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Chapter 1: Faith, Religious Assent, and Reverence for God

Question B: Why Reflect on the Responsibility to Keep One’s Faith?

As a free human act, faith must be responsible; good reasons are needed for making and keeping this commitment. Questions C through G articulate some such reasons. Even while considering them, however, one must remember that faith is first, last, and always an undeserved gift of God.

Believers have no trouble understanding that those without faith should search for religious truth and consider why it would be good and right to become Catholics (see DH 1–3). But why should Catholic Christians, for whom this book is mainly intended, reflect on their own responsibility to believe? After all, the experience of friendship with God provides a much greater motive for cherishing faith than any reasons one can find, and every Christian is able not only to believe but to know God’s personal love: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us” (1 Jn 4.15–16). Nevertheless, for several reasons, is important to think about why it is good and right to believe as one does.15

1. Understanding Enriches the Commitment of Faith

Most Catholics are baptized as infants, without making any personal choice. Even as adults, their commitment of faith usually is made and reaffirmed only in making choices to practice it, so that the reasons for believing as they do can remain unclear. But the reasons why one freely does anything are an important part of what one is doing. That is obvious when, for instance, an otherwise good act is done for a bad reason, for example, telling others the truth about their failings in order to hurt them. Conversely, when good acts are done for good reasons, the reasons are no less an important part of what one does. A good act is enriched when one has more good reasons for doing it. Thus, one can enrich one’s act of faith, insofar as it depends on one’s choice, by considering the reasons why it is right and good to believe.

2. Understanding Purifies Commitment

As with any other choice, the commitment to believe can be made on the basis of mixed motives, a combination of feelings both appropriate and questionable, of reasons both good and bad. Better understanding helps overcome faulty motives for believing, especially reasons which make Christian life a mere means to an inappropriate, ulterior end.

Among the bad reasons for believing are, first, social conformism for the sake of temporal advantages and, second, the prospect of hell misunderstood as an arbitrary punishment. The first exposes faith to shifting social pressures; the second breeds legalistic minimalism in those who are docile and rebellion in those who are spirited. As people and their circumstances change, faulty reasons for believing often turn into plausible excuses for abandoning faith.

Still, emotional motivations for doing anything always are mixed and usually can be allied to different sorts of reasons. Feelings of solidarity and fear naturally motivate faith, and inasmuch they are not reasons for believing, neither are they bad reasons. Moreover, the joy of solidarity in Christian communion and the fear of hell, when hell is correctly understood, normally are allied with sound reasons for faith. The presence in oneself or others of various emotional motives for faith should not cause embarrassment or lead to criticism. But it should spur one to examine one’s feelings and reasons, and to integrate emotional motives with good reasons for believing.

3. Understanding Can Strengthen Commitment

Since faith is a commitment to renounce sin and live a holy life, every mortal sin in some way challenges faith, and mortal sin, unfortunately, seems not to be a rare occurrence. Thus, many Christians are tempted at some time to renounce their faith. Reflection on all the appealing aspects of the option of faith strengthens the will in its commitment, for the more one understands why it is good to believe, the less appealing are tempting alternatives. Moreover, misunderstandings can make it seem that faith is at odds with some other genuine human good—honesty, say, or concern for justice. Better understanding eliminates such false options by clarifying how Christian faith serves many human goods and is at odds with none. Eliminating false options strengthens the commitment of faith by making it clear that there is no sound reason to choose contrary to it.

4. Understanding Enables One to Give an Account

Christians who understand why it is good and right to believe as they do are equipped to fulfill another responsibility: to give an account of the hope that is in them (see 1 Pt 3.15). Hence, although the present work is not apologetics, questions C through G can help with the work of apologetics to which each Christian should contribute insofar as he or she can.

15. If responsibilities are considered from a legal point of view, one finds no duty to believe, since one has no legal duties until one is under the law, and one comes under Jewish or Christian religious law only when one accepts God’s revelation with faith. Thus, St. Thomas, S.t., 2–2, q. 16, a. 1, points out that in the Old Testament there is no precept to believe. However, the moral responsibility to believe is presupposed by an upright commitment of faith. As one fulfills that responsibility, it remains in effect, continues to shape the commitment, and provides a reason to persevere in it.