The Meaning of Faith

Author: Most Rev. William Philbin


Most Rev. William Philbin, Bishop of Down and Connor

Extracts from a Pastoral Letter of Most Rev. William Philbin Bishop of Down and Connor (Ireland) to mark the closing of the Year of Faith.

We have been asked by the Pope to concentrate our thoughts during this year on faith, to consider its meaning for us and the difference it makes in our lives. We are to make this a Year of Faith, to offer frequently acts of faith and to recite the Creed on formal occasions. The reason for this call at this time is evident. An outlook on life that is completely at variance with that of faith is being widely accepted among people still nominally Christian. Even among Catholics standpoints of the same kind are sometimes evident. Fashions of thought are contagious and we have to guard against being unconsciously influenced by them.

"Secularism" is practical atheism

The current fashion of thought is described as "secularist", to signify that it concentrates on this world and on worldly concerns. It ignores the spiritual and the supernatural, relations with God and life after death. In extreme forms, or perhaps one should say in its more candid expositions, it proposes that God should be excluded from our lives and thoughts, that we should live by our own resources. Where this sort of thinking merges with complete atheism is not always clear but it is clear that a practical atheism, that is acting as if there were no God, is advocated.

This kind of down-grading or rejection of religion is being presented with much skill as a step forward from a depressed or underdeveloped condition into the status of being adult and free. The impression is created that our faith is really a disagreeable encumbrance, that the courageous and progressive thing to do is to criticise its content and implications and to set about rejecting its impositions piece by piece as out-of-date. There is an unquestioned assumption that anything that is traditional is likely to be wrong. Being up-to-date is taken to mean making ourselves as undistinguishable as possible from the unbelieving portion of mankind and the code of conduct it lives by. We are urged, in fact, to do what St. Paul expressly forbids, to become "conformed with this world" (Rom. 12, 2).

Faith an enriching force

The first matter to be clear about is our complete repudiation of the concept of faith as a negative influence, an encroachment on human rights, a deprivation. On the contrary, faith is a positive and enriching force, making an infinitely greater contribution to our well-being than anything else can do. We do not accept the assumption underlying much current propaganda that if everyone thinks for himself and follows his instincts all will be well with the individual and with the world...

Men nowadays are often so self-confident and independent that they regard it as degrading to acknowledge a continued need of God. Here is where the dividing line occurs between faith and unfaith. We believe that we can truly perfect ourselves and make the most of our lives only by accepting the help that God makes available to us. We do not understand this as a humiliating demand arbitrarily imposed on us. It is rather the natural relationship between a Creator and the creatures whom He is continually keeping in existence. Not to acknowledge our dependence, not to appreciate and look eagerly for His best gifts would be shutting our eyes to truth and realism. It would also be acting irrationally and foolishly: it would be like electing to live in want and distress when plentiful resources were easily available to improve our condition and standards of living. Far from being repressive, it is our faith that gives us liberty, liberty in the Christian sense of freedom from enslavement to sin and ability to live better lives...

It is opportune at this time to think not only of ourselves but of our responsibility to ensure that our young people in the struggle for both faith and morals that awaits them shall be equipped with the Catholic education which makes so essential a contribution to their formation. This is a matter of strict obligation on all parents and guardians. It will be difficult enough for the next generation to keep the faith even with all the help we can give them: let no one be responsible for making their ordeal more difficult...

Faith expressed in deeds

It is not only in the strictly supernatural field that we benefit from our faith. Christianity, more than any other influence, has taught the world the dignity of the human person, the value of human life, the special respect that is due to woman, the basic equality of all human beings. Realization of God's love of man, as appearing centrally in the Incarnation and Redemption, has been the chief inspiration of what is best in our Western civilization. St. Paul urged his converts to foster not merely supernatural influences but "whatever is true and honourable and just and ... lovable and of good repute" (Phil. 4, 8). Doing good to others, especially those in any kind of need, was a basic requirement of Our Divine Lord. It was to be the characteristic of His followers...

Christianity with its commitment to promoting human well-being of every kind, gives scope for unlimited enterprise, for the exercise of intelligence, imagination, leadership and energy, bringing out the best in human beings and enabling them to attain their fullest capabilities. Because it can offer not merely inspiration and ideals but also the aid of the divine energy, of the "life" and the sap which Our Lord spoke of, it can raise human qualities of every kind to their highest perfection and efficiency. Grace cures our infirmities, strengthens our weakness—if only we allow it to do so. To think of faith as a kind of penal imposition and to regard ourselves as the deprived sector of humanity by comparison with those who choose to live by their own devices is to be entirely blind to reality and truth.

The blindness of mankind

What our faith can do for us is limitless; or rather it is limited only by our failure to realise its value and make the most of its potential. God does not thrust His grace upon those who do not ask for it and are unwilling to use it. If faith is mere belief, if we do not plan and act in accordance with it, it will be fruitless and must eventually wither. Our Lord frequently spoke of the blindness of those around Him. The greatest blindness of mankind is their failure to appreciate the supernatural gifts and power that we are offered, the extent to which life could be changed for the better if we were to accept and use them, living by faith and guiding our thinking by faith...

The secret area of our mind in which we maintain our relationship with God, talking to Him in love and devotion, looking for and receiving His guidance, guarding against anything that would offend Him, that inmost citadel where true religion is found should be infinitely of more interest and concern to us than anything else. We may be certain that, in the long term, we shall never look back to regret having paid too much attention to our religious life. On the contrary our regret will be that we allowed other affairs to encroach on it. Speculations are sometimes offered about what Our Lord would have to say to the modern world if he were to appear again on earth. No doubt He would have much to say. But if the Gospels teach us anything they make it clear that the over-all drift of His message to our age would be: put religion first, not last, in your lives. He would not be on the side of the secularists...

Free-thinking leads to chaos

The blessings that faith brings us are incalculable. Like every good thing, however, we cannot have faith for nothing. We must frankly face the fact that it is not merely a comforting and gladdening experience. It entails an element of sacrifice, an element of surrender. There are "hard words" in the Gospel, as His hearers reminded Our Lord. He said we must take upon our shoulders in humility His yoke and His burden. In essence, the demand that faith in Christ makes on us is that we are guided not by our own ideas but by His teaching in matters of religious belief and morals.

He made this abundantly clear. He was constantly requiring absolute and unquestioning faith in His person and in all that He taught. His followers were required even to believe that He would give them His flesh to eat—without being told that this would be under the appearance of bread and wine—and they were let leave Him if they would not accept this promise. This was surely as difficult a test as they could be put to in taking His word for all that He taught. His hearers said He was different from all other teachers in that He taught with authority. A similar kind of authoritative voice He handed on to His Church. He told His Apostles that they were to "teach them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28, 20) and said "he that hears you hears me and be that rejects you rejects me and he that rejects me rejects him who sent me" (Luke 10, 16). St. Paul time and again reminds his colleagues of their duty to insist on acceptance of his and their preaching as a condition of Church membership.

When Our Lord was confronted with doctrinal and moral questions He did not reply: "You must decide such matters for yourselves, as mature adults." This, we are told, should be the tone of the Church's voice today—a complete reversal of her role all through history and a complete repudiation of the Divine Command to the Apostles. This independent attitude is taken not only in regard to the Church but also in relation to the word of God in the Scriptures, the guidance and the reliability of the Scriptures being almost as widely repudiated as the authority of the Church. Our Lord's saying that His followers must become as little children and the many passages of the Gospel that speak in terms of Shepherd and sheep belong to an entirely different world from that of the modernists. To-day in many quarters the cry is for free-thinking by everyone on every subject. Even common sense ought to indicate that this is the way to chaos, that it would be the end of the Church as it has existed up to now. But the basic objection is that a Church accepting this attitude would not be the Church that Christ founded.

Meaning of freedom of conscience

Questioning of dogmas of faith, criticisms of Church authority—even of the Pope in his condemnations and strictures—open opposition to Church laws—a much more grievous matter than failure in conduct through human weakness—these are becoming more frequent and they are not unknown even in Ireland. No Catholic can make his own set of beliefs, or decide on his own system of right and wrong, or pick and choose which laws of God and the Church he will obey and which he will ignore. Those who insist on doing so may like to retain the name of Catholics, but they are not acting as Catholics, they are not obeying the Gospel of Christ. Their attitude is not that of faith.

In defence of the rejection of authority the principle that one must follow one's conscience is often invoked. It is of course true that the first obligation is to the truth as one sees it. But for the Christian this does not mean that we can have an open mind about all matters of doctrine and morals until we examine the merits of each issue for ourselves. As Christians we have already exercised our conscience, that is our moral judgment, on the larger and more fundamental question of whether we accept Christ and His Church as holding authority from God to teach. Once we have made this acceptance we are obliged, and obliged by our conscience, to follow the authoritative guidance that comes from these sources. If we insist on retaining the right to question everything, we have not truly accepted Christ. We have, on the contrary, refused to give Him the faith He demanded.

Faith entails sacrifice

If it should be said that this asking a lot, that it entails sacrifice, the answer is that this is true, and no one has ever suggested otherwise. Quite certainly, going against many natural inclinations is an essential element of the Gospel. And we must restrict an instinct for freedom of thought as well as for freedom of conduct. That our faith brings us comfort and joy is only one part of the story: it also involves the acceptance of discipline and hardship. "If anyone wishes to come after me", He said, "let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9, 23). In the same breath He added that His yoke is sweet and His burden light. There is indeed scope for initiative and choice among those who enjoy "the freedom with which Christ has set us free" (Gal. 5, 31), but it must be exercised within the framework prescribed by Our Lord. It cannot be allowed to disrupt the unity of the Church.

This then is the difficult side of faith, the going against self-will and pride, the renunciation of free-thought in some areas, which revealed religion entails. It is an aspect that needs to be stressed in these days not, thank God, because of any significant evidence of failure in our part of the world in this respect. What has been said is by way of warning against those current "foolish questionings" which St. Paul reproved and which may have dangerous sequels. Our Lord spoke of false prophets who might deceive even the elect (Matt. 24, 24). A great deal of what is being published about religion in these days—and sometimes by people who ought to know better—is misleading and dangerous. We need to take to heart the warnings of Scripture against false prophets and novel doctrines...


Bishop of Down and Connor

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 June 1968, page 3

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