If the evil one were looking for a way to quietly render infertile the Catholic Church, by effecting a decline of faith from within, I’d guess he would work for reduction at the source of faith: namely, the hearing of the Word of God. Paul left the clue in Scripture: “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” (Rom 10:17) “So let this be,” the evil one might say, “the strategy of our battle against the Church: we will diminish and weaken the preaching of Christ, we will dilute the proclamation of God’s Truth, we will degrade the sacred to the level of the secular – we will stifle the potency and strangle the effects of the Gospel. We will bring the Church to impotence.”
The words of the Word nourish the very life of the Church: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Mt 4:4) Therefore, withholding the food of faith from human persons by withdrawing the Word from among them, contracepting new conversions and impeding continuing conversions, the evil one could starve the supernatural life of the Church. He would twist the wisdom of the Word in Paul to his own dark purposes:
Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:13-17)
The Word – and faith effected by the Word – arm us both defensively and offensively, to guard our souls from his evil lies, and to forge the sword to defeat him. “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” But deprived of that Word, what are we left with? I repeat the question: Deprived of His Holy Word, what are we and the Church left with? You might answer, “We have the sacraments! We have Christ!” This will be addressed below, but for now, let’s consider the effects in a Church deprived of the food of the words of the Word of God.
Persons left with malnourished faith, the uncertainties of poor understanding, impotent against the assaults of evil, too weak to look beyond our own narrowed horizons, and having no bread to offer the starving world – what do we have left, more than blind loyalty of habit – and I use the word carefully – superstition? Will this convert the world? Will this “make disciples of all the nations”? Indeed, will this save us, in the coming of “the evil day”?
Superstition: the Counterfeit of Faith
Whether or not such a plan ever existed in the dark mind of the evil one, such an impoverishment is taking place in the Church today: we are suffering from feeding from the Table of the Word increasingly thin and watered-down, having little substance, little meat, little to fortify and grow us into the fullness of the stature of Christ, our destiny. This must be discussed more fully, and will be, God willing. But first let us consider more carefully this troubling word: “superstition.” Can such a thing as “superstition” be appropriate here, discussing results of an impoverishment of the saving words of truth and of life? Could superstition exist today among Catholics, in our devotional and sacramental lives? Yes, and especially in souls malnourished or starved of the bread that proceeds from the mouth of God, His holy Word.
Secularists commonly charge believers with superstition. Secularists have no basis for understanding the difference between faith and superstition, so they easily confuse the two. Both faith and superstition are, to them, irrational – without substance. The two are the same thing to secularists, both seen as relics of an uneducated and unscientific past. There is a radical difference, however, between faith and superstition – sadly, the superstitious can be present among the company of faithful people. Superstition is very close to faith, outwardly, but there is a radical distinction inwardly. The Catechism gives a brief but helpful teaching:
2111 Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.
Yes, the fruitful reception of any sacrament requires faith, and proper interior disposition. This must be heard alongside with the intrinsic efficacy of a sacrament. From the Catechism:
1127 Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. …
1128 This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.
1131 The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.
The sacraments confer grace, because of Christ! Their outward signs “signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament.” But that same paragraph adds: “They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” This same crucial factor is found also in #1128: “From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.”
That proper disposition is formed through the power of the Word, and specifically, the words of the Word: revealed Truth, the Gospel, received and embraced personally in the heart of the believer. The Catechism teaches, “The Holy Spirit prepares the faithful for the sacraments by the Word of God and the faith which welcomes that word in well-disposed hearts.” (#1133)
Proper reception of the sacraments requires faith – which comes by hearing and receiving the words of the Word, holy Truth. Fruitful reception of the sacraments requires right disposition – a fully human reception, an act of mind and heart, a personal presence and participation, a conscious, willing, free reception of God’s grace in the sacrament.
But what happens when the potent words of the Word, the truths of the Gospel, are neglected in the life of a fully initiated Catholic? What happens to faith in a young adult, or an older adult, who has received no catechesis and growth in the Catholic Faith since eighth grade confirmation, who has no real life of prayer or the frequent companionship of Holy Scripture? What happens to faith after years of insipid homilies that avoid the hard moral challenges and full presentation of the faith of our Church? What happens after years of sweet platitudes from the ambo, droning weekly and weakly a gospel of “be nice to one another”? What happens to the authentic Gospel having power to save, transform, raise up, give life to a human person? What happens when living faith is starved, leaving mere habit and superstitious loyalty? What happens is that the potent sacrament is made barren, to the delight of the evil one: grace is wasted, grace is received in vain.
In a previous article, I gave some reflections on the contemporary abandonment of the Catholic Faith by about 1/3 of the “Cradle Catholics” in the U.S., from the results of a recent Pew Forum study. The Church has not been faithful to her mission: “make disciples!” Indeed the total membership would be shrinking today in the U.S., were it not for immigration. We continue to rely on sacramentalizing, while neglecting evangelizing and catechizing.
The result is for many in the pews weak faith, loyalty due to history or habit, and maybe even for some, superstition. They deserve better. He deserves better. Others in the Church may have faith, yet a blind faith, a faith in spite of poor formation and teaching we have given them! These members are gifts of God for us, because He remains faithful even though we continue to slumber and sleep. We need to recognize the crucial need for a potent ministry of the Word, proclaimed and taught with power and unction. A famine has come upon us, even while the storehouse is full to overflowing!