Moral Briefs – Chapter XXIV – Unbelief

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonAn atheist in principle is one who denies the existence of God and consequently of all revealed truth. How, in practice, a man endowed with reason and a conscience can do this, is one of the unexplained mysteries of life. Christian philosophers refuse to admit that an atheist can exist in the flesh. They claim that his denial is fathered by his desire and wish, that at most he only doubts, and while professing atheism, he is simply an agnostic.

An agnostic does not know whether God exists or not – and cares less. He does not affirm, neither does he deny. All arguments for and against are either insufficient or equally plausible, and they fail to lodge conviction in his mind of minds. Elevated upon this pedestal of wisdom, he pretends to dismiss all further consideration of the First Cause. But he does no such thing, for he lives as though God did not exist. Why not live as though He did exist! From a rational point of view, he is a bigger fool than his atheistic brother, for if certainty is impossible, prudence suggests that the surer course be taken. On one hand, there is all to gain; on the other, all to lose. The choice he makes smacks of convenience rather than of logic or common sense.

No one may be accused of genuine, or as we call it, formal heresy, unless he persistently refuses to believe all the truths by God revealed. Heresy supposes error, culpable error, stubborn and pertinacious error. A person may hold error in good faith, and be so disposed as to relinquish it on being convinced of the truth. To all exterior appearances, he may differ in nothing from a formal heretic, and he passes for a heretic. In fact, and before God, he belongs to the Church, to the soul of the Church; he will be saved if in spite of his unconscious error he lives well. He is known as a material heretic.

An infidel is an unbaptized person, whose faith, even if he does believe in God, is not supernatural, but purely natural. He is an infidel whether he is found in darkest Africa or in the midst of this Christian commonwealth, and in this latter place there are more infidels than most people imagine. A decadent Protestantism rejects the necessity of baptism, thereby ceasing to be Christian, and in its trail infidelity thrives and spreads, disguised, ’tis true, but nevertheless genuine infidelity. It is baptism that makes faith possible, for faith is a gift of God.

An apostate is one who, having once believed, ceases to believe. All heretics and infidels are not apostates, although they may be in themselves or in their ancestors. One may apostatize to heresy by rejecting the Church, or to infidelity by rejecting all revelation; a Protestant may thus become an apostate from faith as well as a Catholic. This going back on the Almighty – for that is what apostasy is, – is, of all misfortunes the worst that can befall man. There may be excuses, mitigating circumstances, for our greatest sins, but here it is useless to seek for any. God gives faith. It is lost only through our own fault. God abandons them that abandon Him. Apostasy is the most patent case of spiritual suicide, and the apostate carries branded on his forehead the mark of reprobation. A miracle may save him, but nothing short of a miracle can do it, and who has a right to expect it? God is good, but God is also just.

It is not necessary to pose as an apostate before the public. One may be a renegade at heart without betraying himself, by refusing his inner assent to a dogma of faith, by willfully doubting and allowing such doubts to grow upon him and form convictions.

People sometimes say things that would brand them as apostates if they meant what they said. This or that one, in the midst of an orgy of sin, or after long practical irreligion, in order to strangle remorse that arises at an inopportune moment, may seem to form a judgment of apostasy. This is treading on exceedingly thin glass. But it is not always properly defection from faith. Apostasy kills faith as surely as a knife plunged into the heart kills life.

A schismatic does not directly err in matters of faith, but rejects the discipline of the Church and refuses to submit to her authority. He believes all that is taught, but puts himself without the pale of the Church by his insubordination. Schism is a grievous sin, but does not necessarily destroy faith.

The source of all this unbelief is, of course, in the proud mind and sensual heart of man. It takes form exteriorly in an interminable series of “isms” that have the merit of appealing to the weaknesses of man. They all mean the same thing in the end, and are only forms of paganism. Rationalism and Materialism are the most frequently used terms. One stands on reason alone, the other, on matter, and both have declared war to the knife on the Supernatural. They tell us that these are new brooms destined to sweep clean the universe, new lamps intended to dissipate the clouds of ignorance and superstition and to purify with their light the atmosphere of the world. But, truth to tell, these brooms have been stirring up dust from the gutters of passion and sin, and these lamps have been offending men’s nostrils by their smoky stench ever since man knew himself. And they shall continue to do service in the same cause as long as human nature remains what it is. But Christ did not bring His faith on earth to be destroyed by the lilliputian efforts of man.