Besides the so-called logical case against faith, several challenges of a practical sort test or even weaken the faith of many Christians. Some of the more important are worth answering briefly here. (1) Christian teaching is correct in saying that this world is miserable, but in two thousand years Christianity has failed to make it much better. (2) Throughout modern times, Christianity has been losing ground to unbelief; perhaps the faith is a lost cause. (3) Faith’s claim to have the absolute truth is closed-minded and leads to fanaticism and intolerance. (4) Faith always has led to infringements on people’s freedom and still does. (5) Faith opposes worldly goods and enjoyments, and its otherworldliness distracts believers from the serious business of this life. (6) If evil in the world does not argue logically against faith, still the extent of human suffering, and especially the suffering of the innocent, suggests that God is not both loving and all-powerful.
If the role God gives his creatures in salvation history is minimized, as some forms of Protestantism have done and some Catholics do today, these practical challenges to faith are felt to be more threatening. Hence, the response must focus on the work people must do for their own salvation. That such work must be done does not imply, as some fear, that people can save themselves without grace or God’s mercy; rather, it implies that God’s mercy is so great that he wishes his gifts also to be the merits of those he saves (see DS 1548/810).
Because secular humanism, both in its western liberal and its Marxist forms, does promise earthly freedom, prosperity, and peace, it is fairly judged on its failure to deliver. But the gospel does not promise to transform this world into a paradise. Although some foretaste of the blessings faith promises is given to believers, this life is primarily an opportunity for them to work out their salvation and to prepare material for Jesus’ heavenly kingdom, whose completion is not of this world (see Jn 18.36; cf. 1 Cor 7.31, 1 Jn 2.15–17). Faith cannot be criticized for failing to deliver on a promise it never made.
Moreover, the gospel has borne much good fruit, as even fair-minded nonbelievers acknowledge, and no one can say what the world would be like today had Christian faith not been at work in it for two millennia.
In the more developed and wealthy parts of the world, Christianity has lost ground during modern times to various forms of nonbelieving humanism. The question is: Why?
a) Internal divisions which weakened Christianity can be overcome. Divisions between the churches in the east and in the west, and the even deeper divisions between the churches of the Reformation and the Catholic Church, greatly weakened Christian missionary activity and led to fratricidal conflicts, including, though not exclusively, those of the European religious wars. Revulsion against these conflicts and the hope to end them played a large role in the development of nonbelieving humanism with its effort to separate everything of social and political importance from religion and make religious faith into a strictly private affair.
Today, however, the conflicts among Christians are no longer so sharp and bitter as they once were. Virtually all Christians today believe that their divisions are unacceptable and most are working to overcome them. While this ecumenical effort has begun slowly and will take time to bear its full fruit, it already has mitigated some of the bad effects of division, and promises to strengthen the social impact of Christian faith and lessen its vulnerability to nonbelief.
b) Social and cultural transformation challenges faith. The greatest loss, occurring during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, accompanied the shift from a rural-agricultural to an urban-industrial social and cultural framework for individual and family life. Increased opportunities in urban-industrial life generate fresh temptations to seek fulfillment in possessions, self-indulgence, and status.
Even more important: the older, more stable framework in many ways supported Christian faith and life, whereas the newer, more mobile framework removes old supports and requires people to make many more major choices in organizing their lives. Unless all one’s other major commitments are consciously made in order to live out one’s faith, it is easily reduced to a single isolated interest among many, and the other interests, cultivated without reference to faith, eventually choke it out (see CMP, 28.D).46
c) While the Catholic Church has not yet fully met this challenge, it can. Until Vatican II, the Church’s pastoral work in some ways failed to adapt to the changed situation. Recalling the truth that lay people, no less than priests and religious, make up the Church, the Council on this basis provides a fresh program for the Church’s work. According to this program, all the Christian faithful are called to holiness by a personal vocation to dedicate every part of their lives—family, school, work, citizenship, leisure—to the Lord Jesus: to his gospel and to works of love (see LG 39–42, AA 2–8; CMP, 31.C–E). If this program is carried out with creativity and apostolic energy, the modern trend toward unbelief can be reversed.
d) Despite appearances, secular humanism will not defeat Christianity. The gospel appears to be losing ground to secular humanism. However, before the gospel was preached around the world, no one hoped for a world in which everyone would enjoy freedom, peace, and prosperity. It was Christian faith that first taught humankind to hope for human fulfillment in a perfect community. The appeal of various forms of secular humanism is parasitic on this Christian vision. But they have not fulfilled, and simply cannot fulfill, the hope which Christian faith aroused. Apart from the residue of the gospel that they retain, these currently prevalent forms of humanism are impressive only because of their political, social, economic, and cultural power. Over the last two millennia, however, many empires and world views have enjoyed great power—until they faded away.
In different ways, and sometimes with violent persecution, the various forms of secular humanism attack the gospel, yet while Christianity has lost ground in the more developed and wealthy countries, it is becoming stronger in some parts of the world, and is nowhere dying out. But secular humanism is a house radically divided against itself (see G.1, below). Sooner or later, that house will fall, the modern age will end, and the next age will offer a fresh field for the seed of faith.47
Every morally upright commitment is important, as is every truth, and Christian faith is the most important commitment to the most important truth of all. In making an act of faith in Jesus and living according to it, one does not close one’s mind but opens it to a whole dimension of reality which people without faith cannot enter. Yet faith does not bar believers from any dimension of reality that is accessible to nonbelievers.
a) Christians, like others, sometimes are closed-minded. Someone of weak faith is likely to be anxious, to lack confidence that the Holy Spirit will protect faith and continue to make it available despite every challenge. Moreover, if one’s faith depends heavily on self-centered motives, elements of truth and goodness outside the Church are likely to appear as threats to be rejected rather than goods to be valued, welcomed, refined, nurtured, and integrated with one’s faith to develop and perfect it. But such nervousness and narrowness are defects in one’s personal faith rather than characteristics of Christian faith itself.
b) Relativism and subjectivism are not the same thing as tolerance. Some consider Christian faith intolerant simply because Christians affirm dogmas and hold objective moral norms rather than acquiescing in religious indifferentism and moral subjectivism. But every world view and way of life logically excludes alternatives. Relativists and subjectivists also have a definite world view and way of life; they too reject every position incompatible with their own. True tolerance is not indifferentism and subjectivism, but respect for those who hold another world view and way of life. Tolerance is readiness to presume good will in others and to put up with their conscientious behavior insofar as one’s own conscience permits.48
c) Relativism and subjectivism also can be closed-minded. It is quite possible to be closed-minded in holding that one religion is as good as another and that whatever people think right actually is right for them. Relativists and subjectivists constantly talk about civility and moderation, but they are not immune from intolerance and fanaticism. Indeed, they are especially tempted to be arbitrary and self-righteous, precisely because they acknowledge neither a higher reality to which all realistic people must submit nor an objective moral standard by which all conscientious people must criticize themselves. Unable to call on their opponents to submit to principles which any reasonable person should accept (their views exclude such principles), relativists and subjectivists inevitably will be tempted to use nonrational methods—manipulation and even suppression—in order to prevail.
Far from limiting freedom, faith in Jesus makes his disciples free (see Jn 8.31–36). With faith, individuals can escape from slavery to sin and to death’s terror, and men and women together can escape mutual exploitation and enter into authentic, faithful communion. No longer living in conflict with reality and true fulfillment, Christians, if they are faithful, enjoy the freedom of the children of God (see Rom 8.21).
a) Christians sometimes infringe on freedom. Sometimes, though more in times past than today, Christians have resorted to unjust coercion and violated others’ just liberty in the name of the gospel. Such abuses are at odds with Jesus’ teaching and example, and are of no help in spreading and sustaining faith, for, as Vatican II teaches: “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once gently and with power” (DH 1).
b) Faith involves responsibilities, but imposes nothing on believers. Like any way of life, the following of Jesus does limit one’s freedom to do as one otherwise might. Part of this limitation concerns one’s responsibility as a member of the Church to abide by her laws and obey her pastors. Nevertheless, as a Christian one may serve and pursue every human good, and one’s responsibilities require of one little more than moral uprightness itself requires. As for any burdens involved in the authentic practice of faith, they are not impositions, for nobody can force anyone truly to keep the faith and remain within the Church’s communion.
c) The Catholic Church’s authority does not impair freedom. Someone who makes the commitment of Catholic faith and undertakes to live as a member of the Church is inconsistent in wishing to pick and choose among doctrines, moral teachings, and elements of Church order. In certain cases, the Church’s pastors must call attention to such inconsistency. In doing so, they employ no coercion and impair nobody’s religious freedom. Those disciplined remain free to speak and act as they think right, but they cannot truthfully continue to say what is no longer so, for example, that their opinions are in no way censurable or that they are Catholic theologians in good standing.
People who object to this actually are claiming for their particular group the right and power to overrule the Church’s pastoral leaders on what the Church is to teach, how she is to worship, and so on. But the freedom of other members of the Church to be Catholics would be infringed if the Church’s pastoral leaders were overruled.
Admittedly, an important strand of Christian theology has belittled many human goods. However, Christian faith serves not only the goods of religion and truth but the other goods as well. Moreover, it reinforces rather than weakens the responsibilities of Christians toward human goods in this world, inasmuch as faith and the hope flowing from it endow this life with eternal significance (see GS 34, 38–39).49 Avoiding both fatalism and groundless optimism, Christian faith is realistic about what can be achieved in this world.
a) Some theologies disparaged this-worldly goods. Sometimes what really does belong to human persons and their fulfillment was confused with sin and so was mistakenly opposed. Moreover, a one-sided mysticism and exaggerated otherworldliness, drawn from Greek philosophy, led some Christians to view life in this world as nothing but a means for reaching heaven (see CMP, 34.A). Thus, Christian history includes strands of thought and feeling which slighted and sometimes even despised nature, this world, and the body, as if denigrating them were necessary to appreciate grace, heaven, and spiritual reality. In fact, though, the gospel teaches that the Word became flesh and will forever remain bodily, that every human good is to be redeemed and sanctified, and that service to human goods in this world is both the fruit of Christian love of neighbor and the material of the heavenly kingdom (see CMP, 34.E–G).
b) Christian moral teaching promotes human goods. Although the Christian way of life excludes that mutilated fulfillment in goods which cannot be attained without sin, this is for the sake of integral fulfillment in human goods, the complete realization of human dignity. For example, Christian morality excludes genital acts apart from marital intercourse in order to protect and foster several human goods: human life in its beginnings, faithful marital communion, the religious significance of the self-gift found in both virtuous sexual activity and abstinence for the kingdom’s sake, and the integration of personality by which all the other goods related to sexuality can be harmoniously realized (see 9.E.6, below). Against the disintegrating effects of sin, Christianity provides the light and spiritual power to build up faithful persons and stable social bonds, especially those of the family, which are essential for individual fulfillment and social well-being.
c) Faith is realistic about the pursuit of human goods. Some religions outside the monotheistic tradition were fatalistic or quite pessimistic about the possibility of overcoming evils and realizing human goods, whether through human activity in this world or otherwise. The various forms of secular humanism, by contrast, are imbued with groundless optimism. They put too much trust in unaided human power to transform the world into an ideally good and happy community.50 Christian faith avoids both pessimism and optimism; it is realistic and hopeful. With God’s help, many evils can be overcome and many goods achieved even in this world. But this world never will be an ideal community because, despite God’s redemptive work in Jesus, sin and its consequences persist.51
Suffering is an enigmatic fact which challenges every world view.52 It is especially difficult to see any meaning or purpose in the suffering, sometimes excruciating and awful, of small children. And when one personally suffers or those one loves do, one wants to know why. But even more, one wants some way of dealing with suffering which holds out hope, based not on illusion but on truth, that a new and better life awaits one after death.
Jesus himself—the way, the truth, and the life—is the real Christian response to suffering. While his death and resurrection do not explain each particular instance, they do make it clear that God allows suffering for the sake of a great good, that the way to deal with suffering is to accept it with a love which overcomes hatred and sin, and that God responds to such love by making suffering end not in death but in new and perfect life.53
a) Although evil is real, God is not responsible for it. According to some world views, evil is not objectively real, but only relative and apparent. This conflicts with the fact that people cannot simply wish away sin and death or learn to see through them. According to other world views, evil is not only real, but something positive, real in the same way as good, and opposed to it. This conflicts with the fact that evil never is found by itself, but always in and with a good on which it is parasitical.
According to Christian faith, God made everything good, and evil arises only from a defect or mutilation in some thing (see CMP, 5.A). While that thing, as a positive reality, depends on God as its ultimate cause, a defect or mutilation does not need an ultimate cause in the same way. By misusing their freedom, created persons introduce evil into God’s good creation. God permits this, because he can bring good out of evil, and because the freedom which created persons abuse is necessary for them really to love God and one another.
b) Suffering in itself is not evil, but an experience of evil. To suffer is to be aware of some particular evil, whether in oneself or in others, as repugnant. Suffering takes many forms, from the sensation of pain which arises from damage to the body, through the emotion of grief over the loss of a loved one, to righteous indignation regarding unjust oppression. Insofar as suffering involves accurate knowledge and an appropriate reaction to some real state of affairs, it is not evil, which is a privation, but a positive reality, and in itself good. Suffering generally also serves the important function of motivating people, as pain motivates animals, to escape evil and/or struggle to overcome it.54 However, insofar as suffering results from and manifests evil, it is felt to be repugnant, and so tends to be assimilated to evil and confused with it.
God sometimes causes suffering as a punishment for sin. Sin is the worst evil and the ultimate source of the other evils which afflict humankind. It gives rise to guilt and to the inevitable evil effects of sin, and these naturally lead to guilt feelings and other suffering—repugnant experiences whose positive reality, nevertheless, is good in itself. While God only permits, and does not cause, either sin or any other evil, he does cause the suffering which results from sin, just as he causes every positive reality apart from himself. During this life, suffering is an educative punishment, a symptom which sharply calls attention to what is really wrong, moves sinners to repent, and moves others to resist sin and deal with its consequences. In the next life, of course, those who persisted in evil will experience their own wretchedness, and their punishment no longer will be educative. However, their suffering will not be imposed on them by God (see CMP, 18.I); rather, their painful awareness of their situation will be the inevitable consequence of their own sins and of their true self-knowledge.
d) God will overcome suffering and compensate the innocent. Not all who suffer are being punished for sin, however, for the innocent also suffer. Generally, their suffering motivates them or others to pay attention to some evil and to deal with it. Moreover, by raising Jesus, God shows how he will overcome sin’s terrible effects on all the innocent who suffer, and how their brief suffering in this world will lead to their everlasting joy in the next. Thus, it is far from clear that God should eliminate the pain and suffering of the innocent right now, rather than later.
e) God sometimes permits suffering as an opportunity for love. In three ways, the suffering of the innocent, especially of the helpless, offers others an opportunity for unselfish love. First, their poignant suffering should and often does move others to love them and struggle against the evils which make them suffer. Second, solidarity with the innocent who suffer with faith builds up one’s own faith and intensifies the bonds of Christian community. Third, doing what one can to overcome suffering causes one to experience suffering, and this experience intensifies love. For in struggling against evil, one who wills to serve the good despite hardship comes to love more perfectly. That is so because it is more difficult to will a good when that causes one to suffer than when it is easy and pleasant; thus, other things being equal, those who work to overcome evil would love less if they did not personally suffer by encountering and experiencing the evil they struggle against.
f) God’s final word about suffering is Jesus himself. Someone whose Christian faith is whole and strong will find in it a satisfying response to the challenge of suffering. This response is not so much what one believes about Jesus as it is Jesus himself. For Jesus brings God near, shows his gentleness, and makes it clear that he desires human salvation and fulfillment, not sin and misery.55 In Jesus’ passion and death, God himself voluntarily experiences the consequences of sin by sharing in human sufferings. The suffering of the innocent might otherwise lead even believers to distrust or defy God, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8).56
g) Christian hope makes even the worst suffering bearable. By Jesus’ resurrection, God reveals the ultimate significance of suffering and death. Just as Jesus willingly suffered, because he looked forward to the joy of resurrection (see Heb 12.2), so Christians who are faithful can anticipate glory even amidst sufferings, and so can honestly say:
When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
For those imbued with Christian hope, suffering in this life and even death itself become tolerable, for they are pangs of birth into everlasting life. The love which suffering can evoke is both a fruit of divine grace and a free and self-determining act of the will, which builds up a holy soul. The same holiness could not be attained without the suffering which evokes love.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. (Rom 8.15–18)
This world is a soul-building shop: divine grace and human freedom forge souls on the anvil of suffering.
46. See John Paul II, Homily at Mass at Osnabrück (Germany), 3, AAS 73 (1981) 67, OR, 1 Dec. 1980, 5: “Very few of us can still let ourselves be carried along today in the practice of faith simply by an environment of deep faith. We must rather decide consciously to want to be practising Christians, and to have the courage to distinguish ourselves, if necessary, from our environment. The premise for such a decided testimony of Christian life is to perceive and grasp faith as a precious chance of life, which transcends the interpretations and praxis of the environment.”
47. See Rodger Charles, S.J., The Church and the World, Theology Today, 43 (Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides, 1973).
48. See Arthur Vermeersch, S.J., Tolerance, trans. W. Humphrey Page (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1913).
49. Also see John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 460–61, PE, 267.254–57.
50. Paul VI, Christmas Message (1968), AAS 61 (1969) 54, OR, 26 Dec. 1968, 1, underlines the emptiness of contemporary aspirations: “We live in an era of hope. It is, however, a hope in the kingdom of this earth, a hope in human self-sufficiency.”
51. John Paul II, Address to Congress on “Wisdom of the Cross Today”, 2, Inseg. 7.1 (1984) 271, OR, 12 Mar. 1984, 3, speaks of Jesus’ redemptive work and adds: “This is the foundation of the only ‘humanism’ possible, because it rejects both the pessimism of every Manichean direction, and the optimism of every immanentistic conception, primarily responsible for the tragedies of the modern world.”
52. See John Bowker, Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).
53. On the Christian response to suffering as a practical challenge to faith, see John Paul II, Salvifici doloris, AAS 76 (1984) 201–50, OR, 20 Feb. 1984, 1–9. A valuable study clarifying Christian tradition on suffering: James Walsh, S.J., and P. G. Walsh, Divine Providence and Human Suffering, Message of the Fathers of the Church, 17 (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1985). Also see: C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962); Peter Kreeft, Making Sense out of Suffering (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1986); Russell Shaw, Does Suffering Make Sense? (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 1987).
54. The evil of a heart attack is the destruction of part of the heart’s tissue, not the pain in the chest which a conscious victim of heart attack experiences. (The pain causes heart attack victims to rest and seek help; if they felt no pain, death would be more likely.) Just as some people are blind or deaf, some lack the sense of pain, and that lack is a serious handicap; see Roger Trigg, Pain and Emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 166. Similarly, the evil of being a sinner is not guilt feelings but the sin of which one is guilty, whether or not one suffers feelings of guilt. (Guilt feelings cause sinners to repent; if they feel no guilt, damnation is more likely.)
55. See John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, 7, AAS 72 (1980) 1199–1203, PE, 279.66–79.
56. John Paul II, General Audience (30 Mar. 1983), 3, Inseg. 6.1 (1983) 855, OR, 5 Apr. 1983, 4, points out that without Christ, the cross is a scandal: “The cross with Christ is the great revelation of the meaning of suffering and of the value which it has in life and in history. He who understands the Cross, who embraces it, begins a journey very different from that of the process of contestation against God: in it there is found rather the motive of a new ascent to him on the way of Christ, which is, in fact, the way of the cross.”