“Catholics understand faith differently. In Catholic doctrine, faith is a human act — a decision we make to believe what God has revealed about Himself. Now, God certainly helps the soul to believe. I don’t believe without God’s help, but believing remains something that I do. Faith is not a “blind impulse of the mind,” but a considered judgment that Christ and the Church are credible and trustworthy.
The Bible compares our relationship to God to human marriage, an analogy that helps us understand something about the relationship between faith and reason. Marriage can be a very rational decision, but it still takes trust. If a man decides that his fiancée is trustworthy, then getting married is very reasonable. But how can I find out if my fiancée is trustworthy? I can find reasons to trust my fiancée, but in the end, it’s not the sort of thing I can demonstrate with a mathematical proof. In the end, I must decide whether to trust her and get married based on the available evidence. The Catholic Church says faith is like that. There are good reasons for faith, but in the end, you must still decide.
Why does this difference matter? As a Presbyterian, it was very important for me to say that “I knew for sure” about everything: “Are you sure you are going to Heaven? Are you sure that you are saved? Are you sure the Bible is God’s word? Are you sure there is a God?” In all these cases, the Calvinist might consult rational arguments, but ultimately, he trusts the “witness of the Spirit.” In the end, his certainty comes from subjective religious experience.
In my formation as a Calvinist, I had developed the habit of identifying my emotional life with the activity of the Holy Spirit. But I was growing to doubt this idea of the “witness of the Spirit.” I didn’t know if I could be “sure” ever again. Without that certainty, I did not see how I could ever commit myself to a religious tradition. This is where St Thomas Aquinas helped me the most.
Thomas helped me see that the content of Christian faith can really be divided into two categories: There are things that we can know with certainty from reason and argument, and there are things that we believe simply on the authority of Christ and the Church. Furthermore — and this is important — there are good reasons to trust Christ and the Church. We do not just believe. These distinctions are very important to understanding what faith should feel like, or whether it should feel like anything at all.
Authentic Catholic philosophers such as St. Thomas work very hard to prove parts of the Christian faith, but they also admit freely that we can accept other parts only on authority. The Calvinists I studied with did not divide the content of the faith in this way. They considered the faith as a whole, and they dismissed purely philosophical accounts of God, the soul, or the moral life. They were not just uninterested in proving the content of even one part of Christian faith but were skeptical that setting out to do so could be valuable at all.
I recall the very text that changed my mind about becoming Catholic. Here is the essential passage from Thomas’s De veritate (On Truth):
“We are moved to believe what God says because we are promised eternal life as a reward if we believe. And this reward moves the will to assent to what is said, although the intellect is not moved by anything which it understands. Therefore, Augustine says: “Man can do other things unwillingly, but he can believe only if he wills it.”” (14.1)
In one sense, I felt a tremendous disappointment when I read this text. I saw in a flash what St. Thomas was challenging me to do: take responsibility for my belief or unbelief. I could wait a lifetime for God to compel me to believe — and I would likely die without faith. Or I could also respond freely to His invitation to believe. It was disappointing because I realized that I could never achieve the kind of certainty that comes from an immediate and intuitive experience. But it was also liberating, because I finally saw clearly that this is not a bad thing. When I read this passage, I had an epiphany more powerful than the loss I felt on the day my faith first slipped away. I saw clearly how faith could be a rational possibility without being rationally compelled.
Again, it was rather like marriage. It is not irrational to marry a woman, especially one who has demonstrated her trustworthiness. Does my wife really love me? Will she be faithful forever? Can we get over our conflicts and make a life together? What will happen if I apologize? Will she forgive me? Can I ever be happy with this woman? These questions all have answers, but they are not the sort of thing that admit of mathematical certainty.
Catholicism is similarly an invitation to a kind of relationship and a way of being in the world. Above all, I think Catholicism is an invitation to believe that our moral convictions and our desire for meaning correspond to something real — something, or rather Someone, so real that He became incarnate in the world, taking on flesh in the womb of a virgin. You can’t get more real than that.
There are good reasons to believe in the Incarnation; Catholic theology calls them the “motives of credibility.” The fulfillment of prophecy, the miracles of Christ, His Resurrection, and the profound moral influence of Catholicism on world history all testify to the truth of Christian claims. Do these reasons compel me to believe? Obviously they do not; there are many people who consider these reasons and still do not have faith. I must choose what position I will take on life, and whether to accept or to resist the arguments in favor of Christ.
The great existential challenge in the world today is whether there is any meaning at all. Childlessness, suicide, and euthanasia are depopulating whole societies that have given up on life and prefer to die quietly in bed. Japan now sells more adult diapers than baby diapers. Russia has more abortions than live births. Where would I stand? Is there any truth? Is there any love that endures? Every fiber of my being said yes. Yes, to reason; yes, to love; yes, to hope; yes, even to suffering.
I knew I had to become a Catholic.”
Anders, Dr. David. The Catholic Church Saved My Marriage: Discovering Hidden Grace in the Sacrament of Matrimony (pp. 100-103). Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition.
Love & truth,