Giving Reasons for Faith

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The other day I was reading a portion of Summa Theologica in which St. Thomas Aquinas addresses several questions on how Christians should engage unbelief and unbelievers. What struck me was how the Angelic Doctor’s insights remain no less true today than when he first wrote them down in the 13th century.

In answering the question, “Whether one ought to dispute with unbelievers in public?,” St. Thomas says that there are two types of people who may be witnessing the disputation, those who are strong in their faith and those who are simple. For the former, we need not worry that their hearing the disputation will weaken or distort their faith. For the latter, the simple, we have to be careful. If they live in communities in which there are virtually no unbelievers and have had no acquaintance with the arguments for unbelief, then disputing with unbelievers in their presence may do them more harm than good. Because the firmness of their faith, argues Aquinas, is a consequence of their cultural setting, there is no reason to introduce them to ideas that may weaken their faith.

But what of those simple Christians who live in communities in which “they are provoked or molested by unbelievers. . .who strive to corrupt the faith in them”? Here St. Thomas says that public disputation is necessary, “provided there be those who are equal and adapted to the task of confuting errors; since in this way simple people are strengthened in the faith, and unbelievers are deprived of the opportunity to deceive, while if those who ought to withstand the perverters of the truth of faith were silent, this would tend to strengthen error.”

So, there are two points here: (1) the Church’s advocates need to be competent to address the arguments for unbelief in order to both strengthen believers and confound the machinations of their adversaries, and (2) if those who are called to this task allow the challenges of faith to go unanswered, the case for unbelief will appear more plausible and reasonable than it actually is.

Of course, as I have already noted on this page, Christian witness, if it is to be authentic and compelling, cannot be merely an exercise in apologetic arguments, as if the human person were only intellect and not heart, soul, and body as well. As Pope Francis notes, “It is true that in our dealings with the world, we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns. We are told quite clearly: ‘do so with gentleness and reverence’ (1 Pet 3:15) and ‘if possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all’ (Rom 12:18).”

St. Gregory the Great by Matthias Stormer, c. 1650 [Kunstmuseum Basel]
St. Gregory the Great by Matthias Stormer, c. 1650 [Kunstmuseum Basel]

But the intellect and what moves it are clearly not nothing. As St. Thomas argues, unbelief, like faith, is in the intellect, though it is moved by the will. This means that a will provided with no reason to embrace, or even understand, faith will not move the intellect.

Today, for some reason, certain segments of the Church, especially in the United States, seem to have forgotten the importance of defending the reasonableness of the Church’s teachings when they conflict with views and beliefs that are dominant in the general culture.

Take, for example, the recent case of Zubik v. Burwell (2016), which included the Little Sisters of the Poor as one of the plaintiffs. The case involved certain academic and charitable religious organizations that were not exempted from the HHS mandate, which requires that all employers provide contraception in their health plans.

The Obama Administration offered an “accommodation” to the plaintiffs, which obliges them to sign a document that informs the HHS of their religious objections to providing contraception but nevertheless triggers coverage through the employer’s insurance company via the HHS rather than the employer directly instructing the insurance company to do so.

The plaintiffs argued that the “accommodation” violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), since it is a substantial burden on their free exercise and the government could easily provide the coverage without conscripting their assistance, even if the government had a compelling interest in offering access to contraception to all its citizens.

As one of many groups offering support for the plaintiffs, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court. It is a wonderfully crafted legal document, with an extended analysis of how religious organizations, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, contribute to the common good. Yet missing from the document was an account of why the Church holds its views on contraception and degrees of moral cooperation, both of which are essential to understanding the Church’s position on the HHS mandate and the so-called “accommodation.”

Of course, technically, as our religious liberty jurisprudence has developed, one need only hold one’s beliefs sincerely in order to fall under the protections of RFRA. Nevertheless, the interpretation of law, whether we like it or not, is decided by judges, all of whom in one way or another have been formed by the wider culture’s understanding of what is reasonable or plausible to believe.

Consequently, our nation’s bishops have a responsibility to not only protect the Church’s rights and the rights of its people in our courts of law, they also have an obligation to defend the Church’s beliefs and practices in the court of public opinion. This is why, in the section of the Summa cited above, Aquinas appeals to the words of Pope St. Gregory I (“The Great”): “Even as a thoughtless speech gives rise to error, so does an indiscreet silence leave those in error who might have been instructed.”


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).