William F. Buckley's Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith (Doubleday) (see review, page 8) is a testament of one man's faith and an invitation to go beyond propositions, beyond argument, beyond debate, to embrace faith. Faith is the first of the theological virtues, without which the others—hope and love—are impossible. Faith is the beginning of the spiritual life and the end: it is by our faith that we are saved. Even our good works are a witness to our faith, as St. James declares (2, 18). And yet many Catholics, if asked to explain why they believe what they believe, would be stumped.
Buckley's book is not a work of theology, but it points in the right direction. It is not because things seem reasonable to us that we believe, but because we trust in God and in his Church, that what they teach is true and reasonable even if we cannot understand how. Any other approach is nothing but an “invitation to contumacy” writes Buckley. Contumacy, dissent, pride, disobedience, or Protestantism— call it what you will, but it is not the virtue of faith as understood in the Catholic tradition.
Two Ways to Truth
The object of faith is the truth. There are two ways by which man can assent to the truth of a proposition. Either he can proceed by way of logic or he can accept truth on the authority of another who vouches for its truthfulness.
The discovery of truth on the basis of argument is superior to its acceptance on the basis of authority, as it allows man to see the truth for himself and assent to it on his own initiative, so to speak. When accepting truth by authority, man is not able to see the truth for himself, and can only assent to that truth because he accepts the authority of its source.
Man on his own initiative, therefore, will be unable to assent to the body of truths proclaimed by the Church as essential to the faith. Indeed, assent to such truths is called faith precisely because they are, for the most part, impossible to demonstrate by the use of reason alone. For example, no amount of reasoning can produce assent to the truth that “God is three and God is one” or that “manhood was taken by the Son.” Belief in the Trinity can only come because man wills to believe on the authority of God and his Church. St. Thomas Aquinas explains the process: “The act of believing [faith] is an act of the intellect assenting to the Divine truth at the command of the will moved by the grace of God…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 155).
If man's intellect alone is not capable of assenting to the truths of faith, then it must assent to them by command of the will. Why does the will so command? The will commands the intellect to assent because it is moved
by God to trust in him, and therefore to accept what he reveals as true. The act of faith then is supernatural, as it originates in God who acts upon the will (cf. CCC, 153). God touches the will of man, and if he responds to that grace— which the will is always free to reject— then his will commands assent because the truth has as its guarantor the One who is Truth itself.
Truth Beyond Reason
It is the design of Providence that man should come to knowledge of God not through his reason alone, which in any case is too limited for the task, but through contact with God himself. Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum, said St. Ambrose. “Not by the rules of logic did it please God to save his people,” taught the holy bishop, reminding Christians that faith is found by way of the baptismal font and not through lofty studies.
Once man decides to accept the gift of faith and accept all that God reveals because God reveals it, he needs to know what to assent to. The justification for faith is the authority of God, referred to technically as the formal object of faith. But as for the particulars of what exactly is to be assented to— the material object of faith—there needs to be some method by which it is determined that this has been revealed by God to be true, while that has not. God himself teaches which is which, expressing himself through his Church (CCC, 85-86; 171). The authority of God expressed in this way is referred to as the teaching authority of the Church, or the Magisterium (from the Latin magister, teacher).
If a believer rejects the Magisterium's role of teaching definitively about what is of the faith, his only alternative is to create another standard of his own choosing. At the very least, to choose such a standard cannot be justified on the grounds of the authority of God, as it has been chosen by man himself. Moreover, any alternate standard is arbitrary—the enemy of reason and, therefore, the enemy of the act of intellect called faith—and in practice doomed to uncertainty.
Why a Magisterium?
Assenting to all that God reveals without an authority to determine what he has revealed is impossible. Faith requires a Magisterium, however constructed. Failing the Magisterium of the Church, the believer is left only with the magisterium of himself for determining what is revealed truth and what is not. But it is impossible for someone to be his own teacher. To base faith in God's revelation on the abilities of man is a project doomed to failure. Yet it does have the attraction of boosting the self-esteem by substituting oneself for God as the formal object of faith: “I believe X because I determine that X is to be believed.”
The Christian is not free to maintain a belief in Christ while simultaneously rejecting the Church that Christ founded by word and deed. Cardinal Newman, who before converting to Catholicism immersed himself in the controversies about the Church's authority to teach in the name of Christ, explained the relation in his beautiful hymn of faith:
And I hold in veneration, For the love of Him alone, Holy Church as His creation, And her teachings as His own. —J.H. Newman (Firmly I believe and truly)
Once it is accepted that man must assent to the truths of faith on the authority of God and of his Church (for the love of him alone, not for any human reason) then there can be no question of partial assent. To follow St. Thomas's structure: If God moves man to trust him by grace; if man cooperates with that grace and accepts in principle all that is revealed by God; if the teacher of that revelation is known to be God himself in his Church; and if all alternate teachers cannot be from God; then on what grounds can a believer reject any truth taught by the Church as having been revealed by God? There are no such grounds.
Faith: An Organic Whole
Christ often speaks of faith using the metaphor of the seed. The metaphor is apt here, for it speaks to the necessity of accepting all of the truths of faith. A gardener can decide to plant a seed, or not to plant a seed, but he cannot decide to plant only parts of the seed. Over time the seed grows, Deo volente, into a flower so beautiful that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed so splendidly. Yet when the seed is planted the flower cannot be seen—that must be taken on faith. And when that flower is growing, the gardener cannot decide that he wants the stem, but not the roots, or the leaves without the buds, or the rose without the thorns. If he tries to preserve one while suppressing the other, he will kill it all. His only choice is to nurture the flower whole and complete, or to uproot it altogether. So too it is with faith. Either it flowers whole or withers under division. Faith is an organic whole. To divide it in order to reject some of its parts is to kill it.
In the Catholic Church we are presented with the great flower of truth, which we are invited to embrace in faith. We are always free to accept it or reject it. But there can be no middle ground, for faith is about the God who is truth, and with God, there is only for or against.
Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.