“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.