Have I Lost My Faith? An Analysis of Faith and Hope in Relation to Despair
This paper was originally submitted to Holy Apostles College and Seminary on 13 April, 2019. I am posting it now because of the relevance to our current time.
The Catholic Church has always placed duty and deed in high places of honor throughout her history. Long before the Protestant revolt stripped from the faithful a complete sense of faith and works (both of which, combined, help us to achieve heaven by God’s grace), the Church was no stranger to a healthy understanding of salvation. Scripture is in no shortage of examples of “faith in action.” Christ, and his apostles, call us to action by our faith countlessly: “Tend my sheep… feed my sheep,” “what shall profit if a man say he hath faith, but hath no works?” “Seest thou that faith did not cooperate with his works and by works faith was made perfect?” Scripture, without a doubt, verifies the need for works, along with faith, in order to obtain a more perfect relationship with Christ.
But faith in general is something more enigmatic for some. Faithfulness in scripture meant many things: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, suffering, obedience, martyrdom; sometimes it meant being willing to kill. Being a faithful Christian seems easy on the surface: follow Christ, love God and one another, and do good works. Increasingly, however, the Church has experienced a crisis of faith. Catholics are considering leaving the Church—presumably because of the recent sex abuse scandals, which was perhaps the catalyst for a long-festering problem of clericalism. Other problems plague the Church, too. Many accuse the Church of hypocrisy, violence, intolerance, hate, and sexism. The National Catholic Register recently published a reaction to this very problem. Citing Henri De Lubac, the article states, “man cannot organize the world for himself without God; without God he can only organize the world against man. Exclusive humanism is inhuman humanism.” Considering De Lubac’s words, a crisis of faith can become more understandable: repulsive men exist at all times, in all corners of the world. Faith, as it happens, can be shaped and influenced by men. When the elect do evil, people respond with aversion. Having experienced my own series of personal problems of faith, I can recognize these tendencies in myself. How easy it is to become discouraged by a wolf in shepherd’s clothing!
Faith, then, must not exist solely within a faithful person. The questions that continue to arise are: is losing my faith a sin? Did I ever have faith to begin with? Where did I get if from? All of these questions are addressed by the Church, should we care to investigate it. In fact, in 1 Corinthians, Paul tells his readers about the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love (or Charity), the greatest being Love. The New Collegeville Bible Commentary says thusly, “Love is the greatest both because it is the supreme motive that allows Christians to use all the Spirit’s gifts for the end toward which God has ordained them and because it alone endures eternal.” The Holy Spirit is made manifest most wholly in those who express the Love of Christ.
Of the three virtues, Scripture says that the greatest is Love (or Charity). This places hope and faith second to charity. It might be sensible to synthesize the progression of spiritual strength in terms of tiers; those tiers being faith, hope, and love, and faith being the base of hope and charity. St. Thomas Aquinas recognized faith as preceding hope, and hope as preceding love. It was his understanding that Faith gives hope its object, and that hope inspires us to love perfectly. The Spirit within us consist of the love made manifest first by a faith given to us by grace. Rather than expressing itself as merely “another virtue,” faith is not compared to hope and charity. Aquinas is careful to recognize that Faith works to perfect one’s intellect, whereas hope and charity work to perfect one’s appetitive power. It is possible that, when one experiences what seems to be a loss in faith, it may be merely a loss in appetite.
By an act of the will, man participates with God in the generation of his own faith. It is necessary that he comes to his faith for his own sake. St. Thomas explains the gravity of belief, showing that faith is necessary because it: exposes one quickly to Divine Truth, makes more general that Truth so all may know it, and circumvents the limits of knowledge, that is, that it makes accessible the vastness of God’s revelation to all people, of all intelligence levels. All of these reasons lend to the understanding of faith as something which should never be lost; something which would be sinful to ignore.
Because faith is a cooperation between a believer and God and his grace, faith itself is not something easily lost, and is lost to one’s detriment in any case. The first Vatican Council, in an attempt to “sure up” any doubt one might have in the gravity of a loss of faith, states:
If anyone shall have said that the condition of the faithful and of those who have not yet come to the true faith is equal, so that Catholics can have a just cause of doubting the faith which they have accepted under the teaching power of the Church, by withholding assent until they have completed the scientific demonstration of the credibility and truth of their faith: let him be anathema.
Other such statements on faith, and faith and reason, are also addressed by the Council as well. But it suffices here to show this one example of the Church condemning a loss of faith due to a lack of proof. Faith must be understood, then, not to mean, “I think,” but rather, “I believe.” But most people who have become a part of the mass exodus from the Catholic Church do believe—they simply don’t like the Church. This distinction is key when understanding what, I believe, is truly ailing the Church, which essentially reduces to the Sin of Despair.
The Sin of Despair is a grave, mortal sin by which a believer loses hope and/or confidence in their salvation (or the Church in general). St. Thomas Aquinas calls the Sin of Despair “a most grievous sin,” because it rejects the hope that is in all of the faithful, and therefore despises God and his promise of salvation. Now, since despair is a rejection of hope, it pertains to the appetitive powers of man, rather than his intellect, which removes faith from the equation—since faith pertains to the intellect. With faith removed, it becomes clearer that faith is not, in itself, the typical problem when one references a “crisis of faith,” since faith pertains the an intellect which generally still accepts God as Creator and Christ as Savior—at least for the purpose of this paper.
We’ve already seen that St. Thomas Aquinas recognized a sort of hierarchy with regard to the theological virtues: Faith preceding hope, hope preceding love, and love being the greatest of all three. It follows that, if one considers leaving the Church, but seeks only to find another church, it is not his faith that has suffered, but his hope. And if a lack of hope leads to despair, then Love suffers with it. Love is the source of joy and happiness, which necessarily suffer if love suffers. This is predictably why Catholics who lose hope, but do not leave the Church, become uncharitable, cynical, and bitter.
Being no stranger to this cynicism and bitterness myself, it is exponentially clearer why a loss in faith is not the prudent conclusion for one’s sorrow in the current social climate of the Church. Faith, as mentioned above, is the foundation of hope and love—at the very bottom of virtue as it were, subjecting it to lesser damage before hope and love. But what is pressing is the nature of despair and the damage it threatens to do to faith, since despair rejects the hope of salvation—the very hope to which faith is oriented. Such is the rather pointed opinion of the late Catholic philosopher Germain Grisez, who writes:
…if someone with faith despairs, faith is hardly likely to last, for such a person faces the awful prospect of hell and desperately needs to evade it. The only way of doing so consistent with despair is to deny the faith, beginning with the doctrine that hell awaits unrepentant sinners.
In order to reject faith, one must first fall out of love, and then lose hope. Despair is particularly problematic for this reason: it begins the process of demolishing the hierarchy of the Theological virtues—first by diminishing the sense of love we have for God and one another, then by losing the hope that God will deliver us from evil, and finally by reducing faith down to nothing, so that nothing can send us to hell (or so it would seem).
It is especially prudent, then, to recognize that, when someone says, “I am experiencing a crisis in faith,” or, “I have lost my faith,” they have not in fact lost faith; nor is their faith yet destroyed. For someone who has lost faith, much like someone who desires to die, will not reach out to be stopped. The suicidal person who loves life will reach out for help, but the suicidal person who hates life will die alone. So, too, will the person with no faith allow himself to fall into sin and die, whereas the person who desires God but has recognized a wasteland around himself will reach out to his fellow man and rekindle his hope for eternal life. In doing so he recognizes that it is his will, and not his intellect, that wavers in the strong winds of spiritual turmoil. We can take great solace in the words of Jesus Christ, who expresses the sheer power of faith and enlivens that hope within us that faith is truly the foundation of all virtue:
“If you had faith like to a grain of mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be thou rooted up and be thou transplanted into the sea. And it would obey you” (Lk. 17:6, D-R).
 See Jn. 21:15-16, RSV.  Jas. 2:14, RSV.  Jas. 2:22, RSV.  Barillas, Martin M., “Pope blames church’s sex abuse crisis on ‘clericalism’ in closing remarks at Vatican summit,” Life Site News, 26 February, 2019, Accessed 13 April, 2019 at https://www.lifesitenews.com.  DeMarco, Donald, “Consider This Before Leaving the Catholic Church,” National Catholic Register, 8 April, 2019, Accessed 13 April, 2019 at http://www.ncregister.com.  See 1 Cor. 13:11, RSV.  Durken, Daniel, ed, The New Collegeville Bible Commentary, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 534.  STh., II-II q.17 a.7-8.  STh., II-II q.1 a.3 resp.  STh., II-II q.2 a.4 resp.  Denzinger, H., & Rahner, K. (Eds.). (1954). The sources of Catholic dogma. (R. J. Deferrari, Trans.) (p. 450). St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co.  STh., II-II q.20 a.2 resp.  STh., II-II q.17 a.7-8.  Grisez, G. (1997). The Way of the Lord Jesus, Volume Two: Living a Christian Life (p. 97). Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press.