On faith and reason, the Church takes a higher ground and establishes a higher truth . . .
Faith is a gift from God. You can’t earn it, and you can’t reason yourself into it. But if you don’t use your reason first, you may never grab onto it.
Through reason we can grasp the reasonableness of Christianity. This allows us to overcome stumbling blocks. Even nonbelievers can come to see that Christianity “hangs together.” Such a realization isn’t faith, but it’s a necessary prelude to faith. Put another way, one cannot be argued into faith, but one can be argued past obstacles to faith.
If Pelagius (354-420 AD) were stood on his head, his name would be John Calvin (1509-1564). Pelagius taught that human nature itself could perform all acts necessary for salvation. You could, said Pelagius, pull yourself up by your bootstraps—all the way to heaven. Not so, said Calvin. Reason is unavailing since it can’t bring you closer to God.
The Catholic Church says no to both, but it doesn’t just take a middle ground. It takes a higher ground and establishes a higher truth. It says that knowledge of God and the moral law is within reach of our natural reason.
With this knowledge of God, we can undertake a natural preparation of the intellect, getting it ready so it will let the will respond properly when moved by grace toward faith. Through reason, we can get rid of the distractions and misinformation that keep us from acting on the grace God offers us.
Reason itself doesn’t produce faith, since faith is an act of the will which is initiated by and then cooperates with God’s grace. But reason can remove obstructions to our view.
Grace is a gift from God. Grace is necessary for the beginning of faith, for perseverance in the grace already received, and for avoidance of sin. Paul ascribes all his virtue and the good results of his work to the grace of God (see 1 Cor 15:10).
There are two kinds of grace. Actual grace doesn’t abide in the soul or sanctify it. You might think of it as a supernatural push toward the good given by God to the soul — a push that enables the soul to do certain things it couldn’t do on its own. Faith is due to actual grace and is the first step on the road to sanctifying grace.
Sanctifying grace, which elevates the soul so it’s capable of living in heaven, is a permanent quality by which we share the divine life, become partakers in the divine nature, receive adoption as the children of God, and are made temples of the Holy Spirit.
We lose sanctifying grace through mortal sin, regain it through Confession, and increase it through other sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.
KARL KEATING is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith.”
Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed is contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason. Even in human relations, it is not contrary to our dignity to believe what other persons tell us about themselves and their intentions — or to trust their promises.
Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 154, 159