Why So Many Are Leaving the Church: The Faith and Reason Problem
Yet another study confirms the hemorrhaging taking place inside the Church in the West. People are leaving the Faith in droves. A good many are leaving for agnosticism, atheism, or the often used, nones category. Much of what drives these individuals to leave en masse is our failure to explain coherently and concisely the relationship between faith and reason in the face of widespread criticism in the culture.
The Western world is dominated by secular education where children are taught principles, ideas, and a worldview that is often hostile to the Catholic Faith. The West has been engaged in a battle between faith and reason for the last 500 years. First, far too many splitting from the Catholic Church abandoned reason altogether believing it to be a broken ability in Fallen men. Second, this led to the inevitable split on the side of reason as philosophy and science embarked on the path of proving that a rationalist-materialist worldview is the only one worth having. Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI devoted great volumes of work to bridging the chasm created between faith and reason. The problem now: We are ignoring the Church’s resources at our own peril.
It is very difficult for a child to parse the nuances of their faith from what they are taught in the classroom, especially at times of tremendous peer pressure and intellectual confusion. Since public education is the primary source of education for those families who cannot afford Catholic education or who cannot, or choose not, to homeschool, there must be a way to reach children from an early age in order to teach them that faith and reason work harmoniously together. They are not in opposition, they are complementary. Each works for the other, but since faith is supernatural, it elevates and heightens reason to unachievable heights it could never reach without grace.
Parents, teens, college students, and all members of the laity really need to examine the relationship between faith and reason closely in order to understand the battles being waged in our culture. We are often marginalized and dismissed precisely because the culture does not understand the authentic natures of faith and reason, either individually or as they work together, and we do not provide clear responses.
Saint John Paul II sought to clarify and elucidate on the Church’s brilliant teaching on faith and reason in his incredible encyclical Fides et Ratio. It is truly a gift for our times. The understanding of faith was furthered in Pope Emeritus Benedict’s undertaking of his last encyclical, which was finished by Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei. We have resources. We have answers to the questions or attacks made against our Faith, we only have to use them and share them with our children. If we do not, then they will fall for the errors of our times and leave the Faith all together. Children are not coming back in later years as was the case in previous times. Secular college campuses seem to be a place where the faith of many goes to die. Much of this is because that faith was not nurtured or aided by the gift of reason, properly ordered.
What is faith?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines faith in paragraph 155 as: “In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace: “Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moving by God through grace.” God reveals Himself to us through the gift of grace and we choose to accept this truth and His invitation through a free act of our wills. Faith is a supernatural gift from God. It is not something we can attain through our own power. Then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion,provides the succinct definition that faith is “thinking with assent”. That is, faith is a journey in which we continually answer God’s call in our own lives and continue to accept the truths only He can reveal, whether it be through Scripture, Sacred Tradition, or the Magisterium. Faith is not static or stagnant. It is constantly in motion as it transforms each one of us and deepens our communion with the Most Holy Trinity.
What is reason?
Reason is our ability to gain knowledge through “sense perception and experiences and which advances by the light of the intellect alone” (Fides et Ratio 9). The things of the universe that can be known through our five senses and our experiences sum up reason. It is how Aristotle came to see order and harmony in the world, through observation and reflection. It is reason that allows us to pursue scientific advances, create new technologies, and to plant glorious gardens. Reason deepens our understanding of the world around us and the universe.
Reason in fact is not asked to pass judgment on the contents of faith, something of which it would be incapable, since this is not its function. Its function is rather to find meaning, to discover explanations which might allow everyone to come to a certain understanding of the contents of faith.
How do faith and reason work together?
Regardless of the war being raged within our culture, faith and reason are meant to work together. They are two halves of human experiences. Faith supersedes reason because it can move beyond the senses into the supernatural, but faith needs reason to grow in deeper understanding of who God is and the purpose of our lives. Saint John Paul II states:
There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. With regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known.
Fides et Ratio 9
There are things in this world which cannot be known through reason. God has to reveal them to us. This is most realized in Jesus Christ who came to reveal God fully to us.
Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason, and at the summit of its searching reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents.
The dangers of reason alone.
Without faith, reason often falls short and becomes disordered without the Source, who is God, at the center of the pursuit of truth. Faith must aid reason. We see these errors often in the rather arrogant claims of members of the New Atheism such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. They have chosen to worship reason and abandoned the true ordering and reality of the universe, while painting people like us as buffoons. Saint John Paul II warns of this danger:
…if reason were to be fully true to itself, then it must respect certain basic rules. The first of these is that reason must realize that human knowledge is a journey which allow no rest; the second stems from the awareness that such a path is not for the proud who think that everything is the fruit of personal conquest; a third rule is grounded in the “fear of God” whose transcendent sovereignty and provident love in the governance of the world reason must recognize. In abandoning these rules, the human being runs the risk of failure and ends up in the condition of “the fool.”
The answer is the harmony of faith and reason.
In order to avoid becoming “fools” ourselves and to respond to a culture that greatly misunderstands what the Catholic Church teaches on faith and reason, we must use the two in harmony. Our children must be taught early on that faith and reason are both tremendous gifts with the same purpose: The pursuit of truth which is the Triune God.
Here the words of the Book of Proverbs are pertinent: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (16:9). This is to say that with the light of reason human beings can know which path to take, but they can follow that path to its end, quickly and unhindered, only if with a rightly tuned spirit they search for it within the horizon of faith. Therefore, reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way.
Our children take an onslaught from our culture and we do them no favors when we ourselves do not know what the Church teaches or provide them with the resources to guide them on the journey. It is the parents’ obligation to teach the faith. We are the primary catechists. Catechism classes at church provide a small amount of guidance. Our children cannot possibly learn the faith from a one-hour class once a week. We must be living and teaching the faith in our homes. If we don’t know the answer to something, then we must look for it, or seek out guidance from clergy and laity who do know the answers. The Church provides all of the resources we need and places them at our fingertips from the Catechism to the Vatican website to copious books written by theologians and philosophers expounding on orthodox Church teaching. We have all of the resources we need in Holy Mother Church. We only have to seek them out, so that we can help stop the hemorrhaging. So we can, by God’s grace, help our children remain faithful Catholics into adulthood.
Many children face atheism through their science teachers, and yet, many Catholic children and their parents do not realize that the Church fosters, and is responsible, for the development of the natural sciences. A good example is Fr. Georges LeMaitre who discovered the “Big Bang” theory when Albert Einstein overlooked an element of his own theory. Yes, a Catholic priest is responsible for the Big Bang Theory. Next week, I will take a closer look at the Church’s relationship and views of science.
The type of faith that worked for me was to be anxious for nothing by casting all of my care on the Lord (see 1Peter 5:5-7, Philippians 4:6-7, and Isaiah 26:3-4). This gave me both peace and strength.