The distinction between doctrine and commitment

Father John A. Kiley

Every reader of the RI Catholic knows someone who went to a Catholic grammar school, a Catholic high school and even a Catholic college and yet never darkens a church door. This person could ably discuss the seven sacraments at a family holiday dinner and debate some aspects of the Ten Commandments with a fellow passenger on a cross country flight. While this person’s beliefs are somewhat intact, his or her faith is just about exhausted. This distinction between beliefs and faith, between doctrine and commitment, is vitally important for the full Christian life. St. Paul writes, “Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence for things unseen.” The “things” that St. Paul is writing about here are precisely that endless lists of things in which Catholics believe: the Trinity, the Scriptures, the sacraments, the commandments, the articles of the creed, death, judgment, heaven and hell – and so on. Yet behind or underlying these “things” which Catholics readily or loosely accept there must be a “substance,” an “evidence,” which gives these things direction, focus, and vitality, and without which these “things” are empty, hollow, and even hypocritical.

The substance which gives life to the Church’s treasured beliefs is the gift of faith. Supernatural faith is a personal commitment, an enlightened, heartfelt decision to accept the person of Jesus Christ into one’s life and to orient one’s life around the person of Christ. Our immigrant ancestors who came to this country with little education either in religion or in schooling brought with them a lively faith that convinced them that commitment to Christ through his Church was a prized possession. Their beliefs were largely unspoken but their faith was happily expressed. The brick and mortar Catholicism of our youth was the fruit of their faith, the result of their commitment to Christ and his Church. During this Lenten season the Church’s liturgy, especially through the pen of St. John, wisely reminds worshippers of those Scriptural pioneers who first came to a lively faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, a faith that would be fleshed out and skillfully defined as the Christian centuries progressed. St. John’s whole Gospel is largely a series of vignettes, of anecdotes, about believers who came to place their faith, their hopes, and their ambitions in Jesus Christ.

St. John the Baptist is appropriately the first believer to commitment himself to Jesus as a Divine person come to earth: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” The disciple Nathanael almost prematurely makes a personal commitment to the person of Christ: “Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” This coming Sunday the Church will hear again the testimony of the Samaritan woman and her fellow villagers: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?” Her beginning faith is matched by that of her neighbors: “They said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” The miracle of the loaves evoked an emerging act of faith from Jesus’ well-fed audience: “When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.”

Certainly the most important act of personal commitment to Jesus Christ was that of St. Peter after Christ’s controversial lesson on the Eucharist: “Many disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” The man born blind was understandably led to faith in Christ through the Master’s healing kindness: “He…said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him.” Martha, grieving over the loss of her brother, sees Jesus as her true hope: “She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” The most famous act of faith in the Gospel might belong to St. Thomas who overcame his doubts and happily proclaimed to the Risen Christ: “My Lord and my God!”

Sound teaching and moral guidance can effectively deepen the faith of the Catholic believer but they cannot substitute for faith itself. In the kingdom of God, knowledge is not power. A personal, profound commitment to the person of Jesus Christ through his Church is the essence of authentic faith.