Guest Columnist 'There is something that comes before': what faith and the Year of Faith are not

As the recently called “Year of Faith” approaches, there seem to be several different interpretations within the Church of what this year means, and furthermore, what exactly “faith” means. I myself have already heard of a plethora of talks and programs being offered in the name of the Year of Faith, including “mastering the virtues,” missionary work, evangelization, and becoming holy.

While all of these efforts are good and noble, I find it fascinating how when we as Catholics hear the word “faith,” we immediately jump to its consequences: good works, the moral life, and evangelization. It’s almost as if we are uncomfortable staying for any amount of time at this level of faith, which is exactly what our brethren Protestants accuse us of. Doing this we are in fact trying to run faster than the present Pope we have been gifted with.

But the Holy Father knows this, and so is giving us an entire year to be in this level of faith; to stop, to “rediscover” and “encounter” faith again, which always means “the encounter with Christ,” as the he says in his letter on the year of faith. (i) But we already know faith, and we already know Christ, right?

If this is true, we are immediately left with the imposing question of why the Holy Father, of all the possible themes he could have chosen for us today – Year of Evangelization; Holiness; Charity; Prayer; Hope; Liturgy; Scripture; or the Year of Learning Latin – he chose the most elementary and fundamental theme of all: the Year of Faith. He sees something in us, and not first in those outside the Church, that we are not seeing. Again, his words are unmistakable: “It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society.” (ii)

Our reductions of faith … and the consequences

Unfortunately, we have taken faith for granted for so long that we really don’t even know what it means anymore, and can think only in categories of works, of what I need to do. As a good Catholic friend of mine recently proclaimed, “Dude, the whole essence of the Faith is practicing virtue!” But during his pontificate Pope Benedict has gone out of his way to constantly warn against and denounce this “Pelagian” hyperfocus on morality and human will (as Christ does plentifully and painfully with the Pharisees in the Gospels), which is unfortunately present all over the Church. This is the reason why the Holy Father is calling a Year of Faith today, in the year 2012, two millennia after Christ, when we’re supposed to have faith “down pat.”

Theologically and experientially speaking, faith is not our good works, moral life, or evangelization. These things come out of the experience of faith, but they are not “faith.” There are many altruists, social workers and virtuous people who are not Christian in the world.  There is “something that comes before” these works, out of which flow these works, and that “something that comes before” is precisely the event of faith. All else, including how we think and live, flows out of our experience of faith. Pope Benedict goes so far as to say in his letter on the Year of Faith that through faith “a new life shapes the whole of human existence according to the radical new reality,” and that faith gives a “new criterion...that changes the whole of man’s life.” (iii) He goes on to say that if faith is not grounded, these works will be “sentiment constantly at the mercy doubt.” If faith is simply believing orthodox doctrine, it will remain abstract and at the level of the intellect. If faith is a powerful feeling, it will remain at the level and mercy of emotion and sentimentality. And if faith is simply a new set of moral standards and commands, it will remain at the level of the will. What all of these lack, simply … is the experience of Christ. There is something that comes before.

We can see this lack in our own experience. Several of my young adult Catholic friends confide in me the struggle and weariness of “living the faith” today. There is a malaise I see on their faces. And they don’t mean primarily the struggle of living the faith in a secular culture. They mean the burden and emptiness of “focusing on all the things you have to be and do to be a good Catholic,” as a girl friend of mine recently expressed. As we know, reducing faith to all our virtue and vice, feelings, works, and knowledge (essentially: moralism, sentimentalism, voluntarism, and orthodoxism, respectively) sooner or later becomes unsustainable for our lives, and leads to our boredom, doubt, emptiness, and in fact a widening distance from Christ, which we quietly try to ignore; and all this in the midst of “practicing” our faith. We go to talks and parish programs because they are Catholic (but not necessarily interesting) and they leave us just as malaised as we were when we got there. Much of it is, frankly, not interesting (whatever happened to doing things because they were really interesting, not because we feel obligated to do them?). The zeal runs out, the sentiment is no longer enjoyed, the theology becomes distant and less relevant, and the burdens become heavier and more meaningless, and what we are left with is the option to either find something else to ease the pain (usually an addiction), or, for the stronger of us, to “strap on the boots” and white-knuckle our way to our idea of holiness by doing good deeds, reading more theology, and mastering pyramids of virtue systems. And all the time Christ remains abstract and far away. Is this enough? Is this what faith means?

Furthermore, what happens when you are doing all the “right things” and they are making you ... miserable? As a close friend of mine said during an assembly we attended about faith, “I was at a point in my life where I was doing the things I was told I should do to be a good Catholic. Part of that was making a holy hour, going to adoration everyday, going to Mass everyday, saying a rosary everyday, saying the Liturgy of the Hours everyday, and if you weren't doing those things you were a bad Catholic. But when I was doing all those things I was miserable, and I was getting to the point where I was about to just quit everything. I couldn't find any peace or happiness.”

He was doing everything he was told to do to be a good Catholic, using every ounce of effort he had within him, and yet he was depressed and miserable. This actually is not a unique experience; I’ve had the exact same, along with several people I know. It’s a reason why many people stop going to church, or at least begin to believe it has nothing to do with life, but is simply our just obligation due to God so as not to go to Hell. Fr. Julian Carron responded surprisingly to my friend: “The real question is what is the nature of Christianity? What is the essence of faith?” (v) In the midst of a number of things to know and learn and do in Catholicism, we have forgotten the true essence of Christianity, and the nature of faith. And this is precisely when that creeping modern nihilism, which shows its face in so many diverse ways, infects itself even into the very fabric of our faith: faith eventually becomes, like everything else: just one damned thing (or commitment) after another.

A Note on the Church, Pope Benedict and Pelagianism

This reductive modern-day moralism, to be clear, is one of the Holy Father’s major axes to grind. But, as he knows – being the genius theologian and historian he is – it has a much earlier origin. Even as Cardinal, he shockingly said that “the error of Pelagius has more followers in the Church today than it would seem.” (vi) Pelagius, who lived in the early 400s, was a virtuous and well-intentioned monk – even his adversary St. Augustine called him a “saintly man.” And he taught what many Catholics today would unfortunately not even see a problem with: following the 10 commandments brings us to heaven; we possess the moral strength to desire and attain the ideal of virtue; Christ came to instruct and give an example for us; and our job as Christians is to follow His example and attain the highest level of virtue and holiness that we can. (vii)

“A Christian,” says Pelagius, “is one who lives according to Christ’s example: who never lies, who never curses, who never swears, who does not pay back evil with evil, who blesses those who curse him, who loves his enemies ... who has a mind clear of all evil and impure thoughts.” (viii)

Sounds very holy and edifying, right? So what’s wrong with this, many might ask? Well, the Church answered, “Everything,” and condemned Pelagianism as a first-class heresy.

What’s shocking is that most Catholics, most good, practicing Catholics (along with most people on the planet) would define Christianity exactly how Pelagius does. I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned Bible studies, retreats, and homilies I’ve heard centered solely around themes of “the things you need to do to be a better Catholic.” And I can’t tell you how many times during my two years of high school teaching did students, after 12 years of Catholic school education, answer my question of “What is Christianity?” with “Well, you have to be good ... and not sin ... so you can go to heaven.”  We, like Pelagius, love reducing everything to steps, formulae, and equations. Why? Because it puts us in control. We “know” what Christianity is that way. But Christianity is not us in control. If anything, it’s the opposite.

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.” (ix)

Lord forgive us. Though we may even sprinkle Christ on it a bit, we are closer to the Pharisee in our understanding of Christianity, which in the end is not Christianity but a religion of high idyllic moral attainment. As Christ says, this cannot redeem us. Pelagianism and all understandings like it are simply Moral-ianity, not Christ-ianity. In the end you don’t really need Christ (which is why it was a heresy), you just really have to follow the commandments and practice virtue. In the end Christ is simply something sprinkled on top of a beautiful structure of ethics. But Aristotle gave us that 350 years before Christ. Time and again during his pontificate Pope Benedict has surprisingly and refreshingly questioned this widely accepted syllogism that proclaims, “If you want to be a good Catholic, then you must do all of these things.”  One of the most famous and repeated phrases of the Holy Father came from his first encyclical, in the very first paragraph: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (x) With this powerful phrase, the Holy Father is precisely asserting the opposite of what we believe to be Christian: an ethical choice and a lofty idea. Instead, he claims that being Christian is encountering an event, or more precisely, a person, who changes life completely, even to the point of making it new. 

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In his first book as pope, “Jesus of Nazareth,” he asks the provocative question of whether Christ’s new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” makes Christianity a religion of the highest moral attainment?: “No, the newness of the new commandment cannot consist in the highest moral attainment ... (T)he essential point is not the call to supreme achievement, but the new foundation of being that is given to us. The newness can come only from the gift of being-with and being-in Christ ... Thomas Aquinas observed, ‘The new law is the grace of the Holy Spirit.’ To be a Christian is primarily a gift.” (xi) There is “something that comes before.” What the Holy Father is teaching us is that Christianity is far less about what we do, and much, much more about Who we encounter, and what we are given in this encounter.

(Read part two of this article entitled, “A Question for Catholics: Has faith become obsolete?”).

(i) Pope Benedict XVI Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” Porta Fidei, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, Paragraph 2.
(ii) Ibid.
(iii) Ibid., Paragraph 6.
(iv) Ibid., Paragraph 14.
(v) Fr. Julian Carron, “What is man that You should care for him, mortal man that You keep him in mind?”: There is no greater adventure than the discovery of one’s own humanity, Communion and Liberation live assembly, Colorado.
(vi) Antonio Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days, February 1991; p. 40.
(vii) Cf. Pohle, Joseph. “Pelagius and Pelagianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 6 Oct. 2012
(viii) Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days; p. 42.
(ix) Luke 18: 10-14.
(x) Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, Paragraph 1.
(xi) Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Doubleday, Random House Inc., New York, 2007, pp. 63-65.

Copyright Jonathan Ghaly, All Rights Reserved.

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