Acts of faith

You’ve probably heard the challenge: If tomorrow being a Catholic were made illegal, could anyone collect enough evidence to convict you of the crime?

The great Catholic writer, John Henry Newman, once posed a similar challenge. Newman said that genuine faith is like placing a bet, because faith always involves trust, which is like taking a risk. The more faith you have, the more you are willing to risk, and the more you would lose if your “bet” turns out to be wrong. So then, Newman asks: How much have you “wagered” on the truth of Catholicism?

Think of St. Peter when Jesus comes to him walking on water. Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking on water himself. That showed faith. And that was also risky. (If you’ve ever been out in a small boat during heavy seas, you know that stepping into the water is about the last thing you’d want to do.) The proof of Peter’s faith was that he placed his life in Christ’s hands. Peter “placed a bet” on the supernatural power of Christ, and, if he were wrong about that, he would have paid for it with the price of his life.

Newman said that we should ponder the example of St. Peter and then in comparison reflect on our own lives. Think carefully about what you do; how you spend your time; what you devote your money to; and what occupies your attention. Now--Newman says -- imagine that Catholicism is utterly and completely false. The Apostles were frauds. Jesus is only a man. The Church is not the “Bride of Christ” but only a human association. There is no final judgment, no heaven, and no hell. After we die, it is all nothingness.

Suppose the universe is like that, Newman says. Then, in that case, anyone who had placed a “bet” on the truth of Catholicism would lose his bet. But then, what about you? What would you lose? That is, what are you doing, how are you spending your time or money, that makes sense only on the supposition that Catholicism is true? How much have you wagered?

The extent of your wager is the extent of your faith. If you would do nothing differently, whether Catholicism is true or false, then it is not clear that you have any faith at all.

One interesting consequence of these reflections is that it is necessary for us to believe things we do not already understand, if we are to show faith.

We have all met those people who pick and choose among the teachings of the Church. They use their own reasoning as a standard: if something that the Church teaches agrees with them, then they accept it; otherwise not. Now it’s clear that someone like that has little or no faith. He believes just what he would believe, regardless of whether Catholicism is true or false. When it comes to making up his mind, he risks nothing on the truth of Church.

In contrast, we show faith when we “place a bet” only when we believe something because Christ and the Church say so. “Do whatever He tells you” -- yes, even something so apparently whacky as ladling into a wine cup the water from the foot-washing urn. Or: “Master, we have worked all night long and have caught nothing. But, at your word, we shall go out once more and lower the nets.”

A second consequence is that, if faith is good, then simply to have an opportunity to “place a bet” on Christ is also good. “Even more blessed are they who have not seen and believe.” Suppose that gambling were good (rather than bad, as it is for most people). Then casinos, lotto, and the racetrack would all be splendid things, because anything that gave you the opportunity to risk your money would also be good. But the same thing happens in the life of faith. It is good that God hides some things from us; good that we have to depend on His revelation for many important decisions in our lives; good, even, that times of darkness and suffering allow us to entrust ourselves more fully to His will.

Perverse as it may sound, that is why a Christian should welcome the cross. After all, there are no mere human reasons for embracing that “sign of contradiction;” every time we do so, we are placing a wager that Jesus who hung from it was truly raised from the dead.

In His wisdom Christ chose to place at the very center of faith in Him something that is so much a matter of “foolishness to the Greeks” that it cannot be justified from the viewpoint of mere human reason and practicality -- so that our motives for loving Him can be tested and purified.

So think once again about your life, and place your bet carefully. Begin with small wagers. For instance, don’t answer back in anger (because Christ wants that). Give up that grudge that gnaws at you (simply to please Him). Then, if you can, go on to bigger wagers. Put aside real time each day to pray. Or throw out your contraceptives or reverse that sterilization (because the Church teaches that you should -- you’ll understand why later).

If like St. Peter you become afraid that you’ll sink, keep your eyes fixed on Christ.

Michael Pakaluk writes from Cambridge, Mass.