Adolf, a college student, mentions, in confession, that it appears to him that he has frequently sinned against faith. He says his faith is not strong, he is continually in a state of wavering, only his will to believe keeps him in the faith. The chief cause of his doubts is the attitude taken by so many men of science towards religion, some despising, others ignoring it. He often hears the remark that it is unworthy of a well-informed man to submit blindly to the truths of faith, such as the Catholic Church requires. These things increase the bewilderment that has taken possession of Adolf.
How should this penitent be treated?
Adolf evidently is undergoing a period of stress. His faith which he learned at his mother's knee, and which he faithfully preserved in home surroundings, is now subjected to hard tests, in an atmosphere of unbelief. It is apparent that despite these temptations, he still appreciates the faith as his most precious gift ; hence he feels impelled to seek help from the priest, who, besides being confessor, exercises also the sacred office of teacher, guide and comforter.
In dealing with this penitent there is not merely a question of solving all the various particular doubts that bewilder his reasoning, and that render difficult the practice of his faith. First of all, he must be plainly and clearly instructed in his religion, to correct or perfect his understanding of the same, to liberate him from unfounded fears, as well as to eliminate real perils of his losing the faith.
He is worried especially by the thought that though the certainty of faith as the Church teaches is the greatest possible, this certainty is lacking in him. What should he be told on this point? Without doubt the certainty of faith is supreme, because the motive of faith, namely the authority of God revealing the truth, is the foundation of the faith, and that means absolute certainty; and since the principle of faith is the supernatural light of grace, one who honestly seeks the truth will arrive, through the enlightenment of Divine grace, at the positive belief that God has made revelations to man, that Jesus has manifested Himself as the Son of God, and as the Saviour of the world, that He brought us the full truth, and is proclaiming the same through the teaching office of the Church; and, accepting the authority of God and of His Church, he will, with the help of Divine grace give to the revealed truths a consent that is above every doubt and voluntary wavering.
Nevertheless, an involuntary doubt may arise at times in believing Christians, a suggestion of insecurity may insinuate itself. Faith is, after all, a virtue, and the act of faith a voluntary subjection to the truths of the faith, dictated by the will, since reason is not impelled by a direct evidence of the motives of faith to an act of faith. For this reason faith, like any other virtue, is subject to temptations. Insinuations by the spirit of untruth, and, especially, the various objections made by men of science against the faith, as also the widespread religious indifference, are apt to bewilder an inexperienced youth whose judgment has not yet matured.
This is the condition in which Adolf finds himself. He is worried and in his bewilderment imagines that his faith is already shipwrecked. Yet this does not seem to be the case. He wants to believe, as he affirms, and in his temptation he clings to the foundation of faith, the authority of God and of the Church ; thus, despite all the doubts that oppress him, he is still on firm ground, and may console himself with the knowledge that he is still in possession of the faith, and will so remain as long as he keeps his good will and makes zealous use of the necessary means for its preservation. Only when the will surrenders consciously to doubts, and entertains them voluntarily, does the virtue of faith vanish. Nevertheless, the state in which Adolf finds himself is not without its perils. For this reason it will be the confessor’s task to protect him, by practical advice, against these dangers.
First of all, it cannot be sufficiently emphasized that faith is a virtue for which we must pray unceasingly. Many unbelievers, by painstaking inquiry, have approved the truth of the Catholic Church, without however being able to resolve upon accepting this truth. Only after they begin to offer up humble and fervent prayers do these difficulties disappear, and do they receive the strength to take the decisive step. On the other hand, the learned theologian may without continuous prayer for steadfastness in the faith drift far from the truth and be plunged in pernicious error.
To prayer must be joined a chaste life. A life according to faith makes the possession of that faith sure. Indeed, the greater number of those who lose the precious gift of faith, became estranged from God through pride or immorality. “Many have done violence to their good conscience and suffered the shipwreck of their faith” says St. Paul, speaking of Christians in those days. Pride cannot dwell in harmony with the faith.
It is the language of pride that Adolf hears, when they tell him that it is unworthy of the cultured to believe something that one does not comprehend. This appeal to the self-respect of a talented, self-conscious youth, brought forward in the name of science, seldom fails of its harmful influence upon his faith. Yet it is not difficult to prove to him the fallacy of this assertion. True, faith requires the submission of reason to truths which far exceed our conception. Faith in this sense is a sacrifice, nevertheless the Church does not really require the sacrifice of reason, but rather that of arrogance. To refuse acceptance of God's decrees, or to doubt them, must be regarded as an impertinent presumption.
If an apprentice, while being initiated into the mysteries of an art by a clever master, would listen to the explanations with an incredulous shake of the head, and claim to know better, what would we think of such behavior? Now all of us, even the greatest scholars, are God's apprentices: the Lord God in His mercy has taken us into His school, in order to teach us those supernatural truths of life, that concern our temporal and eternal welfare. What, therefore, is more beseeming than that man should give ready submission to God and to His Church?
In order, then that Adolf may escape perils to the faith, he must be impressed with the great need of prayer and of regularly receiving the Sacraments as a means to preserve purity of life, and he must avoid bad company.
It is a great error for Adolf to suppose that in matters of faith reason must submit blindly. The Catholic religion, whose foundation is the faith, is not merely a matter of sentiment, it is not a religion of emotions. Reason and free will must, the same as in the practice of other virtues, be used in the exercise of faith, indeed, more particularly than the other faculties. Adolf must admit that an impartial and serious scrutiny of the motives of faith is calculated to satisfy the longing for certainty on part of the reason, and that only superficiality, prejudice and wilful resistance against truths that are inconvenient for a corrupt mind, can deny the strength of these arguments.
The existence of the Catholic Church, her history for near two thousand years, the work of Divine Providence which in her is so abundantly evident, her victory over so many storms of persecution, the preservation of the purity of her teaching despite many assaults of the spirit of untruth, the glorious fruits of her sanctity in numberless servants of God, the wonderful works of charity ever present in the Catholic Church, all these must clearly demonstrate that this Church is the Divine Institution wherein we find truth and salvation. The study of Church history, also perusal of the lives of her saints and of her celebrated men, may be recommended to the doubter as an effective means for strengthening the faith. The numerous models of heroic virtues, of whom we possess so many in the Catholic Church, grant us an insight into the blessed workings of the Church, they fortify our faith and make us rejoice at being a child of this Church.
Students are expected to accept the statements of eminent teachers as infallible truth; hence the words jurare in verba magistri. Yet even the most learned are not infallible, least of all in matters of religion. The overestimation of scientists and of their authority, to which Adolf is addicted, should be toned down by pointing out their incompetence in religious questions. The scientist may be an authority in his special science, but that does not qualify him to speak with authority on questions of religion, especially, as so often happens, if the fundamental truths of the Catholic religion are not even fully known to him. In matters of religion Adolf must seek elucidation where alone it can safely be found, in the Teaching Church, whose infallible decisions he may follow all through life as his never-failing lode-star.
Finally he should be urged to associate with Catholic students, join Catholic organizations, thus to fortify his Catholic consciousness, and induce an interest in matters pertaining to his faith.