By: Rev. Paul Scalia
As we conclude the Year of Faith this Sunday, we do well to recall Pope Benedict’s hope that the year would lead to a greater appreciation of faith’s two essential components: the act of faith and the content of faith:
To rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith, is a task that every believer must make his own, especially in the course of this Year…[T]here exists a profound unity between the act by which we believe and the content to which we give our assent…[K]nowledge of the content of faith is essential for giving one’s own assent (Porta Fidei, 9, 10).
Consider that last point: Knowledge of the content of faith is essential. It would be unjust and indeed cruel for God to invite us to assent in faith without providing a corresponding means of knowing the faith. “I know Him in Whom I have believed,” says Saint Paul (2 Tm 1:12). And the Lord desires us to say the same. But how do we know the content of faith? How do we know what we believe? Has He left us without a guide? On the contrary, in inviting us to faith He also ensures that we can know what to believe. Which brings us back to the need for the Church. Jesus established the Church precisely so that by her teaching we might know Him in Whom we believe. The Church is not an external imposition on us invented by man but Jesus’ own authoritative witness voice that enables us to believe.
We need this witness because the truths of our faith are beyond our ability to grasp. We have no knowledge of these truths (e.g. the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Immaculate Conception) unless someone makes them known to us. We know them not because we are smarter than others and have figured them out on our own, but because we have received them from the Church. A faith not received from the Church is of our own making and becomes not a faith in God at all but faith in ourselves. And that will not end well.
So that we know what to believe, Jesus established the Church as the instrument – better, the sacrament – for conveying throughout history and throughout the world the One in Whom we are to believe. God so desires us to have certainty of faith that He has established the Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tm 3:15), against which “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail” (Mt 16:18). And so Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman referred to the Church as the “oracle of God.”
This sheds light on a very unpopular concept: the Church’s teaching authority. Most people see hierarchy and infallibility as impositions on human freedom. But the opposite is true. The Church’s teaching authority is directed to our certainty in faith and therefore our freedom in living it. The real enemy of freedom is uncertainty, not authority. Uncertainty makes us hesitant and diffident. Certainty enables us to give generously. The Church – the pillar and bulwark –provides that support and foundation for belief and thus frees us to give ourselves generously in faith. We know Him in Whom we believe because He Himself bears witness through His Church.