On Losing the Faith

It has happened to not a few laymen, religious, priests, and bishops over the centuries, and it remains as harsh and threatening a reality today as ever. The specter of losing the Catholic faith that we were gratuitously given at baptism looms large in a world that has intentionally marginalized the supernatural – and in a Church that has for decades ineffectively instructed her young children. Current surveys and polls tell a consistent story: a large number of Catholics who attended Mass in their youth have ceased in adulthood.

Many reasons are given to explain this exodus, but one spiritual reason towers above all the quotidian ones: love for God has diminished in the hearts of those who purposely stay home. In other words, they have lost the faith.

What does it mean to lose the faith? How does it occur? What happens to those who lose it? How can the faith be recovered?

Faith is a supernatural virtue given by God through which one lives in a relationship of love and trust with Him, the Creator of all things. In the relationship of faith, God is the initiator who calls man to respond to Him. Man’s response is not coerced: it is decided freely in the depths of his personal conscience. If man, prompted by the Holy Spirit, responds in the affirmative, then he accepts God and everything that God has revealed through the Church.

       The Foolish Virgins by James Tissot, c. 1890

Faith, then, is both grace and virtue, objective and subjective: as grace faith is an object bestowed gratuitously by God, and as virtue faith must be cultivated within the life of each individual. Faith deepens and develops in varying degrees in each believer through human action: receiving the sacraments, accepting instruction in the content of faith, praying, responding to the preaching and witness of others, reading Scripture and other spiritual works, and performing acts of charity.

But since faith can increase through human acts, believers can also hinder and even extinguish faith in their souls through acts contrary to God’s will. Faith needs charity to flourish, and with every sin we commit, charity is diminished – or, if the sin is mortal, charity can be wiped out completely from our souls.

When we sin we choose the love of ourselves over God. Repentance aims to put the love of God back in the first place. If we choose not to repent, the love of God begins to die in our hearts. As Cardinal Avery Dulles explained, “When the believer does not love God for God’s own sake, the acts of faith become less intense and satisfying.”

In many cases, these acts of faith eventually cease entirely so that the virtue – the practice – of faith becomes lost. What is left for those who have lost the faith, according to St. Thomas, is “lifeless faith,” an objective seed, forever present through baptism, yet latent. This seed lays dormant within the unwilling subjects, yet it has the potential to grow again, if watered once more by the love of God.

Of course, many other factors in addition to sin can contribute to the loss of faith: poor (or nonexistent) catechesis, a fiercely secular culture, public hostility toward Catholicism, traumatic harm or loss, scandal caused by the sins of believers. Yet at root faith has a deeply personal orientation that hinges ultimately on our own free acceptance – or rejection – of God’s invitation.

       The Wise Virgins by James Tissot, c. 1890

What will happen in eternity to those who have lost the faith? Only God knows. On the one hand, we can ask: how anyone could walk away from God and the Church if he truly understood their immensity of love and power? For the wayward we can beseech God to “lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy,” hopeful that the mitigating factors, which affected their judgment, and not the judgment itself, will receive God’s wrath. God, after all, “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:4).

On the other hand, we have clear injunctions from Christ and the Scriptures that attaining salvation is not easy, that some will be lost, and that belief in Christ is necessary for salvation. Hence the Second Vatican Council taught: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”

These two counterpoints should together guide our efforts toward those who have lost the faith: we should pray for God’s mercy for them, but, mindful of the real prospect of eternal punishment, we should also work urgently to help the wayward recover and reignite what they have lost.

All gifts can be misused, discarded, or lost. The gift of divine faith bestowed in baptism can become lost through lack of use, but it can never be discarded completely. This should give hope to us who pray for – and worry about – the wayward, that they somehow may yet heed the words of St. Leo the Great before it is too late: “Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.”

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.