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Dangers to Faith Within the Church

Wolf in Sheeps Clothing

In a previous article it was pointed out that Catholics are in great need of a correct knowledge of the meaning of faith, and an attempt was made to explain exactly the nature of the first of the three theological virtues as the Catholic Church understands it.1 It is very evident that the possession of this virtue, without which it is impossible to please God2, and which is designated by the Church as “the beginning of man’s salvation, the foundation and root of all justification,”3 is supremely important. Consequently, it is also vitally important that those who enjoy the privilege of the true faith shall protect it from any influences that may weaken or destroy it; and to this end Catholics should be aware of the chief dangers to their faith.

It requires no great perspicacity to realize that dangers to the faith abound at the present day, when the spirit of the world is so vehemently antagonistic to the spirit of Christianity. Of course, these dangers differ in their precise nature and intensity in different lands; yet, it is true to say that there is no portion of the modern world in which there are not circumstances that menace the faith of Catholics. Those with which we are now concerned are the dangers that are prevalent in present-day America.

In general, we can divide these dangers into two classes — those which come from within the Church and those which come from outside. When we speak of dangers to the faith coming from within the Church, we have no intention of ascribing these perils to the Church itself, “the pillar and mainstay of the truth.”4 We mean that there are Catholics who, either by their conduct or by their mental attitude, constitute a source of danger to the faith.

In many instances they may be wholly unaware of the detrimental influence they are exercising; but their sincerity does not neutralize the spiritual harm they are exerting on themselves and their co-religionists.

No Catholic should be scandalized by the fact that dangers to the faith can be found even within the Church itself. Our Lord predicted that there would be weeds interspersed with the wheat in the field that He proposed as a figure of His Church5. There have always been members of the Church inclined to heretical views; and though sometimes such persons never severed their connection with the body of the faithful — and doubtless in some instances were honestly convinced that they were upholding the genuine teachings of the Church, as in the case of some of the jansenists, the evil effects of their errors were real and far-reaching. Similarly, there have always been some Catholics whose failure to live up to the ideals of conduct proposed by their Church have scandalized others even to the extent of weakening or even destroying their supernatural faith. We must not be surprised, therefore, to find conditions of this nature existing today; but we must be on our guard against them.

We have the assurance of Christ Himself that in spite of such evil influences, the faith of His Church will remain untainted until the end of time. But this does not exclude the possibility of the loss or weakening of the faith on the part of many individual members of the Church, as history clearly attests. Hence, we may not complacently accept the divine promise of indefectibility and infallibility and assume an attitude of indifference toward the dangers that threaten the faith of Catholics. If we love the Catholic faith, we shall try to be alert to all the influences that tend to extinguish its light or to dim its lustre in our own souls and in the souls of our brethren in the unity of Catholic belief. This is particularly the duty of priests who are pledged to uphold vigorously every tenet of the faith and to protect the members of the laity from everything that would tarnish the purity of this sublime virtue that was conferred on them through the laver of regeneration.

It is my purpose in this article to point out some sources of danger to the faith of our Catholic people in the United States at the present day within the Church itself. Naturally, I cannot make mention of all such dangers, yet I believe that those which I shall describe are the most menacing and the most crucial. I shall first consider those which can be classified as practical dangers, in that they arise from habits of conduct, and then those which can be called speculative from the fact that they are rooted in a mental attitude.

All sinful habits, whatever may be their specific malice, endanger the faith of the sinner. It is true, only sins directly opposed to faith expel this virtue from the soul, so that one may be living in habitual sin and yet retain the true supernatural virtue of faith in his soul.6 Pope Pius XII found it advisable to emphasize this truth in his Encyclical Mystici Corporis as a reminder that we may not consider those members of the Church who are separated from God by mortal sin as entirely devoid of supernatural life.7 At the same time, the faith of the sinner is a dead faith8, and accordingly is far more susceptible to the pernicious influence of godlessness and materialism than is the living faith of the perfect Christian “which works through charity.”9 Hence, Catholics who continue for months and years in the state of mortal sin are in real danger of losing their faith. At times, it is true, we meet Catholics who are notably deficient in the observance of the moral law, yet staunchly protest their loyalty to the Church and their love for its teachings. However, while we should not deride this manifestation of faith, we have grave reasons for believing that it is based on a natural sense of honor rather than on supernatural motives.

There is one form of sin that is especially injurious to divine faith — the sin of impurity. The very nature of this vice tends to centre the mind on bodily pleasure, and hence to give the sinner a loathing for the realities of the supernatural order that constitute the object of faith. As Van Noort expresses it: “Those who indulge in impurities are wont to hold spiritual things in disgust.”10

Now, while we rejoice that so many Catholics are leading chaste lives, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that many others are following the unfortunate trend of the times in the way of sensuality. The reading of indecent literature, attendance at obscene plays and motion pictures, sinful liberties among young people, illicit love affairs on the part of married persons, and above all the use of contraception in conjugal life: these and similar violations of the virtue of chastity, which according to St. Paul should not even be named among the followers of Christ11, are all too common today in our land even among Catholics. Consequently it is the urgent duty of priests, by sermons, instructions, and especially example, to uphold without compromise the ideals of purity constantly proclaimed by the Catholic Church. We need not be puritanical in our attitude toward sex; but on the other hand, we may not become so “liberal” in our views (as unfortunately seems to have been done by some Catholics) as to reject the traditional Catholic interpretation of the sixth commandment. And it is feasible in our explanations and exhortations on the sixth commandment to point out that sins of the flesh, besides having their own malice, exert a destructive influence on the virtue of faith. Certainly, we have abundant proofs from experience that frequent violations of chastity tend to blind that power of supernatural vision that is so essential to the wholehearted acceptance of divine revelation.

A more direct danger to the Catholic faith in America today is the ever increasing number of mixed marriages. A study of the diocesan reports contained in the Catholic Directory will reveal that even in dioceses which contain a large Catholic population it is not unusual to find that more than 20% of the marriages contracted in the presence of a priest are mixed marriages12. In some dioceses that are numerically small the proportion is as great as three mixed marriages to every marriage of two Catholics.

Undoubtedly a mixed marriage is sometimes an occasion of bringing the non-Catholic party into the Church; but to say that mixed marriages in general are a fruitful means of conversion rather than a way to loss of faith is definitely contradicted by reliable statistics. For example, in the April, 1952, issue of Social Order, the Rev. John Thomas, S.J., of St. Louis University, discusses the findings from a study of a large number of mixed marriages, and reveals some startling evidence of the deplorable results of such marital unions. He has found that forty percent of the children have either not been baptized as Catholics or are not being brought up in the Catholic faith. His studies have also led him to the conclusion that only about four or five percent of the non-Catholic partners are converted during the marriage.13

In view of such findings we must regard mixed marriages as one of the gravest dangers attacking the Catholic faith from within the fold at the present day ; and priests should meet the situation courageously and realistically. They should frequently announce to their people the law of the Church, so explicitly proclaimed in the Code: “The Church most severely and everywhere forbids that marriage be contracted between two baptized persons, one of whom is a Catholic, the other a member of an heretical or schismatic sect; and if there is danger of the perversion of the Catholic spouse and of the children, the marriage is forbidden even by divine law.”14

Above all, Catholics should be informed that a mixed marriage is not rendered lawful, nor is it licit to seek a dispensation, merely because the parties are willing to make the required guarantees. In addition, there must be just and grave reasons for the dispensation.15 Very frequently, the only reason that a priest can allege for the granting of a dispensation is the fear of a civil marriage if a Catholic marriage ceremony is refused. Now, while this is a sufficient reason for the Church to grant a dispensation, on the principle that under the circumstances it is the lesser of two evils to grant permission for the marriage, it implies that on the part of the couple seeking the dispensation there is not a sufficient morally good reason for the marriage.

It is too late to denounce mixed marriages when a couple have made up their minds to marry. But in the teaching of religion to young folks in schools and colleges, in talks to sodalities, in pre-Cana conferences, all priests should explicitly and fearlessly proclaim the Church’s law on this subject, and thus endeavor to lessen the grave menace to the faith of our Catholic people that arises from the marriage of a member of the Church with one who is outside her pale.

When we turn to dangers of the speculative order arising from mental attitudes of Catholics, it can safely be asserted that one of the most serious sources of such dangers is a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the fundamental Catholic doctrine: “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” It is indeed unfortunate to meet Catholics who do not hesitate to deny that the Church holds this doctrine. A recent book by Professor James O’Neill, entitled Catholicism and American Freedom deserves high commendation for its scholarly refutation of the absurd charges of Paul Blanshard. Yet, unfortunately the author, in one passage is guilty of an error when after citing Blanshard’s remark that “the doctrine is still official that outside of the Church there is no salvation” he remarks “for Mr. Blanshard to repeat this ancient nonsense is inexcusable.”16

Of course, the interpretation that Mr. Blanshard gives to this doctrine is inexcusable, and apparently it is to this that Mr. O’Neill means to refer. But the doctrine itself — “Outside the Church there is no salvation” — is still an article of Catholic faith and will remain such until the end of time. It means that the visible, external society founded by Our Blessed Lord and presided over by the successors of St. Peter down through the centuries is the necessary means for the communication of sanctifying grace and salvation to all mankind. A person who is not an actual member of this visible society, the Catholic Church, may indeed attain to salvation if his non-membership in the Church is not culpable; but in that event he is saved through his desire (even though implicit) of affiliation with this visible society. Even in this event, however, he does not partake of the abundance of graces granted those who are privileged with actual membership. In the words of Pope Pius XII, referring to non-Catholics, “Even though unsuspectingly they are related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer in desire and resolution, they still remain deprived of so many precious gifts and helps from heaven which one can enjoy only in the Catholic Church.”17

The correct meaning of the doctrine “Outside the Church there is no salvation” should be clearly explained to all Catholics, for undoubtedly a “watered down” interpretation of this truth will tend to diminish the appreciation of the great privilege of membership in the one true Church of Jesus Christ. Some of the expressions that have been used to state the unquestionable truth that one need not necessarily be an actual member of the Church are very inexact and should be shunned. Such, for example, is the statement that for salvation it suffices to belong to the soul of the Church, as if there were a spiritual, invisible entity entirely separated from the visible Church which is the means of man’s salvation. Again, the expression: “The Church is the ordinary means of salvation,” should be avoided, since it implies that per accidens one may be saved independently of the Church. There is only one means of salvation in the present order, union with the visible Church of Christ. However, in the case of those whose defect of actual membership is due to no fault of their own, union with the Church by desire can supply this deficiency. But the Church in question is the visible, external society which traces its origin back to the Son of God, the Roman Catholic Church.

This explanation of the doctrine that “Outside the Church there is no salvation” should be proposed to our people, instead of the heretical assertion that there is no such doctrine. It is worth noting that in the Encyclical Humani generis Pope Pius XII complains that “some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation.”18 The interpretations we have just mentioned would seem to be included in this papal denunciation.

Another mental attitude of many of our American Catholics which tends toward a weakening of their spirit of faith is their misunderstanding of tolerance. They fail to distinguish properly between the sentiments they should bear toward their fellow men of other religious beliefs and the judgment they should entertain toward these beliefs themselves. Yet, the Catholic teaching on this point is very clear. Toward all human beings, whatever may be their particular religious creeds, we are bound to manifest genuine Christian charity. We must be kind to them and assist them in their needs — not from merely worldly motives, but because they are actually or potentially sharers in the divine nature. We should presume that those who are not actual members of the true Church are separated from Catholic communion inculpably, and we should pray that in God’s mercy they may one day be incorporated into the one fold of Christ.

But this does not mean that we may be tolerant of their erroneous beliefs in the sense that we accept such popular slogans as “It makes little difference what religion a person practices, as long as he is sincere, etc.” We must regard all divergences of religious doctrine as deplorable violations of the unity of faith which the Son of God willed to prevail among all men. Infidelity, heresy, schism — these are all tragic evils, and we cannot pass them over lightly or cease to pray and to labor that they may be eliminated, and in their place unity of Catholic faith substituted. Catholics should never hesitate to state that they sincerely hope that one day our land will become Catholic — not through any coercion or unjust influence, but through the voluntary acceptance by our separated brethren of the one true faith in which we find security and peace.

Sometimes we hear the statement that nowadays, since Communism is the greatest enemy of religion and civilization, we should forget our differences with Protestants and join with them wholeheartedly in combatting communistic propaganda. This assertion is not to be commended. It is true, we are glad to welcome persons of other creeds in our campaign against the godlessness and materialism of Communism. But that does not mean that we should not continue to point out, courteously and logically, the errors of those who profess to follow Christ, yet do not acknowledge that affiliation with His Church is one of the commands He Himself laid down.

This suggests another deplorable attitude of many Catholics today — the defensive attitude in respect to the attacks made against the Church, instead of a vigorous spirit of aggressiveness. They are so anxious to prove to those who attack the Church that they are loyal citizens, that they uphold the American principle of freedom of worship, etc., that they have little or no concern for their duty of positively proclaiming the principles of Catholic faith and pointing out the inconsistency and the erroneous opinions of their adversaries.

It is true, many of our non-Catholic fellow citizens are fair-minded, honest persons, who treat Catholics with tolerance and charity. But there are many others who manifest a decided spirit of bigotry and unfairness toward their Catholic fellow citizens. Strong and vigorous aggressiveness is called for against such persons, instead of an eager desire to convince them that we are not the dangerous individuals they claim we are. The fact is that, however logical our defense may be, a great many of them will not believe us anyway. The tactics we should adopt are a positive presentation of Catholic truth and an attack on our enemies in their own territory. This will not only serve as a better defense, but will strengthen and invigorate our Catholic people. The man who is always on the defensive, concerned only with answering objections against his beliefs, will unconsciously assume that his side is somewhat weak.

For example, when non-Catholics assert that Catholics would demand special favors for their Church and restrict the activities of non-Catholics in the event that the majority of citizens in our land became members of the Catholic Church, our usual answer is a fervent protestation that we would demand nothing special in such a hypothesis, that we would continue to give the other citizens of the land full religious freedom, etc. All this every intelligent Catholic firmly believes. I cannot imagine any conditions ever arising in our land that would call for a change of our constitutional principle of freedom and equality for Americans of all creeds. Even in the unlikely supposition that at some future time the Catholics in this country would number ninety-nine percent of the population, I would still favor the present system of equality for all; and I believe this would be the attitude of the Catholics in that remote hypothesis. My reason would not be any such illogical assertion that all men have the God-given right to practice any religion they choose; for since God has imposed on all men the obligation to practice one and the same religion, all are objectively bound to accept that religion. The reason why it would be the most feasible policy to have equal rights for all even in the event that the communicants of any one creed (including the Catholic religion) gained a great ascendency in our land would be the fact that our country was founded on the principle of freedom for all and Catholics have always accepted this principle as a basic feature of American life, so that it would be most reasonable and proper to continue to accept it, whatever changes might occur in the numerical distribution of the various churches.

However, why should Catholics always have to assume the role of defendants, expected to answer time and time again to the charge: “You would restrict the liberty of other religious groups if you ever gained the balance of power in America.”? Why should we not retort by a similar charge? Why should we not ask a Protestant who accuses us of looking forward to the day when we shall see the United States government and the Catholic Church united what guarantee he can give that his particular sect would not seek special governmental privileges if it ever attained sufficient political power to accomplish this objective? Certainly, from the historical standpoint there is far more reason to believe that the restriction of freedom of religious worship and special governmental favors for a particular church would be inaugurated in our land if a Protestant group gained dominance than if Catholics acquired this position of power. In the early days of our republic, it was not Catholics but Protestants who, through legislation in certain states, restricted the religious freedom of their fellow-citizens and obtained special favor for their own church.19

Similarly, why should Catholics be overwhelmed with embarrassment over the recent pronouncement of Cardinal Segura, protesting against the granting of full civil rights to Protestants in Spain? It is a traditional Catholic belief that in a land that is thoroughly Catholic in population and institutions, restriction of heretical propaganda is a reasonable and justifiable measure to prevent spiritual harm to the citizens. Such a policy would never be the proper procedure in a land like ours, even if Catholics ever gained the balance of power. But what right have we to demand that Spain, with an entirely different background, adopt a policy that is suitable to the United States? Furthermore, why is it that those of our non-Catholic brethren, who are horrified at the action of Cardinal Segura, do not exhibit a similar horror at the fact that in Sweden there are governmental restrictions against Catholics? And why is there no protest against the English law that would bar from the throne a member of the royal family who would enter the Catholic Church?

In fine, a more militant spirit regarding their faith would help Catholics to strengthen this important virtue and to protect it against attacks and objections. And the priests of the United States, deputed by God to nourish with divine truth the flock committed to their charge, must strive valiantly to foster among their people a fides vere intrepida.

Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R.

  • 1. AER, CXXVI. 3 (March, 1952), 195-203
  • 2. Heb., 11:5.
  • 3. DB, 801.
  • 4. I Tim., 3:15.
  • 5. Matt., 13:24.
  • 6. DB, 838.
  • 7. Mystici Corporis, AAS, 35 (1943), 203
  • 8. DB, 800.
  • 9. Gal. 5:6.
  • 10. De fontibus revelationis (Bussum, 1920), n. 285.
  • 11. Ephes., 5:3.
  • 12. It should be noted that these figures do not include the large number of Catholics who enter an invalid marriage before a civil magistrate or a non-Catholic clergyman
  • 13. “Mixed Marriages – So What,” in Social Order (St. Louis University), 11,4 (April, 1952), 157.
  • 14. Can. 1060. The marriage of a Catholic with an unbaptized person is likewise forbidden by teh Church in Canon 1071. The words os Pope Pius XI in the Encyclical Casti connubii are worthy of note: “It comes about not infrequently, as experience shows, that deplorable defections from religion occur among the offspring [of mixed marriages], or at least a headlong descent into that religious indifference which is closely allied to impiety. There is also to be considered that in these mixed marriages it becomes much more difficult to imitate by a lively conformity of spirit the mystery of which we have spoken, namely that close union between Christ and His Church.”
  • 15. Can. 1061.
  • 16. Catholicism and American Freedom (Harper, 1952), 203.
  • 17. Mystici Corporis, AAS, 35 (1943), 243.
  • 18. Humani generis, AAS, 42 (1950), 571.
  • 19. Humani generis, AAS, 42 (1950), 571.