Eighteenth in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
It is part of our belief that no man can lose his faith without mortal sin. The conscious rejection of all or any religious truth once embraced and forming a part of Christian belief, or the deliberate questioning of a single article thereof, is a sin, a sin against God's light and God's grace. It is a deliberate turning away from God. The moral culpability of such an act is great in the extreme, while its consequences cannot be weighed or measured by any human norm or rule.
No faith was ever wrecked in a day; it takes time to come to such a pass; it is by easy stages of infidelity, by a slow process of half-denials, a constant fostering of habits of ignorance, that one undermines, little by little, one's spiritual constitution. Taking advantage of this state of debility, the microbe of unbelief creeps in, eats its way to the soul and finally sucks out the very vitals of faith. Nor is this growth of evil an unconscious one; and there lies the malice and guilt. Ignorant pride, neglect of prayer and religious worship, disorders, etc. - these are evils the culprit knows of and wills. He cannot help feeling the ravages being wrought in his soul; he cannot help knowing that these are deadly perils to his treasure of faith. He complacently allows them to run their course; and he wakes up one fine morning to find his faith gone, lost, dead - and a chasm yawning between him and his God that only a miracle can bridge over.
We mentioned ignorance: this it is that attacks the underpinning of faith, its rational basis, by which it is made intelligent and reasonable, without which there can be no faith.
Ignorance is, of course, a relative term. There are different degrees and different kinds. An ignorant man is not an unlettered or uncultured one, but one who does not know what his religion means, what he believes or is supposed to believe, and has no reason to give for his belief. He may know a great many other things, may be chock full of worldly learning, but if he ignores these matters that pertain to the soul, we shall label him an ignoramus, for the elementary truths of human knowledge are, always have been, and always shall be, the solution of the problems of the why, the whence and the whither of life here below. Great learning frequently goes hand in hand with dense ignorance. The Sunday-school child knows better than the atheist philosopher the answer to these important questions. There is more wisdom in the first page of the Catechism than in all the learned books of skeptics and infidels.
Knowledge, of course, a thorough knowledge of all theological science, will not make faith any more than wheels will make a cart. But a certain knowledge is essential, and its absence is fatal to faith. There are the simple ignorant who have forgotten their Catechism and leave the church before the instruction, for fear they might learn something; who never read anything pertaining to religion, who would be ashamed to be detected with a religious book or paper in their hands. Then there are the learned ignorant, such as our public schools turn out in great numbers each year; who either are above mere religious knowledge-seeking and disdain all that smacks of church and faith; or, knowing little or nothing at all, imagine they possess a world of theological lore and know all that is knowable. These latter are the more to be pitied, their ignorance doubling back upon itself, as it were. When a man does not realize his own ignorance, his case is well nigh hopeless.
If learning cannot give faith, neither can it alone preserve it. Learned men, pillars of the Church, have fallen away. Pride, you will say. Yes, of course, pride is the cause of all evil. But we have all our share of it. If it works less havoc in some than in others, that is because pride is or is not kept within bounds. It is necessarily fatal to faith only when it is not controlled by prayer and the helps of practical religion. God alone can preserve our faith. He will do it only at our solicitation.
If, therefore, some have not succeeded in keeping the demon of pride under restraint, it is because they refused to consider their faith a pure gift of God that cannot be safely guarded without God's grace; or they forgot that God's grace is assured to no man who does not pray. The man who thinks he is all-sufficient unto himself in matters of religion, as in all other matters, is in danger of being brought to a sense of his own nothingness in a manner not calculated to be agreeable. No man who practiced humble prayer ever lost his faith, or ever can; for to him grace is assured.
And since faith is nothing if not practical, since it is a habit, it follows that irreligion, neglect to practice what we believe will destroy that habit. People who neglect their duty often complain that they have no taste for religion, cannot get interested, find no consolation therein. This justifies further neglect. They make a pretense to seek the cause. The cause is lack of faith; the fires of God's grace are burning low in their souls. They will soon go out unless they are furnished with fuel in the shape of good, solid, practical religion. That is their only salvation. Ignorance, supplemented by lack of prayer and practice, goes a long way in the destruction of faith in any soul, for two essentials are deficient.
Disorder, too, is responsible for the loss of much faith. Luther and Henry might have retained their faith in spite of their pride, but they were lewd and avaricious; and there is small indulgence for such within the Church. Not but that we are all human, and sinners are the objects of the Church's greatest solicitude; but within her pale no man, be he king or genius, can sit down and feast his passions and expect her to wink at it and call it by another name than its own. The law of God and of the Church is a thorn in the flesh of the vicious man. The authority of the Church is a sword of Damocles held perpetually over his head - until it is removed. Many a one denies God in a moment of sin in order to take the sting of remorse out of it. One gets tired of the importunities of religion that tell us not to sin, or to confess if we do sin.
When you meet a pervert who, with a glib tongue, protests that his conscience drove him from the Church, that his enslaved intelligence needed deliverance, search him and you will find a skeleton in his closet; and if you do not find it, it is there just the same. A renegade priest some years ago held forth before a gaping audience, at great length, on the reasons of his leaving the Church. A farmer sitting on the last bench listened patiently to his profound argumentation. When the lecturer was in the middle of his twelfth point, the other arose and shouted to him across the hall: "Cut it short, and say you wanted a wife." The heart has reasons which the reason does not understand.
Not always, but frequently, ignorance, neglect and vice come to this. The young, the weak and the proud have to guard themselves against these dangers, as they work slowly, imperceptibly, but surely. Two things increase the peril and tend to precipitate matters; reading and companionship. The ignorant are often anxious to know the other side, when they do not know their own. The consequence is that they will not understand fully the question; and if they do, will not be able to resolve the difficulty. They are handicapped by their ignorance and can only make a mess out of it. The result is that they are caught by sophistries like a fly in a web.
The company of those who believe differently, or not at all, is also pernicious to unenlightened and weak faith. The example in itself is potent for evil. The Catholic is usually not a persona grata as a Catholic but for some quality he possesses. Consequently, he must hide his religion under the bushel for fear of offending. Then a sneer, a gibe, a taunt are unpleasant things, and will be avoided even at the price of what at other times would look like being ashamed of one's faith. If ignorant, he will be silent; if he has not prayed, he will be weak; if vicious, he will be predisposed to fall.
If we would guard the precious deposit of faith secure against any possible emergency, we must enlighten it, we must strengthen it, we must live up to it.