The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 62, No 5, Sep-Oct 2009

Theology for the Laity

The Virtue of Faith

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

       In the previous Light and Life reflection we turned to St. Thomas Aquinas, who (echoing St. Augustine) defined virtue as

    A good habit of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us.... (ST I-II, 55.4)

       With this issue of our newsletter we will begin considering the individual virtues. When we were growing up, most of us learned that we live by the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, as well as by the Moral Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. This is the order in which we will discuss these good habits by which God works in us and brings us to everlasting life.

       The word "theological" comes from two Greek words, theos (which means "God") and logos, "word." We call Faith, Hope, and Charity "theological" virtues because they direct us to God, and because we receive them from God alone. The immense gift of Godís revelation is further enhanced by the truths contained in Scripture, and the teaching of the Church.

       Left to our own devices, we can reach a level of natural happiness by following the dictates of reason. Pope Pius XII wrote

    Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by His providence...yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things.... (Humani Generis, 561).

       However, coming to know God through human skills is no easy matter. Moreover, Scripture refers to a greater happiness, one we realize when we take part in Godís divine nature, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him, God has revealed to us through the Spirit" (1 Cor. 1:9).

       No matter how excellently human reason directs us to act (and no matter how excellent the resulting actions are), full participation in Godís life remains beyond our human reach; we enjoy it only by Godís invitation. We accept this invitation when we present ourselves for Baptism. Before His Ascension, Jesus commanded His disciples, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16).

       Most of us cannot recall our Baptism, but the rite by which the sacrament is conferred makes a clear connection between the sacrament and the Faith that is its gift. Parents who present children for baptism are asked, "What do you ask of Godís Church for your child?" The reply is, "Faith." The parents are next asked, "What does faith offer?" The answer, "Eternal life."

       The Sacrament of Baptism not only forgives sin, it makes us "partakers in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) and "identifies us as Godís adopted children" (Gal. 4:5). By Godís grace, Baptism gives us the theological virtues by which we believe in God, hope in Him, and love Him. It also enables us to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and grow in the goodness of the moral virtues we shall consider in further reflections.

       The theological virtue of Faith gives our intellect the supernatural knowledge by which we can direct our lives toward God. The virtue of Hope allows us to see this life with God as something possible to attain. The virtue of Charity transforms our human will by allowing us to enjoy the spiritual union with God that begins with Faith.

       Faith is the habit by which we believe in God and what He has revealed. Because Christ entrusted His teaching authority to the apostles, Faith is also the habit by which we embrace the teachings of the Church. Faith precedes the other theological virtues because its first act is to allow us to recognize the existence of God, who is the object every virtue seeks to possess.

       Here we can see a parallel to our natural lives. Until we know some thing exists, we can form no opinion of it. Likewise, until we know some place exists, we have no reason to plan to visit it. However, once we become aware of a thingís existence, we can study it, evaluate it, and decide whether to incorporate this knowledge into the rest of our life. In a similar way, God reveals Himself to us through Faith, and once we become aware of Him, we can direct and order our lives toward a deeper and more intimate life with Him.

       Here we should observe that although the God of Faith is one and unchanging, human capacities differ both in their ability to comprehend the truth, and in the speed, firmness and devotion with which they assent to it. Jesus chides Peter when He says, "You of little faith; why did you doubt?" (Mt 15:28) and in another place he commends one of His listeners by saying, "Woman, great is your faith!" Therefore, one personís faith may be objectively greater than anotherís, but the gift of Faith itself is sufficient for each individual who grasps it.

       Here we may draw another comparison between our natural lives and the life of grace. We say an individual who has greater knowledge or experience in science, grammar, mathematics, or any other object of human study, has two obligations. The first is to deepen his own knowledge, the second is to teach those who are less informed. Likewise, those whose faith gives them greater insight into the goodness of God have an obligation not only to share what they know, in order to increase the faith of others, but to study and pray so they may increase their own faith.

       This may sound like a task reserved solely for professional theologians, but each of us is called to increase our faith, and to promote the faith of others. One of the axioms of our Churchís theology states that gifts are never given just to enrich the one who receives them; they are given to be shared with the entire Church. We are baptized into a community, and we are called to enrich this community by our prayer and example. We are assisted in this life-long project by grace, the free and loving gift of the God we seek to know. Our progress in faith involves both our mind and our will. The more we learn about God, the more we find to love. The more we love God, the more we want to know Him - and to know about Him.

       As soon as we speak of knowledge and love we must consider the relation between the intellect and the will. Our intellect seeks to know truth; our will to embrace goodness. These two aspects of our human nature unite to produce the habits we call virtues. When he considers the virtue of Faith, St. Thomas Aquinas writes "...to believe is an act of the intellect in assenting to the truth at the command of the will" (ST II-II, 4:5).

       We might ask why faith depends on the willís commanding the intellect to believe, and here the Scripture comes to our assistance. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, "Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not" (Heb. 11:1). The object of our faith - God - differs from an object of science precisely because we cannot see God or infer His existence simply from study and experiment. Grace reveals the invisible God to our mind, but it does not force us to believe what has been revealed. Our will apprehends what is good in revelation, and directs our intellect to accept the revelation as something that is true. Faith reveals God to be both true and good, so Faith enables both our intellect and our will to grow in perfection.

       If we wonder how our Faith manifests itself, St. Thomas Aquinas replies that one of the first effects of Faith is to understand what happens if we turn away from God. This understanding results in fear - fear of punishment, and fear of separation from God. Our faith allows us to see Godís infinite goodness, and it also makes us realize how much we sacrifice if we separate ourselves from this goodness. Indeed, Faith allows us to understand that separation from God is the greatest evil we can suffer.

       But Faith also purifies our hearts, by turning us more and more toward God and more and more away from sin. As our reflections progress we will see that the virtues are connected to one another, and the virtue of Charity will appear over and over, as a catalyst that "speeds up" or deepens another good habit. The goal of human life is loving union with God, the union of Charity. As we grow in virtue, our love for God (which is itself a reflection of Godís love for us) makes us want to draw closer to the God we apprehend by Faith. In this way, the virtues work together to perfect one another.

       Here we can see a natural parallel to our life of Faith. Baptism makes us part of a supernatural family, the Church. One of the reasons we call the Church "our Mother" is the Churchís task of teaching us and offering the other aids by which we grow to Christian maturity. In the course of our growth in Faith we learn many words. At some point we also learn that we do not believe in the words themselves, but in the realities they represent. Our Catechism makes a wonderful comparison between the vocation of human mothers and the Church

    As a mother who teacher her children to speak and so to understand and communicate, the Church our Mother teaches us the language of faith in order to introduce us to the understanding and the life of faith (171).

       As we grow and mature, human gifts enable us to succeed and excel. The human family of Jesus helped Him increase in wisdom and stature, and the Catechism remarks that the Churchís deposit of belief does the same for our life of Faith. "Believing," it states, "is an ecclesial act. The Churchís faith precedes, engenders, supports and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers" (181). The Catechismís reflection concludes with words of St. Cyprian, "No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother."

       In the Mass, after we say the Our Father, the celebrant prays, "Lord, Jesus Christ...look not on our sins, but on the Faith of your Church".... Belief in God is our first act of Faith. The Churchís faith enables us to build on this initial act, and to grow in what St. Jude, in his letter, calls "our common salvation" (Jude 3).

       We cannot speak of the Church as our mother without considering the Mother of Jesus, whom we call "the Mother of the Church." Mary stands for us, and wherever we encounter her in the gospel, the evangelist wants us to find ourselves. The habit we name the virtue of Faith enables us to surrender to a great deal that we could grasp in no way other than Godís revelation.

       This surrender cannot always be easy, but we are not alone in being called to make it. Mary was there first. We can easily imagine the thousand questions that must have come to mind when Mary heard the angelís proclamation that she was to become the Mother of God. We should likewise rejoice in the Faith that allowed her - and teaches us - to say, "behold the handmaid of the Lord."


Back to Light & Life Page | Way Back to Rosary Center Home Page