Basilica of the Sacred Heart
University of Notre Dame
I’m blogging from the campus of Notre Dame, where I am taking a course in Christian Doctrine from Dr. John Cavadini. Each post in this series will examine an area of disagreement (or perceived disagreement) between Catholics and Protestants. My hope is to grant you access to particular points of Catholic theology that you may have found confusing. Because while a particular matter may seem odd to us as Evangelicals, chances are good that it actually makes sense when taken as a part of a bigger picture. In my first two posts I examined an unexpected (to me) area of disagreement: the role of Natural Theology. Today I want to discuss an area of perceived difference: faith. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
I’ve lived on the East Coast, West Coast, Rockies, and now the Midwest. I’ve lived in a predominately Catholic country (the Philippines) and traveled to others (Panama and Venezuela). My impression in each place (though I’m no expert) has been that Evangelicals have a dim view of Catholic theology. Many might even say that Catholics believe in salvation by works, while we believe in salvation by faith. Another version goes something like this: Catholics have (dead) religion, while we have a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Whatever the reason for this misperception, I cannot say, but it does not square with official Catholic teaching. I suspect it has something to do with age-old Reformation battles. Maybe, too, there is a sense in which – at a popular level – it is true, at least for some. But when I look around me in class I see Catholics with a vibrant faith in God and a desire to lead others to saving faith in Christ. And when I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) I see so many things I can joyfully affirm.
Listen to this beautiful selection:
“By his revelation, ‘the invisible God, from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends, and moves among them, in order to invite and receive them into his own company.’ The adequate response to this invitation is faith.” (§142)
Did you catch that? Catholics believe that God invites us into intimate relationship with him, and that our response must be one of faith. But even faith cannot be considered a good work, because “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him” (§153). Luther, I’m told, didn’t want to call faith a virtue. But in the way that Thomas Aquinas understood it, faith is wholly dependent on God’s grace. Later the CCC says, “Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit” (§154, §179).
What, then, is the nature of saving faith? Is it simply an intellectual decision about who God is?
Dr. Cavadini answers this with an emphatic “No!” For him, faith is not just belief in the sense of an intellectual assent. It is not just knowing something. It involves submission (§143), putting our trust in Jesus (§151), obeying him, and giving ourselves fully to a relationship with him. He says, “believing is a kind of seeing that allows you to see farther than you really can” (cf. §164). You might think of faith the way a pilot responds to his instruments in a fog. He cannot see the landing strip with his own eyes, but he trusts the accuracy of the instruments that tell him what his angle and speed and altitude should be. His faith in the instruments is not a dead assent to their truthfulness. Faith requires him to take action on the basis of what the instruments say, to entrust his very life to them.
Cavadini says, “There is no way around faith if you really want to see God.” Faith is absolutely necessary to be a Christian (§161). We can never prove the existence of God, because if we could do so, then he would cease to be God. If our prayers evoked a reliable and audible response, then he would no longer be God because we could evoke him at will. His divine qualities are precisely what make him outside the grasp of our senses, of our reason (§157). He is free. He does not depend on us. We must admit that he is bigger than what we can comprehend, and that we depend on him for life itself. That’s faith. And whether you are Catholic or Protestant, faith is the key to entering into a living relationship with the God who made you, loves you, and gave his own life for you so that you could really live.
Catholics are serious about letting people know about the grace available to us in Jesus Christ. So serious, in fact, that the Pope has declared the coming year to be a “Year of Faith.” You can read more about that here