"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Doubt Sunday

In his homily at the first Mass this morning, the pastor of my parish jokingly alluded to a local Unitarian church's advertisement of its service today as that of "Doubt Sunday." In the real church, of course, today is more directly and accurately designatable as "Faith Sunday." We are told the story (Genesis 22: 1-18) of Abraham, our father in faith, preparing to make his "son of the promise" a human sacrifice by divine command, only to be held back by God at the last moment. Such was the faith of Abraham. God ordered him to eliminate the only visible means by which God's promises to him could have been fulfilled, yet he obeyed; and as he prepared to act accordingly, he had done all that God really expected of him.

Though the story doesn't say so, Abraham must have struggled with rendering such obedience. But his eventual choice to render it was rewarded: having passed the test, "his faith was credited to him as righteousness" and his descendants in faith are "as numerous as the stars"—at least as the number of stars was thought in biblical times to be. Yet how many of us can say the same for ourselves, consistently? Not many. Hence our unbelief is thrown into relief today. In a perverse but inescapable way, it is indeed Doubt Sunday.

At times we all deserve the dominical rebuke "O ye of little faith." But it is peculiarly appropriate for Catholics today in the developed world. To judge by what such Catholics write and read, by what they say in adult-education offerings and in the coffee hour after Mass, and above all by how they conduct themselves in the bedroom and the boardroom, many have lost the virtue of faith if they ever had it. They reserve to themselves the right, in the name of "conscience," to pick-and-choose what they shall believe and how they shall interpret those teachings of the Church that they elect to believe. The old Greek word for such choosing is haeresis. Transliterated, that word is "heresy." For many white Catholics today, heresy is their principle of faith.

As to why that stance is incoherent, see my Pontifications post "Faith, Private Judgment, Doubt, and Dissent." Yet I would be hard pressed to identify one Catholic in five anymore who even remembers that faith, as the Church understands it, is a "theological virtue." True faith is a gift infused by the Holy Spirit that orients our minds to belief, and hence our wills to trust, in Jesus Christ. For reasons I explained, faith in that sense depends on obedience to authority, the relevant authority being the Church. Without such authority, we are thrown back on our own experiences and opinions, which of course differ from those of others. We are no longer "of one mind and heart" in the Mystical Body of Christ. We are a collection of fractious individuals. Just like the Unitarians.

That said, the responsibility of those of us not prone to such an error is all the greater. Though not in my intellect, certainly in my life I have not always shown the faith of Abraham. In fact, I'd say I failed the greatest test of my faith so far; it had to do with marriage, as these things so often and inevitably do. Why inevitably?

Well, the Church constitutes one body with Christ as his Bride in a mystical marriage; human marriage is meant to be a sign and instrument of that salvific, deifying unity-in-love which is embodied in Christ's relationship with the Church. In other words, it's a sacrament. People who fail to live the sacrament of marriage as the Church requires and urges fail in what is perhaps their most important means of living the Christian vocation. I pray that I, and so many like me, learn to overcome such failures and conduct our lives henceforth with the faith of an Abraham.
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