Faith: The most essential thing

Jared Staudt

What is truly essential? This has become a pressing question in our country, especially as churches have faced many government restrictions, even as pot shops and casinos have operated more freelyWhen John Paul II returned home to Communist Poland after his papal election, the enormous crowd gathered in Warsaw, formed of people who had faced over 30 years of restrictions on worship, chanted continuously, “We want God! We want God!” They were telling their totalitarian leadership that God was essential.  

The key crisis facing the West, according to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Josef Ratzinger)is a crisis of faith. If we were already struggling to keep Catholics engaged in the Church, it’s now become even more difficult. Some have speculated openly that the ongoing secular trajectory of our culture has been sped up by at least ten years due to our current crisisThings will never simply return to the way that they were before, but, on the other hand, would we even want that? Above all, the “return” that we need is a return to a deeper faith in Christ, one that profoundly shapes our everyday life.  

Father Daniel Cardó, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Sheridan, has pointed us to what matters most in his new book What Does It Mean to Believe? Faith in the Thought of Joseph Ratzinger (Emmaus, 2020, with a foreword by Gerhard Cardinal Müller). It’s a short book that packs a punch, navigating important theological issues in an accessible and compelling way. He recognizes the increasing challenge of communicating faith in modern culture: “Undoubtably to speak of faith is something more and more foreign to ordinary people; it would seem that it’s lost its pertinence and importance. At best, it is limited to being [brought] up every now and then; at worst, one might try to avoid it all costs (20). In fact, a void has moved into the soul even of Christians, as Ratzinger speaks of a practical atheism that entails living as if God does not exist.   

In the face of the prevailing agnosticism and relativism, faith can still arise, received as a gift of the Holy Spirit moving our minds and hearts. We have a “God-given thirst for the infinite” that leaves us unsatisfied by alternatives (37). Fr. Cardó quotes Ratzinger on the great need for faith: “Belief signifies the decision that at the very core of human existence there is a point that cannot be nourished and supported on the visible and tangible, that encounters and comes into contact with what cannot be seen and finds that it is a necessity for its own existence” (41). Without faith, there is a great emptiness and flatness that cries out, sometimes desperately and even violently, pointing to the need for God.  

Faith opens up a new path, one of light and joy. “Having looked at faith as a free gift from God and as our concrete response to that gift, we arrive at an understanding of the change that the act of believing entails: to see life in a different way, to be open to conversion, to take on a new attitude toward reality, and to stand firm in the meaning that sustains our life” (50-51). This gift is not vague or abstract but is focused on a person: “The meaning that we grasp and in which we remain is a real and living person: Jesus Christ. He is the basis for the personal character of faith; He is the person who has chosen us and called us friends (see John 15:15-16), and in whom faith is experienced as a relationship of friendship. He is the person that goes to meet us and invites us to respond to His call with all of our being, in openness to an experience of personal communion” (54). Jesus truly leads us on the path of genuine freedom that comes from living the truth in love.   

The devil tempted Christ to rely on himself and to turn stone into bread. He replied that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). It can be tempting to focus on physical security above all else, but it is faith that makes life truly meaningful. We cannot live a full and complete life on our own. Faith gives us the courage and strength to face every difficulty because it opens us to God’s own life. It is truly the most essential thing, the one thing necessary (Luke 10:42), as it leads us into the true purpose of life: to live in communion with God and others. We need more faith; we need God to enter more deeply into our life; we need the nourishment of the Eucharist more than ever. We truly cannot live without them. We have to be willing to stand up and even suffer to show that faith is the most essential thing in our lives.  

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.