Monday, April 6, 2009

Loss of faith

Sometimes, Christians worry whether they might not have lost their faith. Here is a line of thought that might be comforting, though it is probably only acceptable to Catholics. Faith being a gift of grace, it is not possible to lose faith without losing sanctifying grace. It is not possible, however, to lose sanctifying grace but by committing a (formal) mortal sin. Therefore, faith can only be lost through committing a mortal sin. But in a serious Christian, mortal sin is very unlikely to be something done casually—it is a free and conscious rejection of God's love, after all. Faith is not, then, something one can "just lose". It is something one can reject, but only by a mortal sin.


Tim Lacy said...

Two directly applicable comments and a larger consideration:

1. Did you mean to write simply "have" in line one? Otherwise, I'm not sure the sentence makes sense.

2. I'm not sure that Catholics find this comforting. Why? Because there are arguments about the definitions of mortal sin. As it stands, your statement falls on the liberal end of that interpretive line (i.e. "mortal sin is very unlikely to be done casually"). How? To me, for instance, mortal sin for a active Catholic is generally only a partial rejection of God's love. No active Catholics ~wants~ to fall short. As such, I believe more than some within the Church that it is more difficult for Catholics to commit a ~mortal~ sin (venial sins abound, however). But others (more conservative interpreters/definers within the Church) define sins that can rise to mortal more broadly. How? They lessen the external circumstantial factors that contribute to one's sin (e.g. tiredness, stress, accompanied flaws in thinking/emotions, and see intent as not important). Catechism 1750 applies, which distinguishes between one primary (object chosen) and two secondary (intention, circumstances) considerations with regard to the morality of our acts. I find 1750 difficult because the "object chosen" is most often chosen because of intentions and circumstance. "Freely" choosing something in error as a Catholic is difficult. Perhaps this explains the generosity of confessors? Plus, one's own subjective fear of offending God causes one to internally define those circumstances narrowly.

Finally, while one may satisfy his/her conscience that they have God's forgiveness, there still exists the formal external obligation to attend confession. That obligation should prevent you from taking communion until fulfilled. You are basically self-excommunicated when a mortal sin is either really or believed to be under consideration. I may be justified before God, but I still need to fulfill obligations to my materially-existing fellows. The keys given to Peter still exist and must be satisfied before the mortal sin is completely put behind you. This might also explain the generosity of confessors.

...More than you wanted. And this probably says more about me than the Church itself. - TL

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. I fixed it to "might not have". Thanks!

2. Mortal sin is very unlikely to be done casually by a serious Christian. I think this is something St Teresa of Avila thinks--however, I don't remember her phrasing, and her standards for what a serious Christian (not her words) are going to be higher than ours, I guess.

In any case, mortal sin has a subjective component of culpability and an objective component of a grave transgression of the decalogue ("grave matter"). I do not think serious Catholic Christians, unless struggling with an addiction (which decreases culpability--and the degree to which it does so is a matter for discussion with one's spiritual director or confessor), casually and knowingly commit acts with grave matter. One doesn't casually cause serious physical injury to another; one doesn't casually abstain oneself from Sunday worship for no good reason; one doesn't casually go to the store and buy a pack of condoms; etc. (One might casually unknowingly break a fast, or forget that a day was a Holy Day of obligation, but that's a different issue.)

But what I said will not be helpful when one is struggling with an addiction to something gravely wrong.

3. Yes, of course, the forgiveness needs to be in a sacramental context, both because of the canonical requirement and because otherwise the argument does not apply (for instance, one may keep on worrying whether one had perfect contrition or not: non-sacramental forgiveness of grave sin is generally held to require perfect contrition (i.e., contrition motivated by love of God, rather than, say, fear of punishment)).

Adam said...

Correct me if I'm wrong-- indeed I probably am wrong—but is the general principle behind this the same that leads to the problematic (for Protestants) doctrine that the sacraments are even effectual in the absence of the faith of the recipient? That an atheist, for example, could take the sacraments and receive sanctifying grace even in the absence of belief?

I apologize if I'm completely misunderstanding Catholic theology here!

Alexander R Pruss said...

Different sacraments have different criteria for the subjective attitude needed for validity. My knowledge of these, apart from the case of the Eucharist, is poor, so take what I say below with a grain of salt.

E.g., in the Eucharist, one receives the body of Christ whether one has faith or not, and independently of one's attitudes, since the body of Christ is what is there, independently of how one thinks about it. However, the effects of receiving the Eucharist depend a lot on the faith and attitude of the recipient. If one receives the Eucharist in order to blaspheme, one gains not grace but condemnation.

In baptism, generally faith is required to the extent to which the recipient is capable of it. Thus, no discernible requirement applies to infants and the most severely mentally retarded adults, but in the case of a normal adult, a profession of faith is required. I think this is required for validity, and just for liceity, but there may be some controversy about it.

In reconciliation, one needs to repent and sincerely ask God for forgiveness. The atheist doesn't do that. So the atheist would receive no benefit from going through the motions. This fact does increase the possibilities for anxiety.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


What if a person S was a Catholic with sanctifying gace and then gone mad when being tortured/suffered from clinical depression/lost half of his brain in a crash/was possessed by a devil, in a non-culpable way, due to factors which he could not control, and concequently stopped to believe in (some part of) the Creed? S lost faith, right? But S did not lose it by mortal sin, right? And did S lose sanctifying grace? That would seem unfair.

In short, aren't there at least few people who lost faith in some extreme circumstances non-culpably?

Maybe you would reply they did not lose faith in the sense of a specific supernatural habitus. But then there could be some people who would have a supernatural habitus of faith, and sanctifying grace, though at the same time they would be die-hard satanists (for the rest of their lives, after their apostasy). And that seems strange.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I vaguely recall reading that demonic possession won't happen to a Catholic in a state of grace (obsession might). In any case, possession does not automatically change the person's beliefs, I think.

The other cases are hard. I guess the supernatural habit remains, and the rest is for God to figure out. We also have to remember that God may offer special kinds of help in such situations.

Leon said...

This reminds me of 2 Timothy 2:11-13.