Sense and Nonsense: Lost Faith

Most families and ‘circles of friends’ today have, somewhere, members who were once baptized, confessed, first communioned, confirmed, married, or even ordained in the Church but who have explicitly or implicitly denied their faith. By their own testimony, they no longer believe it or practice it. Some are belligerent, others merely passive, even nostalgic. Some have joined other congregations or become Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists or, God forbid, Ecologists with a capital E, advancing some sort of absolute natural divinity.

This situation creates what might be called a new “ecumenical” problem—how to deal with, let’s call them, secularized folks? Do we automatically assume good will, hence no subjective problem at all? Do we attend what are to us invalid weddings as if they were the happiest days of our lives? Do we notice nothing when they politely go to communion at the funeral of Uncle George? Do we keep silent at their clearly inaccurate, often outlandish descriptions of Catholic teaching?

I was thinking of this when, in San Francisco, I came across Marian Crowe’s essay in the New Oxford Review (June, 1997). She wrote: ‘”I think it’s time to consider the possibility that young people’s indifference to, defection from, and—in some cases—contempt for the Catholic Church (and often for Christianity in general) may not be so much a matter of style as of substance.” That is, they gave up the faith period. Once baptized, always baptized? No doubt an active divine providence is at work leading each soul, especially the one lost, back to the Father. But this inspiration often is rejected again and again over a lifetime. The rejections become deep, not easily recognized habits of disorder.

In the eleventh chapter of Second Corinthians, Paul writes, “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. It comes as no surprise that his ministers disguise themselves as ministers of the justice of God.” What most frequently takes the place of God in the modern world, it seems, is a form of corporate “justice” that has nothing to do with the divine justice, let alone with mercy. This remarkable Pauline passage suggests something evident in every instance of “lost” faith, namely, that something “better,” it is claimed, is found to take its place.

No doubt this “better” always falls under the discussion of the incomplete alternatives to happiness that Aquinas listed in the Prima Secundae of his Summa Theologiae. That is, none of these alternatives—power, money, pleasure, and so on— will, on examination, sustain a life. But each alternative will provide an excuse that will seem “rational” to the one changing his spiritual direction. Serious reexamination of the faith’s teachings is often, usually for moral reasons, deftly avoided.

Actually, the problem is not just Catholic. Marty Kaplan wrote in the International Herald Tribune (April 4, 1997):

So I’m not Jewish after all. The conclusion isn’t mine, doesn’t arise from personal soul-searching and will undoubtedly surprise my parents in Florida. My excommunication comes from the 600-member Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, which have made the Torah’s 613 commandments the litmus test of Judaism. To be sure, the rabbis are a very small group. But they have hit upon a real vulnerability—and not just among Jews. A lot of people cobble together their own concept of a Supreme Being, a fragile, ad hoc faith that gets them through the postmodern night.

This passage alone will strike Christians as reason enough for Paul’s instruction that they are freed from the ceremonial and juridical bonds of the Old Law. Interestingly, Kaplan proposed keeping what St. Thomas kept, namely, the “moral” precepts of the Old Law, that is, “reason.”

One wonders too what it might mean, instead of the classic faith, to believe in a “Supreme Being” that results from no revelation but from our own definitions? It sounds like nothing so much as the justices of the Supreme Court in the Casey decision telling us that we each have a “right” to our own view of the universe, whatever it is. The justices make Hobbes’s view, that we need an absolute power to protect us from such subjective rights, look positively brilliant.

I think that, at the level of polite society, we simply accept the fact that people who were once Catholics (or Jews) no longer choose to be so. They must, of course, live out the consequences of whatever it is they “decide” about what Kaplan called “the Supreme Being.” Almost invariably, if they are honest— itself a virtue that can be rejected—these consequences will cause them to wonder about the truth of what they now live.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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