The Catholic Thing
I Believe What the Church Teaches Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 07 July 2013

“I believe what the Church teaches.” To utter this sentence sparks surprise, laughter, horror, or even disdain from non-Catholics – and not a few Catholics. A number of replies may follow. “You can disagree if you wish.” “The Church cannot tell you what to do, especially in the bedroom.” “Don’t you want to think for yourself?”

There are assumptions underlying these glib responses. First, the teachings of the Church are burdensome, archaic, or irrelevant. Second, these teachings do not need to be obeyed; the individual can disagree, if he/she desires. Third, to believe these teachings is a denial of freedom; the individual should decide what to believe and how to act without being compelled by the Church.

These assumptions have become so widespread that for Catholic teenagers and adults they have become part of the contemporary religious landscape, unwittingly and insidiously absorbed from the individualistic and relativist culture. They have helped loosen the bonds that Catholics have with the Church from the grace of baptism, replacing filial devotion with tension or angst. In a tragic irony, the Church that was founded by Christ to lead us to the ultimate fulfillment is perceived by some Catholics as a barrier to self-fulfillment.

To explain why we ought to believe what the Church teaches therefore requires upfront quite a bit of apologetic work – belief, freedom, and the Church all have to be liberated from the shackles of the dictatorship of relativism. Once these are free, we learn that those who willingly believe what the Church teaches are the ones who are truly free.

To believe is to accept as true what someone else knows and has seen for himself. The believer, not having access to what the witness knows, relies entirely on the witness’s account; he fully assents to its truth because he trusts the witness. To believe, therefore, is an act of freedom, since immediate reality does not compel his assent, as does, say, the acts of addition or subtraction. The believer wills his belief, not because he has seen the evidence, but because, in the words of Josef Pieper, he wants “to participate in the knowledge of the knower.”

Belief is a major source of our knowledge. Many of our ideas about the world, the economy, politics, religion, and more come from the trust we place in others who report what they have seen from their own firsthand perspective.

Religious belief is similar in structure, but has a crucial difference: it relies upon the testimony of God, who cannot be met and cross-examined like a human witness. God’s testimony is what we call revelation – the content of the Church’s teachings that has been passed on in Scripture and Tradition to the present day.

       The Council of Trent by Pasquale Cati (1588)

But how can we trust the testimony of an invisible and unassailable witness? More still, why should we obey his testimony? There are several ways to approach these questions, but let us choose just one. Catholics believe that God revealed himself to human beings gradually over the centuries until he became human himself. “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” (John 18:37)

Jesus Christ is the witness par excellence to the reality of God. Many heard what Jesus said and saw what he did, and they freely chose to believe in him. They became witnesses of God’s testimony given through the God-man, and because they spread this testimony to others in hostile territory, they became a new kind of witness – they became martyrs, men and women who died because they also bore witness to the reality of God.

For twenty-one centuries men and women of all walks of life have died for God as martyrs. Invariably, the accounts of the martyrs portray their lucid minds and inspiring devotion in the face of the cruelest tortures. They did not oppose death because they were certain from their complete trust in God that all of what God has revealed and passed on through his Church was true and worth dying for.

The heroism of the martyrs presents a bold challenge to the dictatorship of relativism and its doctrine of self-fulfillment. True freedom is not the ability to self-indulge, but to self-surrender. In surrendering themselves to their executioners’ hands, the martyrs achieve true freedom and its joy from their prior surrender to God, the ultimate truth, who has willed that he be made known to the world through his Church.

To believe what the Church teaches is ultimately to believe that God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, has truly spoken to us, and that his testimony of life with him – both  now and in eternity – is worth giving up everything this side of paradise. To believe in this way, to commit fully to God whom we cannot see, is admittedly difficult and risky. And this belief cannot be coerced, since the rewards it promises transcend the limits of physical gratification.

Hence to believe what the Church teaches is to be truly free. The Church was endowed by God with his grace and with his laws for traveling the path to him. Countless witnesses have attested to the authenticity of the Church’s testimony with their lives and with their blood. If we wish to be free as they are, we must have the will to believe the Church.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.
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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Chris Lynch, July 07, 2013
I find Prof. Bonagura's article to be deep and thoughtful and I agree with much of it. However, it also seems to me to drink from the same streams relativism drinks from. It seems to characterize assent based on evidence as necessary and therefore un-free and reserves freedom exclusively for those acts of assent which are based entirely on one's trust in the authority or witness who testifies to the truth. A key for the article seems to be that my will is free to the degree that my intellect does not compel my assent; it tacitly accepts the premise that the unfettered character of my will is THE decisive criterion. But is not part of our freedom as human beings that we are capable of examining the claims of revelation to determine as best we can whether and how they speak to our deepest longings--as well as speak about us as we find ourselves to be? And is not one of the greatest gifts of the Catholic Church the call it issues to engage in just this examination, fully engaging both our reason and our will? To be sure, the spirit in which this examination is undertaken is of the utmost importance, and this is why catechesis is of the utmost importance. And to be sure, again, the authority of the Magisterium is that which guides a faithful Catholic in this examination, such that when he says, I believe what the Church teaches, he is saying at one and the same time that he accepts the authority of the Church as the ultimate guide in his search for the truth and that his progress in knowing and in abiding in the truth confirms ever and again the soundness of the Church's authoritative teachings.

I infer from other aspects of his article that Prof. Bonagura would agree in general with the idea of the complementarity of faith and reason, and therefore offer this comment as a shift in emphasis rather than a fundamental criticism.
written by Gary Lockhart, July 07, 2013
Professor Bonagura needs to remember to capitalize the pronouns He, Him, His and Himself when referring to the Almighty. Prior to the era of relativism most Catholics did that.
written by David Bonagura, July 07, 2013
I would like to thank Chris Lynch for his kind and thoughtful response, but I respectfully maintain that in the realm of belief, rather than specific knowledge, our intellects scrutinize primarily the credibility of the witness rather than the content of testimony. As St. Thomas explains in the Summa, the will must choose to trust the witness and his testimony, for faith concerns the things that are unseen. Hence the bedrock of faith lies beyond rational examination. This does not mean that believers are fideists, nor that faith and reason do not coincide. In theology we use the expression from St. Anselm, "faith seeking understanding." We accept what God has revealed first by faith (trust), then we use reason to explore the content of what God has believed. This, I believe, is what Mr. Lynch correctly expresses in the last sentence of his first paragraph.

In exploring rational what we have first accepted by faith, we see that our faith accords with reason; but reason cannot prove them. Cardinal Newman expressed this idea in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: "I would simply confess that no doctrine of the Church can be rigorously proved by historical evidence." We know that Christ rose not because of reason, but because of the testimony of those who saw him passed on what they saw. Our reason may tell us that it is possible that the resurrection can transcend the nature order, but it cannot prove that it is possible, nor can it compel our assent. The Church is our witness who passes on the testimony about Christ, and, as I tried to argue, she is a trustworthy witness. As St. Augustine said, "I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not oblige me to believe."

And with due respect to Mr. Lockhart, capitalizing the pronouns that refer to God is a somewhat modern practice, and one that is devotional and respectful though not necessarily grammatically proper. Not capitalizing them has nothing to due with today's era of relativism: even the Church Fathers and the sacred authors of the Bible did not capitalize them. No offense is intended, and none should be taken, here or elsewhere.
written by Chris Lynch, July 08, 2013
Many thanks to Prof. Bonagura for just the sort of clarification I was hoping for. In addition, his reminder that he "tried to argue" (rather, I add, than only proclaim or re-witness) that the Church "is a trustworthy witness," reminds us that reason must be engaged even and perhaps especially when determining which authority to trust. For--God knows--there are martyrs of many faiths whose belief might inspire trust in just as many doctrines. But it is especially the Roman Catholic faith that is intimately and from the beginning tied to the great tradition of reason rightly and profoundly understood, as Benedict XVI reminded us so eloquently at Regensberg in 2006. So although the blood of martyrs cannot but bolster the devotion of those believers who hear of or (heaven forefend) witness it themselves, it cannot by itself (as I believe Prof. Bonagura would also maintain) motivate the will to accept and abide in the truth unless it be, as it were, by accident.
written by mike horn, July 09, 2013
Mr. Bonagura,
I'd like to make a small number of points.

First, at the start of your article, you claim that those that disagree are "glib" and full of relativism. In essence, you are contend that those in opposition either don't understand or are constructing a straw-man of Catholic belief in order to reject it. Yet you here are doing the same thing to your opposition, setting them up as less than honest, less than educated, less than logically sound. Using a straw-man to debunk a straw-man. This did not impress me at all.

Second, you place a great deal of weight on the Church being the great and noble witness to revealed truth dispensed directly from God. In fact, you assert it and move on, but in doing so you miss the biggest problem the Church has in trying to convince people. People that disagree are often educated, logical, thoughtful, humble. But they no longer trust the Church. This is for various reasons dating back several centuries. For Americans and anyone in a modern Western democracy, I'd include on the list of reasons things like placing Thomas Paine on a list of banned books. Indeed, a list of banned books itself was a bad thing, since discontinued but the damage is done, the misdeed there in the history for anyone to discover. More modern examples abound, but I figured I'd go with a less controversial one in today's climate in order to make the point without raising undue hackles.
written by David Bonagura, July 09, 2013
Mr. Horn: I am sorry that you take issue with my choice of words. No straw-man was intended; I made a generalization that I believe, sadly, is rather accurate: a majority of people, Catholics and not, find complete agreement with the Church unimaginable. Every single news item read or viewed from the secular media concerning Church doctrine intentionally adds how “some disagree.” We know the state of catechesis these last decades, especially concerning moral matters. We know that the Church’s teachings about sexuality are rivaled publically and disregarded by Catholics privately. We have a current generation of young people who have almost completely absorbed the propaganda concerning same sex relationships. In these difficult conditions, I do not believe there are many, though that does not mean all, that have carefully considered whether they or anyone else can or should accept the Church’s teachings in toto. Such an acceptance is not even on their radar. The choice of words is not inappropriate.

Your second point is quite valid, and it is one that I have addressed in the past on this page. It is true that when we sin we become a stumbling block to the belief of others. But even though the messengers can be corrupted, the message guaranteed to the Church by God cannot be corrupted, and it is to this message, the deposit of faith, that I was referring. Yes, we the members of the Church may sin, and even those in the hierarchy may make poor judgments concerning temporal matters in one matter or another. But the Church also includes above all Christ her head, and it is Christ who is trusted and believed when the Church speaks, for she exists to perpetuate and what he has given her. And before we discount the Church because she exists to minister to sinners, let us not forget the heroic saints and martyrs whose inspiring lives prove the greatness of the treasures that the Church offers all who desire them.
written by jason taylor, July 10, 2013
The heroism of the martyrs is not an argument; everyone has heroic martyrs.

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