When I returned to Jesus Christ and His Church in 1984, it wasn’t as though a decade of unchecked sinful habits and behaviors fell by the wayside. I had to struggle mightily to replace vice with virtue. The struggle continues to this day.
After all, “denying myself” and “turning the other cheek” don’t come naturally. I also had to convert on intellectual matters. I was fresh out of law school and something of a constitutional law scholar, having sharpened my legal teeth on Roe v. Wade jurisprudence. That year, Mario Cuomo, the poster child of “I’m personally opposed but” politics, captured my imagination with a stirring keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
So, when I first came back to the Church, I brought my pro-choice ideology with me. Of course I was “personally opposed” so much so that even then I would have gladly adopted a child rather than see him or her aborted. But I wasn’t where I needed to be in terms of fully accepting the Church’s coherent pro-life ethic. It took a year of prayer, study, and conversations with godly friends before I realized that I needed to repent and do penance for my dissident views.
When it comes to sins against charity, we’re usually able to come up with an excuse (e.g., “I was just letting off steam,” “My boss is a jerk,” “He shouldn’t have criticized my work,” “I didn’t think she’d take it personally”). At the end of the day, though, I think we all admit to sinning fairly regularly against charity. We realize that we hurt somebody, and so we try to reconcile as best we can with God and neighbor. Surely there are plenty of sins against charity to go around these days, and we do well to use a “charity scorecard” when examining our consciences.
Yet, Pope John Paul II has said that the present age is characterized not by a “crisis of charity,” but by a “crisis of faith.” We never hear about sins against faith, but if indeed we’re living through such a crisis, it stands to reason that sins against faith happen and happen frequently. Sins against faith are seemingly “victimless” sins. Not only that, it takes a rare humility today to admit that we’re wrong about anything. And when it comes to religious convictions true, false, or just plain weird our society takes a “to each his own” approach. Thus, in many Catholic circles today, rejection of Church teaching brings into play many fancy concepts, such as diversity, tolerance, plurality, religious freedom, lived experience, and primacy of “conscience.” But no mention of sin.
In its treatment of the first commandment, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes three paragraphs (nos. 2087-89) to sins against faith. The Catechism says that “[t]he first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it” [emphasis added]. I suspect that all of us can do a better job of nourishing and protecting our faith.
The Catechism also identifies several sins against faith, including voluntary doubt, incredulity, heresy, apostasy, and schism. None of these sins are four-letter words, but they may as well be, given the deliberate avoidance of these terms today. Scripture frequently speaks of the necessity of faith for salvation. Indeed, without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). Faith entails the acceptance of all that our Lord has revealed through His Church, based on His own authority as the Son of God.
Mere agreement is not the same as faith, because then we’re putting Christ’s teachings through an approval process, rejecting anything that seems unacceptable to us. But even acceptance of the person and teachings of Jesus Christ isn’t enough. We need to do what the Lord says (Lk 6:46). We must bear witness to our faith in our daily lives: “So every one who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father Who is in heaven” (Mt 10:32-33; cf. Catechism, no. 1816).
When we cultivate doubt or dissent, the result is spiritual blindness. Our choices are no longer guided by objective standards of moral conduct, and the Word of God ceases to be a light for our path. We cannot be indifferent to the personal dimension of the “crisis of faith” in our midst, perhaps writing off those who seem to be set in their dissident ways. Reaching out to those who struggle with sins against faith is a vitally important task indeed, a spiritual work of mercy.
I’m very grateful that some people, whose charity was surpassed only by their patience, called me to conversion on the abortion issue.
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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