Fr. William Most
Psychology, Faith and Spiritual Growth
The ancient Greek oracle at Delphi had two great mottoes carved on it. One
was: Gnothi sauton, meaning: "Get to know yourself". Clearly, to know self
is needed before one can even try to improve - how can we correct what we do
not even know is there?
Submarine motives: Submarines do their best work when they cannot be seen,
when they are beneath the surface. Now we humans have quite a few submarine
motives. If a person has never caught himself involved in one, it is fairly
certain he really has them.
Here are two cases: Suppose I lived in a large institutional dormitory. It
was announced that on Thursday evening a collector would knock on each door,
to get contributions for a certain charity. So I think it over, and decide
to give him $50, surely much more than most people will give. What is my
motive? It could be 100% charity. I would like to think that. But equally
well it could be a mixture. On the surface would be a certain percent of
true charity. But beneath the surface, subconsciously, I could be looking
forward to a big congratulation for so outstanding a donation. Or, instead,
I might be just patting myself on the back. Any proportions could happen,
e.g. , 60% vanity, 40% charity.
Now as long as the vanity/pride is completely beneath the surface, so I am
not at all aware of it, I contract no guilt. But I do take a spiritual loss.
Clearly, an act done out of 100% charity is worth much more than one done
out of only 40% charity, with the other 60% being vanity/pride.
Another case: imagine a boy in college who is taking the opening biology
course. In the early part of the semester he does no more work than the
minimum to get by. But then they come to the chapter on sex and
reproduction. He says to himself: "I really should be studying more". So he
reads intently the whole chapter, and goes to the library to get other
things on the same topic.
We ask: What was the motive driving him? Probably a mix of three motives.
One is the motive of study - earlier performance that semester shows that is
not very strong. But a second motive could be curiosity. Curiosity, if there
is no considerable danger of consent to illicit pleasure would not be more
than a venial sin. But there is probably a third motive: he is bootlegging
sexual kicks for himself. He may be totally unaware of the fact that he is
doing that - or the submarines may be almost surfacing, so that he wonders;
Am I kidding myself to some extent?
Only God can assess the moral rating coming from this submarine motive. If
it is completely below the surface, there is no guilt, but if it is almost
surfacing - then there can be hard to evaluate degrees of guilt.
As we said, if a person has never caught himself working with submarine
motives, it is a good bet he is really doing it.
Another area in which this sort of thing can happen is with pride in
general. There is really no good, even heroic action that a person could not
do out of pride. H could even act humble to get praise for his humility.
This could be pride of which he is aware. But it could be, at least to some
extent, submarine pride.
So we see the need of working for deep self-knowledge as a prerequisite for
improving oneself spiritually.
Motives for believing the faith: Why did not Jesus arrange to rise from the
grave with all Jerusalem including Scribes and Pharisees, assembled before
it? They would all believe, no doubt about it. It would bowl them over. So
why did He not do it that way? We need to explore.
There are two kinds of motives that may move one to believe anything
whatsoever: compulsive, and noncompulsive motives or reasons.
For example, the mathematics tables do not leave our mind any freedom Two
times two equals four. We cannot help seeing that.
But there are other reasons for believing things that are not compulsive.
There is a broad spectrum of such motives. At the high end of the scale
there are things which no one is apt to doubt, e.g., that Washington crossed
the Delaware. But at the low end of the same scale there are things such
that our feelings and desires can influence us. For example if someone
speaks of the original Mayor Daley of Chicago - a really controversial
figure -and says; Mayor Daley was good honest politician, a man who had
gotten favors from that party would easily say: He surely was good and
honest. But a man of the opposite party, who suffered from Daley's regime,
would be apt to say: Why that dirty crook!
As we said, if Jesus had risen in front of all the people of Jerusalem, they
would have believed. But that faith would hardly even be free. He wants
faith to be free so it can deserve a reward. Therefore the reasons for
believing the Catholic Church are objectively, in themselves, quite valid.
But they are not such as to compel the mind. They are such that if one is
well disposed morally, he will believe; if ill-disposed, he will tell
himself there is not sufficient reason. Submarines are at work.
We turn to the problem of the parables for a moment, for what we see there
will help with our question. If we follow the chronology of St. Mark's
Gospel - we know the Evangelists in general were not aiming at chronological
order: they often grouped things, e. g. , the Sermon on the Mount is likely
such grouping. But if we follow Mark, then we see Jesus at first taught
rather clearly. But then came the time when His enemies said: You cast out
devils by the devil. Then Mark reports He turned to parables, and told the
Apostles (Mk 4:11: "To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of
God: to those outside, all things are in parables, that seeing they may see,
and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand." He was
here quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 - all three Synoptics give this scene and quote
What did He mean? Some have thought He really meant to blind people. But
that cannot be. Then why should He later weep over Jerusalem for not
The real reason is different: the parables were a divine device to separate
people. Those well-disposed would begin to get more and more from His
teaching - the ill-disposed would become more and more blind. In this we
see, marvelously, that one and the same divine action involves both mercy
To see this, think of man who has never been drunk before, but tonight he
gets very drunk. The next day he will have guilt feelings - recall this is
the first time for him. There is a clash between his moral beliefs, and his
actions. In due time something will give: he will line up his actions with
his faith, or his faith will be pulled into line with his actions. So if we
talk to a confirmed drunk of many years and tell him that is wrong, he will
not at all grasp it. His ability to see moral truth has been diminishing. In
fact, this blindness in time will affect not only the truth about drink, but
other moral truths. And if he goes far enough, in time even his doctrinal
beliefs will be twisted. Before Pope John Paul II went to Denver in the
summer of 1993, Dignity, a group who contradict the Church and say
homosexual acts are good, issued a public statement in which they said in
effect: The Pope is only the titular head of the Church: we are the Church.
So we could say that a man may start out on a spiral in this way - we mean a
pattern which gets larger as it goes out, and feeds on itself. As we said,
there is both mercy and justice at work here in the very same action. He is
getting more and more blind, which is justice; but inasmuch as the more one
knows about the truths of faith, the greater his responsibility, mercifully,
this man's responsibility is going down and down, from his very increasing
There is spiral too in the good direction: if one lives out with great
effort what faith tells us, that the things of this world, compared to the
things of eternity, and not worth much (St. Paul said they are, in
comparison, "rubbish"- Phil 3:8), then his ability to understand the truths
of faith grows more and more. That increasing light is, in a secondary
sense, justice, for he has earned more light. Yet in the most basic sense it
is mercy, for no one by his own power can establish a claim on God: all is
really unmerited, all is mercy.
We gather that there can be subconscious blocks to seeing the truths of
faith, to seeing that the Catholic Church is that established by Christ. The
reasons for believing this are valid in themselves, but the submarines may
be at work. A person may perceive only subconsciously, in a submarine
manner, that if he joins, there will be unacceptable consequences. If he is
a great university professor, like Mortimer Adler - who had an unusual grasp
of Thomism - he will perceive subconsciously he would be ostracized from the
Faculty if he converted. So he will not consciously reject the reasons for
the faith: but submarines will keep him from registering them sufficiently
to come across. Another one may subconsciously perceive he will be an
outcast from his family or friends - this easily happens to those who come
from Judaism or Islam. That may not lead him to reject the faith in a guilty
way: but that submarine perception may keep him from following sufficiently
the reasons for converting. Another may perceive that he would have to give
up contraception, or divorce and remarriage. So he too may be rendered
incapable of appreciating the rational motives.
The founder of a heresy may easily be guilty of mortal sin, and see that he
is guilty. But later generations growing up in his belief would need quite a
nudge to bring them to the point of seeing they should at least explore
whether or not the faith in which they grew up is true of false.
If we did not understand this, we would be driven to saying that in a place
like the U. S. where the Church is well known and easily accessible, those
who do not enter all go to hell, for rejecting the faith. We cannot believe
this. Vatican II in Lumen gentium §16 taught: "They who without their own
fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God
with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry out His
will in practice, known to them through the dictate of conscience, can
attain eternal salvation". The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, in §37
cites Pius XII, Humani generis (DS 3875):
"Even though human reason, simply speaking, can by its natural powers and
light really attain a certain knowledge of the one personal God, who cares
for and governs the world, and of the natural law placed by the Creator in
our souls, yet there are not a few obstacles to keep this same reason from
using its natural power effectively and fruitfully. For since the things
that pertain to God and men are truths. . . altogether transcending the
order of sense things, they require [for understanding] a dedication of self
and self-denial. The human intellect moreover in acquiring such truths
labors under difficulty both from the imagination and senses, and as a
result of evil desires coming from original sin. Hence it happens that men
readily persuade themselves in things of this sort that the things they
would like not to be true are either false or at least doubtful."