Moral Briefs – Chapter XVII – What We Believe

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonOur first duty to God, and the first obligation imposed upon us by the First Commandment is Faith, or belief in God – we must know Him.

Belief is solely a manner of knowing. It is one way of apprehending, or getting possession of, a truth. There are other ways of acquiring knowledge; by the senses, for instance, seeing, hearing, etc., and by our intelligence or reason. When truth comes to us through the senses, it is called experience; if the reason presents it, it is called science; if we use the faculty of the soul known as faith, it is belief.

You will observe that belief, experience and science have one and the same object, namely, truth. These differ only in the manner of apprehending truth. Belief relies on the testimony of others; experience, on the testimony of the senses; science, on that of the reason. What I believe, I get from others; what I experience or understand, I owe to my individual self. I neither believe nor understand that Hartford exists – I see it. I neither understand nor see that Rome exists – I believe it. I neither see nor believe that two parallel lines will never meet – I reason it out, I understand it.

Now it is beside the question here to object that belief, or what we believe, may or may not be true. Neither is all that we see, nor all that our reason produces, true. Human experience and human reason, like all things human, may err. Here we simply remark that truth is the object of our belief, as it is the object of our experience and of understanding. We shall later see that if human belief may err, faith or divine belief cannot mislead us, cannot be false.

Neither is it in order here to contend that belief, of its very nature, is something uncertain, that it is synonymous of opinion; or if it supposes a judgment, that judgment is “formidolose,” liable at any moment to be changed or contradicted. The testimony of the senses and of reason does not always carry certain conviction. We may or may not be satisfied with the evidence of human belief. As for the divine, or faith, it is certain, or it is not at all; and who would not be satisfied with the guarantee offered by the Word of God!

And the truths we believe are those revealed by God, received by us through a double agency, the written and the oral word, known as Scripture and Tradition. Scripture is contained in the two Testaments; Tradition is found in the bosom, the life of the Church of Christ, in the constant and universal teachings of that Church.

The Scripture being a dead letter cannot explain or interpret itself. Yet, since it is applied to the ever-varying lives of men, it needs an explanation and an interpretation; it is practically of no value without it. And in order that the truth thus presented be accepted by men, it is necessary, of prime necessity, that it have the guarantee of infallibility. This infallibility the Church of Christ possesses, else His mission were a failure.

This infallibility is to control the vagaries of Tradition, for Tradition, of its very nature, tends to exaggeration, as we find in the legends of ancient peoples. Exaggerated, they destroy themselves, but in the bosom of God’s Church these truths forever retain their character unchanged and unchangeable.

If you accept the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth as revealed by God and delivered to man by the infallible Church from the Bible and Tradition, you have what is called ecclesiastical. Catholic or true faith. There is no other true faith. It is even an open question whether there is any faith at all outside of this; for outside the Church there is no reasonable foundation for faith, and our faith must be reasonable.

However, granting that such a thing can be, the faith of him who takes and leaves off the divine Word is called divine faith. He is supposed to ignore invincibly a portion of revealed truth, but he accepts what he knows. If he knew something and refused to embrace it, he would have no faith at all. The same is true of one who having once believed, believes no longer. He impeaches the veracity of God, and therefore cannot further rely on His Word.

Lastly, it matters not at all what kind of truths we receive from God. Truth is truth always and ever. We may not be able to comprehend what is revealed to us, and little the wonder. Our intelligence is not infinite, and God’s is. Many things that men tell us we believe without understanding; God deserves our trust more than men. Our incapacity for understanding all that faith teaches us proves one thing: that there are limits to our powers, which may be surprising to some, but is nevertheless true.