not true? Moreover has he learned no lessons from the past?
Father Frederick J. Cwiekowski, in his book, The Beginnings of the Church, explained how modernism was condemned by the Inquisition, turned Holy Office in 1908. Modernism, meaning the use of modern methods of biblical exegesis such as form, text, redaction, and other forms of criticism. The determinations made by such methods were condemned.
Some of the claims of this new methodology were:
- The Gospels were not historical but teaching testimonials, interpretations by the evangelist of what Jesus said and taught.
- None of the evangelists were eye-witnesses, (Matthew and John) had been so taught)
- It questioned Christ’s anticipation of the emergent church.
- It questioned whether the apostles in fact knew of Christ’s deity before the resurrection.
The Pontifical Biblical Commission in the years 1905-1915 declared all these things in error and heretical. Such conclusions were bolstered by the encyclical On the Doctrines of the Modernists by Pius X, and again in Spiritus Paraclitus by Benedict XV in 1920.
Slowly things turned around after that, however, More openness was allowed and it was declared that such prohibitions only applied to faith and morals issues, in 1955. At the beginning of Vatican II, a working document, “On the Sources of Revelation” was issued to the bishops. Fully 60% rejected it, and although not the 2/3 required, John XXIII, sent it back for further work. When it was issued with Pius VI’s approval, the PBC, Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Bible, contained the following:
- The evangelists were witnesses not historians
- There is evidence they did not understand that Jesus was divine until after his resurrection. The apostles passed down what Jesus truly said and did, but it was later interpreted to the needs of the listeners of the Gospels.
- None of the evangelists were apostles and they adapted and synthesized the information at hand to the situation of the emergent church.
These became incorporated into the final document, the 1965, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, (art. 19).
There is no truth to the claim that once dogma always dogma.
So what is faith?
It seems to me, that faith, and being faithful is to be a constant student of what is taught by the Church and constantly to study what is being learned about the bible and its theological underpinnings. It is constant searching for truth, always following heart and mind, with careful and deep reflection.
It seems to me that we are all called to this work. It is simply not faithful to simply rely on an institution, no matter how revered as the sole determiner of all things moral and right. We, as Catholics, as Christians are obligated to seek truth ourselves.
Indeed, I do think there will be faith on Earth, Lord, as long as good people of strong believe ever seek to apply the issues of the day to the tenor of your teaching.