The Theological Virtue of Faith

Issue: What is faith?

Response: The Glossary found in the official 1997 version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines faith as follows:

[Faith is] both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God who invites his response, and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed. It is this revelation of God which the Church proposes for our belief, and which we profess in the Creed, celebrate in the sacraments, live by right conduct that fulfills the twofold commandment of charity (as specified in the ten commandments), and respond to in our prayer of faith. Faith is both a theological virtue given by God as grace, and an obligation which flows from the first commandment of God.

Discussion: In general, when we speak of “faith,” we refer to the act of believing the truth of an assertion on the authority of the person making the assertion. When we have personal, “eyewitness” knowledge, we don’t need to take another person’s word for it—in other words, we don’t need faith. But when we accept as true something about which we don’t have such firsthand knowledge, we are making an act of faith.

For example, imagine that we’re passing through a town and ask a stranger for directions. If we act on this information, then we believe that the stranger told us the truth. Note that there are two aspects to this act of faith. First, we believe that the stranger is worthy of belief. Does he seem to know the area? Does he seem to be of sound mind? Does he understand our question? Does he have any reason to lead us astray? In short, is he credible?

Once we accept the credibility of this person, we also accept the directions he provides us. If the person tells us that we need to go west to arrive at our destination, we either go that direction or we really don’t accept the credibility of this person.

Faith in God and His Revelation

With this basic understanding of merely human faith, we can better appreciate supernatural faith. As a theological virtue, faith involves a personal adherence to the living God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf. Catechism, no. 176).

Act of Faith

O my God, I firmly believe that you are one God in three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe that Your divine Son became man and died for our sins, and that He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the holy Catholic Church teaches, because You have revealed them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Amen.

As the Creator of the universe and the Author of all life, God is the source of all truth. In the prayer known as the “Act of Faith,” we acknowledge that God “can neither deceive nor be deceived.” In other words, His trustworthiness is unparalleled.

It follows, then, that the truths revealed to us by God are more reliable and certain than merely human knowledge (cf. Catechism, no. 157). God has revealed His saving truth throughout human history, but especially through His Son, Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 1:1-2). When we accept Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh, then we are also accepting His preeminent authority to teach us the truth. Jesus Himself severely chastises those who call upon Him as “Lord” but fail to act on His teachings (cf. Mt. 7:21-23). If we knowingly reject any of Christ’s teachings, then we are implicitly rejecting Christ Himself, who is the very source of truth (cf. Jn. 14:6).

St. Thomas and other disciples of Jesus received the singular gift of being eyewitnesses of Jesus’ Resurrection. Modern-day Christians, however, have not seen the risen Lord in the flesh. In reference to us, Our Lord says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Jn. 20:29).

Christ speaks to us today through the Holy Spirit who breathes life into the Church. All baptized Christians have received the Holy Spirit, who instructs the faithful and leads them into all truth (cf. Catechism, no. 91). God’s revealed truth, both written (Scripture) and oral/liturgical (Tradition), reflects the Holy Spirit’s mission to ensure that Christ’s teachings are faithfully preserved, celebrated in the sacraments, and communicated to all peoples from generation to generation. The Magisterium of the Church has the specific, God-given gift of faithfully interpreting the Word of God (cf. Catechism, nos. 85-86), so that he who hears the Church—the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15)—hears Christ Himself (cf. Lk. 10:16). In other words, in matters pertaining to our Christian faith, the Church speaks with the authority of Christ Himself.

Gift of God and Human Act

Perhaps the most memorable act of faith recorded in Scripture is St. Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16). This passage is usually cited to demonstrate Peter’s (and his successors’) unique role as the rock on which the Church is built. But this passage also identifies the source of Christian faith. Our Lord says that flesh and blood has not revealed this truth to him, but rather His Heavenly Father has done so (Mt. 16:17).

In other words, faith is not something we create for ourselves or others through our own efforts. Rather, it is an unmerited gift from God (cf. Catechism, no. 153). This gift is infused at Baptism, but even before that, a person needs God’s grace to move and assist him, whether he be an infant (with God’s grace working through the faith of the parents who have the child baptized) or an adult convert. And after Baptism, the individual is
called to grow in faith and manifest that faith through service to Christ and His Church.

Yet, faith is not imposed upon us. While the Holy Spirit enables us to confess, with St. Peter and all the angels and saints, that Jesus is Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3), the act of believing is truly “a human act, conscious and free, corresponding to the dignity of the human person” (Catechism, no. 180). Here we see how God mysteriously achieves His eternal purposes through the free cooperation of His creatures.

The Faith of the Church

Faith has a vitally personal component. After all, it pertains to our own free decision to accept Jesus Christ as Our Lord and Savior, and on His authority accept the teachings of His Church. Therefore, it is legitimate to refer to “my” faith or “your” faith.

At the same time, we must also recognize that our faith, as something received from God and shared with other believers, is ecclesial in nature. Catechism, no. 181 provides: “‘Believing’ is an ecclesial act. The Church’s faith precedes, engenders, supports, and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers.” Then, quoting St. Cyprian, the Catechism says: “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church
as Mother” (see also Catechism, nos. 168-69).

This understanding of faith has two important implications. First, it implies that faith has an objective content shared by all believers. For this reason, we can refer to “the” faith as the body of beliefs held by all Catholics. Given this objective content, we do not create our own faith or decide what articles of the faith are worthy of acceptance. If we accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ, how can we justify rejecting any of the teachings of His Church?
Faith is more than mere agreement, but rather involves a submission of the whole person to the Lordship of Christ.

Second, the ecclesial nature of our faith helps us to see that our faith is much more than an intellectual acceptance of a list of abstract concepts. Rather, our baptismal faith makes us sons and daughters of God. Through faith we are not only united with our Triune God, but also now have “family” ties with all those who are in Christ, both living and deceased. Thus the Church is not merely our Teacher, but even more, our Mother.

We express our baptismal faith when we recite one of the creeds, which can be both a personal as well as communal expression of faith (cf. Catechism, no. 167). In her creeds, most notably the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, the Church gathers together the essential elements of our faith in organic, systematic summaries. Indeed one of the principal elements of the Church’s unity—our “common ground” with other believers—is the profession of the one faith received from the apostles (cf. Catechism, no. 815).

The Obedience of Faith

The Church teaches that faith is necessary for salvation. Christ Himself affirms: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk. 16:16; cf. Catechism, no. 183). Vatican II similarly teaches that the obedience of faith must be given to God as He reveals Himself (Dei Verbum, no. 5). St. Paul speaks of the “obedience of faith” as our first obligation (cf. Rom. 1:5, 16:26). He further writes that “ignorance of God” is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations (cf. Rom. 1:18-32). In short, we have the duty to believe in God (the natural virtue of religion) and to bear witness to Him (cf. Catechism, no. 2087).

This duty plays itself out differently in every individual according to his or her own lights and abilities, and according to the graces that have been given. God alone judges the faith of His people.

We can say that to whom more has been given, more is expected. For those of us who have received the gift of faith at Baptism, the First Commandment requires us to nourish and protect our Catholic faith with prudence and vigilance. We must reject any teaching or action opposed to it (cf. Catechism, nos. 2088-89). Stated positively, the “mustard seed” of faith that we have been given is meant to become mature and deep (cf. Eph. 4:11-16).

Faith without works is lifeless (Jas. 2:17). Vatican II clearly teaches that even those who profess the Catholic faith will not be saved if they do not persevere in charity (Lumen Gentium, no. 14; cf. Mt. 7:21). The theological virtue of faith not only calls us to preserve and deepen the gift of faith, but to allow this gift to bear fruit in a holy life (cf. Catechism, nos. 1814-16).

Light to the World

Our faith is the most valuable gift we have received. Truly, faith is the “pearl of great price” (Mt. 13:45-46) that we should be willing to sacrifice everything for, even to the point of death (cf. Catechism, no. 1816).

The gift of faith is not meant just for ourselves. While we do “cling” to our faith amidst the trials and temptations that come our way, our faith must also be on the offensive, as we help lead others to Christ through our own words and example. Let us be ever thankful for our gift of faith, nourish it in prayer and the sacramental life of the Church, and manifest it through our lives of charity. Let us bear witness to our faith in a world that desperately
needs to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ (cf. Jn. 17:20; Rom. 10:17).

Recommended Reading:

Holy Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Credo of the People of God, Pope Paul VI

Essentials of the Faith, Fr. Al McBride, O.Praem.

Tour of the Catechism, Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?, Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.

Faith, Hope, Love, Josef Pieper

To order, call Benedictus Books toll-free: (888) 316-2640. CUF members receive 10% discount.

Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God; edited by Scott Hahn and Leon J. Suprenant, Jr.

Catholic for a Reason II: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mother of God; edited by Leon J. Suprenant, Jr.

Mission of the Messiah: On the Gospel of Luke; Timothy Gray

Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions; Leon J. Suprenant, Jr., & Philip C.L. Gray

Mystery of the Kingdom; Edward P. Sri

Servants of the Gospel; a collection of essays by American bishops on the bishop’s role in the Church today

To order, call Emmaus Road Publishing toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Related Faith Facts:

  • Hope: The Forgotten Virtue
  • All You Need Is Love: The Theological Virtue of Charity
  • The Cardinal Virtues
  • Taking God at His Word: A Catholic Understanding of Biblical Inerrancy

© 2000 Catholics United for the Faith

Last edited: 8/23/06

Date created:
2/23/2005
Date edited:
10/10/2007

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