The Year of Faith and the Christian moral life
Christian Brugger explains why the Year of Faith, which marks Veritatis Splendor‘s 20th anniversary, calls for a renewed effort to evangelize. Pope Benedict, he says, is aware of the loss of Christian faith in formerly Christian Europe and the Americas. For years he’s been saying that Europe’s loss of faith spells the ultimate end of its culture . . . .
A comment on the New York Times’ website is rather telling: “I am tired of the Catholic bishops interfering” (11/24/12). The writer was worked up over the Wisconsin bishops’ statement issued last July criticizing a new type of living will for fear it might open the way for passive euthanasia.
People don’t seem to care much about the doctrines of Catholic faith. Unlike in the fourth or 15th century, beliefs such as the two natures of Christ or the power to confer the sacraments don’t elicit much protest. But the Church’s stance on moral issues brings out the fight in people: Keep your religion to yourself; get your hands off my body parts; stay out of my bedroom, etc. Catholics are told that they oppose “marriage equality,” that they wage “war on women,” and that they “condemn people to die from AIDS.” Moral issues are the battlegrounds of our age.
We’ve just begun the Holy Year of Faith. It’s called “holy” because its purpose is to encourage holiness among Christians. Holiness is more than professing beliefs, even true beliefs. Holiness is the integration of all one’s thoughts, plans and actions around the truths of the Christian faith so that our whole person expresses and serves charity. We might say that holiness is living faith — faith perspicuously and coherently alive in action.
But what is faith? Faith, the Catechism teaches, is our response to divine revelation. Divine revelation is God’s self-communication to humanity — God’s gift of himself to us. Through this gift, he invites us into a personal salvific relationship with himself.
Faith is our acceptance of God’s invitation. Our acceptance has two chief dimensions: a cognitive one and a moral one. The cognitive one — believing in the truths of revelation — is responsible for shaping our understanding of reality, how we think. The moral one is responsible for shaping how we live our lives in light of reality. It includes all the implications of the truths of faith for Christian living.
Faith and life. It sounds simple. And yet the temptation to separate the two, to detach what we believe from how we live, is strong. When he observed that temptation increasing in the Western world 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II issued his great encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor (1993). The Pope wrote the document in response to the raging crisis of dissent from the Church’s authoritative moral teaching in Europe and North America. Traditional norms in sexual ethics and the ethics of human life were being systematically denied by large numbers of Catholic theologians, including those teaching at Catholic universities and seminaries.
In the encyclical’s first chapter, John Paul reflects on the dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man in Matthew 19, reasserting the inseparable connection between faith and life. Jesus says to the young man who wishes to know what he should do to gain eternal life: “Go, sell all your possessions and give them to the poor, then come follow me.” John Paul notes that Jesus here inextricably links discipleship to conduct.
He then goes on to write, “The Church is in fact a communion both of faith and life; her rule of life is ‘faith working through love.’ No damage must be done to the harmony between faith and life.” He then warns: “The unity of the Church is damaged not only by Christians who reject or distort the truths of faith, but also by those who disregard the moral obligations to which they are called by the Gospel” (# 26). Authentic Christian faith always expresses itself in a Christian way of life.
Pope Benedict XVI is well aware of the fact that the Year of Faith coincides with the 20th anniversary of Veritatis Splendor’s publication. He is also keenly aware of the loss of Christian faith in formerly Christian Europe and the Americas. For many years he’s been saying that Europe’s loss of Christian faith spells the demise of the continent’s 1,500-year-old culture. When a people loses its faith, the culture that their faith built goes with it.
There are two types of holy years — ordinary and extraordinary. An extraordinary holy year marks some outstanding event or theme; an ordinary one marks the passage of years. The Year of Faith is an extraordinary holy year. And extraordinary it is! The post-Christian Western world badly needs extraordinary grace to throw off the fatal mistress of disbelief with whom she’s danced now for over a century.
More than ever we need to pray for the new evangelization!
E. Christian Brugger is the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. He is also a Senior Fellow in Ethics and Director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, D.C.