What Is Faith?
St. Thomas says, “Faith has the character of a virtue, not because of the things it believes, for faith is of things that appear not, but because it adheres to the testimony of one in whom truth is infallibly found”
The meaning of the word
(Pistis, fides). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew means essentially steadfastness, cf. Exodus 17:12, where it is used to describe the strengthening of Moses’ hands; hence it comes to mean faithfulness, whether of God towards man (Deuteronomy 32:4) or of man towards God (Psalm 118:30). As signifying man’s attitude towards God it means trustfulness or fiducia. It would, however, be illogical to conclude that the word cannot, and does not, mean belief or faith in the Old Testament for it is clear that we cannot put trust in a person’s promises without previously assenting to or believing in that person’s claim to such confidence. Hence even if it could be proved that the Hebrew does not in itself contain the notion of belief, it must necessarily presuppose it. But that the word does itself contain the notion of belief is clear from the use of the radical, which in the causative conjugation, or Hiph’il, means “to believe”, e.g. Genesis 15:6, and Deuteronomy 1:32, in which latter passage the two meanings — viz. of believing and of trusting — are combined. That the noun itself often means faith or belief, is clear from Habakkuk 2:4, where the context demands it. The witness of the Septuagint is decisive; they render the verb by pisteuo, and the noun by pistis; and here again the two factors, faith and trust, are connoted by the same term. But that even in classical Greek pisteuo was used to signify believe, is clear from Euripides (Helene, 710), logois d’emoisi pisteuson tade, and that pistis could mean “belief” is shown by the same dramatist’s theon d’ouketi pistis arage (Medea, 414; cf. Hipp., 1007). In the New Testament the meanings “to believe” and “belief”, for pisteon and pistis, come to the fore; in Christ’s speech, pistis frequently means “trust”, but also “belief” (cf. Matthew 8:10). In Acts it is used objectively of the tenets of the Christians, but is often to be rendered “belief” (cf. 17:31; 20:21; 26:8). In Romans 14:23, it has the meaning of “conscience” — “all that is not of faith is sin” — but the Apostle repeatedly uses it in the sense of “belief” (cf. Romans 4 and Galatians 3). How necessary it is to point this out will be evident to all who are familiar with modern theological literature; thus, when a writer in the “Hibbert Journal”, Oct., 1907, says, “From one end of the Scripture to the other, faith is trust and only trust”, it is hard to see how he would explain 1 Corinthians 13:13, and Hebrews 11:1. The truth is that many theological writers of the present day are given to very loose thinking, and in nothing is this so evident as in their treatment of faith. In the article just referred to we read: “Trust in God is faith, faith is belief, belief may mean creed, but creed is not equivalent to trust in God.” A similar vagueness was especially noticeable in the “Do we believe?” controversy—one correspondent says—”We unbelievers, if we have lost faith, cling more closely to hope and — the greatest of these — charity” (“Do we believe?”, p. 180, ed. W. L. Courtney, 1905). Non-Catholic writers have repudiated all idea of faith as an intellectual assent, and consequently they fail to realize that faith must necessarily result in a body of dogmatic beliefs. “How and by what influence”, asks Harnack, “was the living faith transformed into the creed to be believed, the surrender to Christ into a philosophical Christology?” (quoted in Hibbert Journal, loc. cit.).
Faith may be considered both objectively and subjectively
Objectively, it stands for the sum of truths revealed by God in Scripture and tradition and which the Church (see RULE OF FAITH) presents to us in a brief form in her creeds, subjectively, faith stands for the habit or virtue by which we assent to those truths. It is with this subjective aspect of faith that we are here primarily concerned. Before we proceed to analyze the term faith, certain preliminary notions must be made clear.
(a) The twofold order of knowledge. — “The Catholic Church”, says the Vatican Council, III, iv, “has always held that there is a twofold order of knowledge, and that these two orders are distinguished from one another not only in their principle but in their object; in one we know by natural reason, in the other by Divine faith; the object of the one is truth attainable by natural reason, the object of the other is mysteries hidden in God, but which we have to believe and which can only be known to us by Divine revelation.”
(b) Now intellectual knowledge may be defined in a general way as the union between the intellect and an intelligible object. But a truth is intelligible to us only in so far as it is evident to us, and evidence is of different kinds; hence, according to the varying character of the evidence, we shall have varying kinds of knowledge. Thus a truth may be self-evident — e.g. the whole is greater than its part — in which case we are said to have intuitive knowledge of it; or the truth may not be self-evident, but deducible from premises in which it is contained — such knowledge is termed reasoned knowledge; or again a truth may be neither self-evident nor deducible from premises in which it is contained, yet the intellect may be obliged to assent to it because It would else have to reject some other universally accepted truth; lastly, the intellect may be induced to assent to a truth for none of the foregoing reasons, but solely because, though not evident in itself, this truth rests on grave authority — for example, we accept the statement that the sun is 90,000,000 miles distant from the earth because competent, veracious authorities vouch for the fact. This last kind of knowledge is termed faith, and is clearly necessary in daily life. If the authority upon which we base our assent is human and therefore fallible, we have human and fallible faith; if the authority is Divine, we have Divine and infallible faith. If to this be added the medium by which the Divine authority for certain statements is put before us, viz. the Catholic Church, we have Divine-Catholic Faith (see RULE OF FAITH).
(c) Again, evidence, whatever its source, may be of various degrees and so cause greater or less firmness of adhesion on the part of the mind which assents to a truth. Thus arguments or authorities for and against a truth may be either wanting or evenly balanced, in this case the intellect does not give in its adherence to the truth, but remains in a state of doubt or absolute suspension of judgment; or the arguments on one side may predominate; though not to the exclusion of those on the other side; in this case we have not complete adhesion of the intellect to the truth in question but only opinion. Lastly, the arguments or authorities brought forward may be so convincing that the mind gives its unqualified assent to the statement proposed and has no fear whatever lest it should not be true; this state of mind is termed certitude, and is the perfection of knowledge. Divine faith, then, is that form of knowledge which is derived from Divine authority, and which consequently begets absolute certitude in the mind of the recipient.
(d) That such Divine faith is necessary, follows from the fact of Divine revelation. For revelation means that the Supreme Truth has spoken to man and revealed to him truths which are not in themselves evident to the human mind. We must, then, either reject revelation altogether, or accept it by faith; that is, we must submit our intellect to truths which we cannot understand, but which come to us on Divine authority.
(e) We shall arrive at a better understanding of the habit or virtue of faith if we have previously analysed an act of faith; and this analysis will be facilitated by examining an act of ocular vision and an act of reasoned knowledge. In ocular vision we distinguish three things: the eye, or visual faculty the coloured object, and the light which serves as the medium between the eye and the object. It is usual to term colour the formal object (objectum formale quod) of vision, since it is that which precisely and alone makes a thing the object of vision, the individual object seen may be termed the material object, e.g. this apple, that man, etc. Similarly, the light which serves as the medium between the eye and the object is termed the formal reason (objectum formale quo) of our actual vision. In the same way, when we analyze an act of intellectual assent to any given truth, we must distinguish the intellectual faculty which elicits the act the intelligible object towards which the intellect is directed, and the evidence whether intrinsic to that object or extrinsic to it, which moves us to assent to it. None of these factors can be omitted, each cooperates in bringing about the act, whether of ocular vision or of intellectual assent.
(f) Hence, for an act of faith we shall need a faculty capable of eliciting the act, an object commensurate with that faculty, and evidence — not intrinsic but extrinsic to that object — which shall serve as the link between faculty and object. We will commence our analysis with the object:-
Analysis of the object or term in an act of divine faith
(a) For a truth to be the object of an act of Divine faith, it must be itself Divine, and this not merely as coming from God, but as being itself concerned with God. Just as in ocular vision the formal object must necessarily be something coloured, so in Divine faith the formal object must be something Divine — in theological language, the objectum formale quod of Divine faith is the First Truth in Being, Prima Veritas in essendo — we could not make an act of Divine faith in the existence of India.
(b) Again, the evidence upon which we assent to this Divine truth must also be itself Divine, and there must be as close a relation between that truth and the evidence upon which it comes to us as there is between the coloured object and the light; the former is a necessary condition for the exercise of our visual faculty, the latter is the cause of our actual vision. But no one but God can reveal God; in other words, God is His own evidence. Hence, just as the formal object of Divine faith is the First Truth Itself, so the evidence of that First Truth is the First Truth declaring Itself. To use scholastic language once more, the objectum formale quod, or the motive, or the evidence, of Divine faith is the Prima Veritas in dicendo.
(c) There is a controversy whether the same truth can be an object both of faith and of knowledge. In other words, can we believe a thing both because we are told it on good authority and because we ourselves perceive it to be true? St. Thomas, Scotus, and others hold that once a thing is seen to be true, the adhesion of the mind is in no wise strengthened by the authority of one who states that it is so, but the majority of theologians maintain, with De Lugo, that there may be a knowledge which does not entirely satisfy the mind, and that authority may then find a place, to complete its satisfaction. — We may note here the absurd expression Credo quia impossibile, which has provoked many sneers. It is not an axiom of the Scholastics, as was stated in the “Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale” (March, 1896, p. 169), and as was suggested more than once in the “Do we believe?” correspondence. The expression is due to Tertullian, whose exact words are: “Natus est Dei Filius; non pudet, quia pudendum est: et mortuus est Dei Filius; prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est; et sepultus, resurrexit; certum est, quia impossibile” (De Carne Christi, cap. v). This treatise dates from Tertullian’s Montanist days, when he was carried away by his love of paradox. At the same time it is clear that the writer only aims at bringing out the wisdom of God manifested in the humiliation of the Cross; he is perhaps paraphrasing St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:25.
(d) Let us now take some concrete act of faith, e.g. “I believe in the Most Holy Trinity.” This mystery is the material or individual object upon which we are now exercising our faith, the formal object is its character as being a Divine truth, and this truth is clearly inevident as far as we are concerned; it in no way appeals to our intellect, on the contrary it rather repels it. And yet we assent to it by faith, consequently upon evidence which is extrinsic and not intrinsic to the truth we are accepting. But there can be no evidence commensurate with such a mystery save the Divine testimony itself, and this constitutes the motive for our assent to the mystery, and is, in scholastic language, the objectum formale quo of our assent. If then, we are asked why we believe with Divine faith any Divine truth, the only adequate answer must be because God has revealed it.
(e) We may point out in this connexion the falsity of the prevalent notion that faith is blind. “We believe”, says the Vatican Council (III, iii), “that revelation is true, not indeed because the intrinsic truth of the mysteries is clearly seen by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Who reveals them, for He can neither deceive nor be deceived.” Thus, to return to the act of faith which we make in the Holy Trinity, we may formulate it in syllogistic fashion thus: Whatever God reveals is true but God has revealed the mystery of the Holy Trinity therefore this mystery is true. The major premise is indubitable and intrinsically evident to reason; the minor premise is also true because it is declared to us by the infallible Church (cf. RULE OF FAITH), and also because, as the Vatican Council says, “in addition to the internal assistance of His Holy Spirit, it has pleased God to give us certain external proofs of His revelation, viz. certain Divine facts, especially miracles and prophecies, for since these latter clearly manifest God’s omnipotence and infinite knowledge, they afford most certain proofs of His revelation and are suited to the capacity of all.” Hence St. Thomas says: “A man would not believe unless he saw the things he had to believe, either by the evidence of miracles or of something similar” (II-II:1:4, ad 1). The saint is here speaking of the motives of credibility.
Motives of credibility
(a) When we say that a certain statement is incredible we often mean merely that it is extraordinary, but it should be borne in mind that this is a misuse of language, for the credibility or incredibility of a statement has nothing to do with its intrinsic probability or improbability; it depends solely upon the credentials of the authority who makes the statement. Thus the credibility of the statement that a secret alliance has been entered into between England and America depends solely upon the authoritative position and the veracity of our informant. If he be a clerk in a government office it is possible that he may have picked up some genuine information, but if our informant be the Prime Minister of England, his statement has the highest degree of credibility because his credentials are of the highest. When we speak of the motives of credibility of revealed truth we mean the evidence that the things asserted are revealed truths. In other words, the credibility of the statements made is correlative with and proportionate to the credentials of the authority who makes them. Now the credentials of God are indubitable, for the very idea of God involves that of omniscience and of the Supreme Truth. Hence, what God says is supremely credible, though not necessarily supremely intelligible for us. Here, however, the real question is not as to the credentials of God or the credibility of what He says, but as to the credibility of the statement that God has spoken. In other words who or what is the authority for this statement, and what credentials does this authority show? What are the motives of credibility of the statement that God has revealed this or that?
(b) These motives of credibility may be briefly stated as follows: in the Old Testament considered not as an inspired book, but merely as a book having historical value, we find detailed the marvellous dealings of God with a particular nation to whom He repeatedly reveals Himself; we read of miracles wrought in their favour and as proofs of the truth of the revelation He makes; we find the most sublime teaching and the repeated announcement of God’s desire to save the world from sin and its consequences. And more than all we find throughout the pages of this book a series of hints, now obscure, now clear, of some wondrous person who is to come as the world’s saviour; we find it asserted at one time that he is man, at others that he is God Himself. When we turn to the New Testament we find that it records the birth, life, and death of One Who, while clearly man, also claimed to be God, and Who proved the truth of His claim by His whole life, miracles, teachings, and death, and finally by His triumphant resurrection. We find, moreover, that He founded a Church which should, so He said, continue to the end of time, which should serve as the repository of His teaching, and should be the means of applying to all men the fruits of the redemption He had wrought. When we come to the subsequent history of this Church we find it speedily spreading everywhere, and this in spite of its humble origin, its unworldly teaching, and the cruel persecution which it meets at the hands of the rulers of this world. And as the centuries pass we find this Church battling against heresies schisms, and the sins of her own people—nay, of her own rulers—and yet continuing ever the same, promulgating ever the same doctrine, and putting before men the same mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of the world’s Saviour, Who had, so she taught, gone before to prepare a home for those who while on earth should have believed in Him and fought the good fight. But if the history of the Church since New-Testament times thus wonderfully confirms the New Testament itself, and if the New Testament so marvellously completes the Old Testament, these books must really contain what they claim to contain, viz. Divine revelation. And more than all, that Person Whose life and death were so minutely foretold in the Old Testament, and Whose story, as told in the New Testament, so perfectly corresponds with its prophetic delineation in the Old Testament, must be what He claimed to be, viz. the Son of God. His work, therefore, must be Divine. The Church which He founded must also be Divine and the repository and guardian of His teaching. Indeed, we can truly say that for every truth of Christianity which we believe Christ Himself is our testimony, and we believe in Him because the Divinity He claimed rests upon the concurrent testimony of His miracles, His prophecies His personal character, the nature of His doctrine, the marvellous propagation of His teaching in spite of its running counter to flesh and blood, the united testimony of thousands of martyrs, the stories of countless saints who for His sake have led heroic lives, the history of the Church herself since the Crucifixion, and, perhaps more remarkable than any, the history of the papacy from St. Peter to Pius X.
(c) These testimonies are unanimous; they all point in one direction, they are of every age, they are clear and simple, and are within the grasp of the humblest intelligence. And, as the Vatican Council has said, “the Church herself, is, by her marvellous propagation, her wondrous sanctity, her inexhaustible fruitfulness in good works, her Catholic unity, and her enduring stability, a great and perpetual motive of credibility and an irrefragable witness to her Divine commission” (Const. Dei Filius) . “The Apostles”, says St. Augustine, “saw the Head and believed in the Body; we see the Body let us believe in the Head” [Sermo ccxliii, 8 (al. cxliii), de temp., P.L., V 1143]. Every believer will echo the words of Richard of St. Victor, “Lord, if we are in error, by Thine own self we have been deceived—for these things have been confirmed by such signs and wonders in our midst as could only have been done by Thee!” (de Trinitate, 1, cap. ii).
(d) But much misunderstanding exists regarding the meaning and office of the motives of credibility. In the first place, they afford us definite and certain knowledge of Divine revelation; but this knowledge precedes faith; it is not the final motive for our assent to the truths of faith—as St. Thomas says, “Faith has the character of a virtue, not because of the things it believes, for faith is of things that appear not, but because it adheres to the testimony of one in whom truth is infallibly found” (De Veritate, xiv, 8); this knowledge of revealed truth which precedes faith can only beget human faith it is not even the cause of Divine faith (cf. Francisco Suárez, be Fide disp. iii, 12), but is rather to be considered a remote disposition to it. We must insist upon this because in the minds of many faith is regarded as a more or less necessary consequence of a careful study of the motives of credibility, a view which the Vatican Council condemns expressly: “If anyone says that the assent of Christian faith is not free, but that it necessarily follows from the arguments which human reason can furnish in its favour; or if anyone says that God’s grace is only necessary for that living faith which worketh through charity, let him be anathema” (Sess. IV). Nor can the motives of credibility make the mysteries of faith clear in themselves, for, as St. Thomas says, “the arguments which induce us to believe, e.g. miracles, do not prove the faith itself, but only the truthfulness of him who declares it to us, and consequently they do not beget knowledge of faith’s mysteries, but only faith” (in Sent., III, xxiv, Q. i, art. 2, sol. 2, ad 4). On the other hand, we must not minimize the real probative force of the motives of credibility within their true sphere—”Reason declares that from the very outset the Gospel teaching was rendered conspicuous by signs and wonders which gave, as it were, definite proof of a definite truth” (Leo XIII, Æterni Patris).
(e) The Church has twice condemned the view that faith ultimately rests on an accumulation of probabilities. Thus the proposition, “The assent of supernatural faith . . is consistent with merely probable knowledge of revelation” was condemned by Innocent XI in 1679 (cf. Denzinger, Enchiridion, 10th ed., no. 1171); and the Syllabus Lamentabili sane (July, 1907) condemns the proposition (XXV) that “the assent of faith rests ultimately on an accumulation of probabilities.” But since the great name of Newman has been dragged into the controversy regarding this last proposition, we may point out that, in the Grammar of Assent (chap. x, sect. 2), Newman refers solely to the proof of faith afforded by the motives of credibility, and he rightly concludes that, since these are not demonstrative, this line of proof may be termed “an accumulation of probabilities”. But it would be absurd to say that Newman therefore based the final assent of faith on this accumulation—as a matter of fact he is not here making an analysis of an act of faith, but only of the grounds for faith; the question of authority does not come into his argument (cf. McNabb, Oxford Conferences on Faith, pp. 121-122).
Analysis of the act of faith from the subjective standpoint
(a) The light of faith. — An angel understands truths which are beyond man’s comprehension; if then a man were called upon to assent to a truth beyond the ken of the human intellect, but within the grasp of the angelic intellect, he would require for the time being something more than his natural light of reason, he would require what we may call “the angelic light”. If, now, the same man were called upon to assent to a truth beyond the grasp of both men and angels, he would clearly need a still higher light, and this light we term “the light of faith” — a light, because it enables him to assent to those supernatural truths, and the light of faith because it does not so illumine those truths as to make them no longer obscure, for faith must ever be “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not” (Hebrews 11:1). Hence St. Thomas (De Veritate, xiv, 9, ad 2) says: “Although the Divinely infused light of faith is more powerful than the natural light of reason, nevertheless in our present state we only imperfectly participate in it; and hence it comes to pass that it does not beget in us real vision of those things which it is meant to teach us; such vision belongs to our eternal home, where we shall perfectly participate in that light, where, in fine, in God’s light we shall see light’ (Ps. xxxv, 10).”
(b) The necessity of such light is evident from what has been said, for faith is essentially an act of assent, and just as assent to a series of deductive or inductive reasonings, or to intuition of first principles, would be impossible without the light of reason, so, too assent to a supernatural truth would be inconceivable without a supernatural strengthening of the natural light “Quid est enim fides nisi credere quod non vides?” (i.e. what is faith but belief in that which thou seest not?) asks St. Augustine; but he also says: “Faith has its eyes by which it in some sort sees that to be true which it does not yet see—and by which, too, it most surely sees that it does not see what it believes” [Ep. ad Consent., ep. cxx 8 (al. ccxxii), P.L., II, 456].
(c) Again, it is evident that this “light of faith” is a supernatural gift and is not the necessary outcome of assent to the motives of credibility. No amount of study will win it, no intellectual conviction as to the credibility of revealed religion nor even of the claims of the Church to be our infallible guide in matters of faith, will produce this light in a man’s mind. It is the free gift of God. Hence the Vatican Council (III, iii;) teaches that “faith is a supernatural virtue by which we with the inspiration and assistance of God’s grace, believe those things to be true which He has revealed”. The same decree goes on to say that “although the assent of faith is in no sense blind, yet no one can assent to the Gospel teaching in the way necessary for salvation without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, Who bestows on all a sweetness in believing and consenting to the truth”. Thus, neither as regards the truth believed nor as regards the motives for believing, nor as regards the subjective principle by which we believe — viz. the infused light — can faith be considered blind.
(d) The place of the will in an act of faith. — So far we have seen that faith is an act of the intellect assenting to a truth which is beyond its grasp, e.g. the mystery of the Holy Trinity. But to many it will seem almost as futile to ask the intellect to assent to a proposition which is not intrinsically evident as it would be to ask the eye to see a sound. It is clear, however, that the intellect can be moved by the will either to study or not to study a certain truth, though if the truth be a self-evident one — e.g., that the whole is greater than its part — the will cannot affect the intellect’s adhesion to it, it can, however, move it to think of something else, and thus distract it from the contemplation of that particular truth. If, now, the will moves the intellect to consider some debatable point—e.g. the Copernican and Ptolemaic theories of the relationship between the sun and the earth — it is clear that the intellect can only assent to one of these views in proportion as it is convinced that the particular view is true. But neither view has, as far as we can know, more than probable truth, hence of itself the intellect can only give in its partial adherence to one of these views, it must always be precluded from absolute assent by the possibility that the other view may be right. The fact that men hold much more tenaciously to one of these than the arguments warrant can only be due to some extrinsic consideration, e.g. that it is absurd not to hold what the vast majority of men hold. And here it should be noted that, as St. Thomas says repeatedly, the intellect only assents to a statement for one of two reasons: either because that statement is immediately or mediately evident in itself — e.g. a first principle or a conclusion from premises — or because the will moves it to do so. Extrinsic evidence of course comes into play when intrinsic evidence is wanting, but though it would be absurd, without weighty evidence in its support, to assent to a truth which we do not grasp, yet no amount of such evidence can make us assent, it could only show that the statement in question was credible, our ultimate actual assent could only be due to the intrinsic evidence which the statement itself offered, or, failing that, due to the will. Hence it is that St. Thomas repeatedly defines the act of faith as the assent of the intellect determined by the will (De Veritate, xiv, 1; II-II, Q. ii, a. 1, ad 3; 2, c.; ibid., iv, 1, c., and ad 2). The reason, then, why men cling to certain beliefs more tenaciously than the arguments in their favour would warrant, is to be sought in the will rather than in the intellect. Authorities are to be found on both sides, the intrinsic evidence is not convincing, but something is to be gained by assenting to one view rather than the other, and this appeals to the will, which therefore determines the intellect to assent to the view which promises the most. Similarly, in Divine faith the credentials of the authority which tells us that God has made certain revelations are strong, but they are always extrinsic to the proposition, “God has revealed this or that”, and consequently they cannot compel our assent; they merely show us that this statement is credible. When, then, we ask whether we are to give in our free assent to any particular statement or not, we feel that in the first place we cannot do so unless there be strong extrinsic evidence in its favour, for to believe a thing merely because we wished to do so would be absurd. Secondly, the proposition itself does not compel our assent, since it is not intrinsically evident, but there remains the fact that only on condition of our assent to it shall we have what the human soul naturally yearns for, viz., the possession of God, Who is, as both reason and authority declare, our ultimate end; “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved”, and “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” St. Thomas expresses this by saying: “The disposition of a believer is that of one who accepts another’s word for some statement, because it seems fitting or useful to do so. In the same way we believe Divine revelation because the reward of eternal life is promised us for so doing. It is the will which is moved by the prospect of this reward to assent to what is said, even though the intellect is not moved by something which it understands. Hence St. Augustine says (Tract. xxvi in Joannem, 2): Cetera potest homo nolens, credere nonnisi volens’ [i.e. other things a man can do against his will but to believe he must will]” (De Ver., xiv, 1).
(e) But just as the intellect needed a new and special light in order to assent to the supernatural truths of faith, so also the will needs a special grace from God in order that it may tend to that supernatural good which is eternal life. The light of faith, then, illumines the understanding, though the truth still remains obscure, since it is beyond the intellect’s grasp; but supernatural grace moves the will, which, having now a supernatural good put before it, moves the intellect to assent to what it does not understand. Hence it is that faith is described as “bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Definition of faith
The foregoing analyses will enable us to define an act of Divine supernatural faith as “the act of the intellect assenting to a Divine truth owing to the movement of the will, which is itself moved by the grace of God” (St. Thomas, II-II, Q. iv, a. 2). And just as the light of faith is a gift supernaturally bestowed upon the understanding, so also this Divine grace moving the will is, as its name implies, an equally supernatural and an absolutely gratuitous gift. Neither gift is due to previous study neither of them can be acquired by human efforts, but “Ask and ye shall receive.”
From all that has been said two most important corollaries follow:
- That temptations against faith are natural and inevitable and are in no sense contrary to faith, “since”, says St. Thomas, “the assent of the intellect in faith is due to the will, and since the object to which the intellect thus assents is not its own proper object — for that is actual vision of an intelligible object — it follows that the intellect’s attitude towards that object is not one of tranquillity, on the contrary it thinks and inquires about those things it believes, all the while that it assents to them unhesitatingly; for as far as it itself is concerned the intellect is not satisfied” (De Ver., xiv, 1).
- (b) It also follows from the above that an act of supernatural faith is meritorious, since it proceeds from the will moved by Divine grace or charity, and thus has all the essential constituents of a meritorious act (cf. II-II, Q. ii, a. 9). This enables us to understand St. James’s words when he says, “The devils also believe and tremble” (ii, 19) . “It is not willingly that they assent”, says St. Thomas, “but they are compelled thereto by the evidence of those signs which prove that what believers assent to is true, though even those proofs do not make the truths of faith so evident as to afford what is termed vision of them” (De Ver., xiv 9, ad 4); nor is their faith Divine, but merely philosophical and natural. Some may fancy the foregoing analyses superfluous, and may think that they savour too much of Scholasticism. But if anyone will be at the pains to compare the teaching of the Fathers, of the Scholastics, and of the divines of the Anglican Church in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with that of the non-Catholic theologians of today, he will find that the Scholastics merely put into shape what the Fathers taught, and that the great English divines owe their solidity and genuine worth to their vast patristic knowledge and their strictly logical training.
Let anyone who doubts this statement compare Bishop Butler’s Analogy of Religion, chaps. v, vi, with the paper on “Faith” contributed to Lux Mundi. The writer of this latter paper tells us that “faith is an elemental energy of the soul”, “a tentative probation”, that “its primary note will be trust”, and finally that “in response to the demand for definition, it can only reiterate: “Faith is faith. Believing is just believing'”. Nowhere is there any analysis of terms, nowhere any distinction between the relative parts played by the intellect and the will; and we feel that those who read the paper must have risen from its perusal with the feeling that they had been wandering through — we use the writer’s own expression — “a juggling maze of words.”
The: habit of faith and the life of faith
(a) We have defined the act of faith as the assent of the intellect to a truth which is beyond its comprehension, but which it accepts under the influence of the will moved by grace and from the analysis we are now in a position to define the virtue of faith as a supernatural habit by which we firmly believe those things to be true which God has revealed. Now every virtue is the perfection of some faculty, but faith results from the combined action of two faculties, viz., the intellect which elicits the act, and the will which moves the intellect to do so; consequently, the perfection of faith will depend upon the perfection with which each of these faculties performs its allotted task; the intellect must assent unhesitatingly, the will must promptly and readily move it to do so.
(b) The unhesitating assent of the intellect cannot be due to intellectual conviction of the reasonableness of faith, whether we regard the grounds on which it rests or the actual truths we believe, for “faith is the evidence of things that appear not”; it must, then, be referred to the fact that these truths come to us on Divine infallible testimony. And though faith is so essentially of “the unseen” it may be that the peculiar function of the light of faith, which we have seen to be so necessary, is in some sort to afford us, not indeed vision, but an instinctive appreciation of the truths which are declared to be revealed. St. Thomas seems to hint at this when he says: “As by other virtuous habits a man sees what accords with those habits, so by the habit of faith a man’s mind is inclined to assent to those things which belong to the true faith and not to other things” (II-II:4:4, ad 3). In every act of faith this unhesitating assent of the intellect is due to the motion of the will as its efficient cause, and the same must be said of the theological virtue of faith when we consider it as a habit or as a moral virtue, for, as St. Thomas insists (I-II, Q. lvi,), there is no virtue, properly so called, in the intellect except in so far as it is subject to the will. Thus the habitual promptitude of the will in moving the intellect to assent to the truths of faith is not only the efficient cause of the intellect’s assent, but is precisely what gives to this assent its virtuous, and consequently meritorious, character. Lastly, this promptitude of the will can only come from its unswerving tendency to the Supreme Good. And at the risk of repetition we must again draw attention to the distinction between faith as a purely intellectual habit, which as such is dry and barren, and faith resident, indeed, in the intellect, but motived by charity or love of God, Who is our beginning, our ultimate end, and our supernatural reward. “Every true motion of the will”, says St. Augustine, “proceeds from true love” (de Civ. Dei, XIV, ix), and, as he elsewhere beautifully expresses it, “Quid est ergo credere in Eum? Credendo amare, credendo diligere, credendo in Eum ire, et Ejus membris incorporari. Ipsa est ergo fides quam de nobis Deus exigit—et non invenit quod exigat, nisi donaverit quod invenerit.” (Tract. xxix in Joannem, 6. — “What, then, is to believe in God? — It is to love Him by believing, to go to Him by believing, and to be incorporated in His members. This, then, is the faith which God demands of us; and He finds not what He may demand except where He has given what He may find.”) This then is what is meant by “living” faith, or as theologians term it, fides formata, viz., “informed” by charity, or love of God. If we regard faith precisely as an assent elicited by the intellect, then this bare faith is the same habit numerically as when the informing principle of charity is added to it, but it has not the true character of a moral virtue and is not a source of merit. If, then, charity be dead — if, in other words, a man be in mortal sin and so without the habitual sanctifying grace of God which alone gives to his will that due tendency to God as his supernatural end which is requisite for supernatural and meritorious acts — it is evident that there is no longer in the will that power by which it can, from supernatural motives, move the intellect to assent to supernatural truths. The intellectual and Divinely infused habit of faith remains, however, and when charity returns this habit acquires anew the character of “living” and meritorious faith.
(c) Again, faith being a virtue, it follows that a man’s promptitude in believing will make him love the truths he believes, and he will therefore study them, not indeed in the spirit of doubting inquiry, but in order the better to grasp them as far as human reason will allow. Such inquiry will be meritorious and will render his faith more robust, because, at the same time that he is brought face to face with the intellectual difficulties which are involved, he will necessarily exercise his faith and repeatedly “bring his intellect into submission”. Thus St. Augustine says, “What can be the reward of faith, what can its very name mean if you wish to see now what you believe? You ought not to see in order to believe, you ought to believe in order to see; you ought to believe so long as you do not see, lest when you do see you may be put to the blush” (Sermo, xxxviii, 2, P.L., V, 236). And it is in this sense we must understand his oft-repeated words: “Crede ut intelligas” (Believe that you may understand). Thus, commenting on the Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:9 which reads: “nisi credideritis non intelligetis”, he says: “Proficit ergo noster intellectus ad intelligenda quae credat, et fides proficit ad credenda quae intelligat; et eadem ipsa ut magis magisque intelligantur, in ipso intellectu proficit mens. Sed hoc non fit propriis tanquam naturalibus viribus sed Deo donante atque adjuvante” (Enarration on Psalm 118, Sermo xviii, 3, “Our intellect therefore is of use to understand whatever things it believes, and faith is of use to believe whatever it understands; and in order that these same things may be more and more understood, the thinking faculty [mens] is of use in the intellect. But this is not brought about as by our own natural powers but by the gift and the aid of God.” Cf. Sermo xliii, 3, in Is., vii, 9; P.L., V, 255).
(d) Further, the habit of faith may be stronger in one person than in another, “whether because of the greater certitude and firmness in the faith which one has more than another, or because of his greater promptitude in assenting, or because of his greater devotion to the truths of faith, or because of his greater confidence” (II-II:5:4).
(e) We are sometimes asked whether we are really certain of the things we believe, and we rightly answer in the affirmative; but strictly speaking, certitude can be looked at from two standpoints: if we look at its cause, we have in faith the highest form of certitude, for its cause is the Essential Truth; but if we look at the certitude which arises from the extent to which the intellect grasps a truth, then in faith we have not such perfect certitude as we have of demonstrable truths, since the truths believed are beyond the intellect’s comprehension (II-II, Q. iv, 8; de Ver., xiv, and i, ad 7).
The genesis of faith in the individual soul
(a) Many receive their faith in their infancy, to others it comes later in life, and its genesis is often misunderstood. Without encroaching upon the article REVELATION, we may describe the genesis of faith in the adult mind somewhat as follows: Man being endowed with reason, reasonable investigation must precede faith; now we can prove by reason the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the origin and destiny of man; but from these facts there follows the necessity of religion, and true religion must be the true worship of the true God not according to our ideas, but according to what He Himself has revealed. But can God reveal Himself to us? And, granting that He can, where is this revelation to be found? The Bible is said to contain it; does investigation confirm the Bible’s claim? We will take but one point: the Old Testament looks forward, as we have already seen, to One Who is to come and Who is God; the New Testament shows us One Who claimed to be the fulfilment of the prophecies and to be God; this claim He confirmed by His life, death, and resurrection by His teaching, miracles, and prophecies. He further claimed to have founded a Church which should enshrine His revelation and should be the infallible guide for all who wished to carry out His will and save their souls. Which of the numerous existing Churches is His? It must have certain definite characteristics or notes. It must be One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, it must claim infallible teaching power. None but the Holy, Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Church can claim these characteristics, and her history is an irrefragable proof of her Divine mission. If, then, she be the true Church, her teaching must be infallible and must be accepted.
(b) Now what is the state of the inquirer who has come thus far? He has proceeded by pure reason, and, if on the grounds stated he makes his submission to the authority of the Catholic Church and believes her doctrines, he has only human, reasonable, fallible, faith. Later on he may see reason to question the various steps in his line of argument, he may hesitate at some truth taught by the Church, and he may withdraw the assent he has given to her teaching authority. In other words, he has not Divine faith at all. For Divine faith is supernatural both in the principle which elicits the acts and in the objects or truths upon which it falls. The principle which elicits assent to a truth which is beyond the grasp of the human mind must be that same mind illumined by a light superior to the light of reason, viz. the light of faith, and since, even with this light of faith, the intellect remains human, and the truth to be believed remains still obscure, the final assent of the intellect must come from the will assisted by Divine grace, as seen above. But both this Divine light and this Divine grace are pure gifts of God, and are consequently only bestowed at His good pleasure. It is here that the heroism of faith comes in; our reason will lead us to the door of faith but there it leaves us; and God asks of us that earnest wish to believe for the sake of the reward — “I am thy reward exceeding great” — which will allow us to repress the misgivings of the intellect and say, “I believe, Lord, help Thou my unbelief.” As St. Augustine expresses it, “Ubi defecit ratio, ibi est fidei aedificatio” (Sermo ccxlvii, P.L., V, 1157 — “Where reason fails there faith builds up”).
(c) When this act of submission has been made, the light of faith floods the soul and is even reflected back upon those very motives which had to be so laboriously studied in our search after the truth; and even those preliminary truths which precede all investigation e.g. the very existence of God, become now the object of our faith.
Faith in relation to works
(a) Faith and no works may be described as the Lutheran view. “Esto peccator, pecca fortiter sed fortius fide” was the heresiarch’s axiom, and the Diet of Worms, in 1527, condemned the doctrine that good works are not necessary for salvation.
(b) Works and no faith may be described as the modern view, for the modern world strives to make the worship of humanity take the place of the worship of the Deity (Do we believe? as issued by the Rationalist Press, 1904, ch. x: “Creed and Conduct” and ch. xv: “Rationalism and Morality”. Cf. also Christianity and Rationalism on Trial, published by the same press, 1904).
(c) Faith shown by works has ever been the doctrine of the Catholic Church and is explicitly taught by St. James, ii, 17: “Faith, if it have not works, is dead.” The Council of Trent (Sess. VI, canons xix, xx, xxiv, and xxvi) condemned the various aspects of the Lutheran doctrine, and from what has been said above on the necessity of charity for “living” faith, it will be evident that faith does not exclude, but demands, good works, for charity or love of God is not real unless it induces us to keep the Commandments; “He that keepeth his word, in him in very deed the charity of God is perfected” (1 John 2:5). St. Augustine sums up the whole question by saying “Laudo fructum boni operis, sed in fide agnosco radicem” — i.e. “I praise the fruit of good works, but their root I discern in faith” (Enarration on Psalm 31).
Loss of faith
From what has been said touching the absolutely supernatural character of the gift of faith, it is easy to understand what is meant by the loss of faith. God’s gift is simply withdrawn. And this withdrawal must needs be punitive, “Non enim deseret opus suum, si ab opere suo non deseratur” (St. Augustine, Enarration on Psalm 145 — “He will not desert His own work, if He be not deserted by His own work”). And when the light of faith is withdrawn, there inevitably follows a darkening of the mind regarding even the very motives of credibility which before seemed so convincing. This may perhaps explain why those who have had the misfortune to apostatize from the faith are often the most virulent in their attacks upon the grounds of faith; “Vae homini illi“, says St. Augustine, “nisi et ipsius fidem Dominus protegat“, i.e. “Woe be to a man unless the Lord safeguard his faith” (Enarration on Psalm 120).
Faith is reasonable
(a) If we are to believe present-day Rationalists and Agnostics, faith, as we define it, is unreasonable. An Agnostic declines to accept it because he considers that the things proposed for his acceptance are preposterous, and because he regards the motives assigned for our belief as wholly inadequate. “Present me with a reasonable faith based on reliable evidence, and I will joyfully embrace it. Until that time I have no choice but to remain an Agnostic” (Medicus in the Do we Believe? Controversy, p. 214). Similarly, Francis Newman says: “Paul was satisfied with a kind of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus which fell exceedingly short of the demands of modern logic, it is absurd in us to believe, barely because they believed” (Phases of Faith, p. 186). Yet the supernatural truths of faith, however they may transcend our reason, cannot be opposed to it, for truth cannot be opposed to truth, and the same Deity Who bestowed on us the light of reason by which we assent to first principles is Himself the cause of those principles, which are but a reflection of His own Divine truth. When He chooses to manifest to us further truths concerning Himself, the fact that these latter are beyond the grasp of the natural light which He has bestowed upon us will not prove them to be contrary to our reason. Even so pronounced a rationalist as Sir Oliver Lodge says: “I maintain that it is hopelessly unscientific to imagine it possible that man is the highest intelligent existence” (Hibbert Journal, July, 1906, p. 727).
Agnostics, again, take refuge in the unknowableness of truths beyond reason, but their argument is fallacious, for surely knowledge has its degrees. I may not fully comprehend a truth in all its bearings, but I can know a great deal about it; I may not have demonstrative knowledge of it, but that is no reason why I should reject that knowledge which comes from faith. To listen to many Agnostics one would imagine that appeal to authority as a criterion was unscientific, though perhaps nowhere is authority appealed to so unscientifically as by modern scientists and modern critics. But, as St. Augustine says, “If God’s providence govern human affairs we must not despair or doubt but that He hath ordained some certain authority, upon which staying ourselves as upon a certain ground or step, we may be lifted up to God” (De utilitate credendi); and it is in the same spirit that he says: “Ego vero Evangelio non crederem, nisi me Catholicae Ecclesiae commoveret auctoritas” (Contra Ep. Fund., V, 6 — “I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not oblige me to believe”).
(b) Naturalism, which is only another name for Materialism, rejects faith because there is no place for it in the naturalistic scheme; yet the condemnation of this false philosophy by St. Paul and by the author of the Book of Wisdom is emphatic (cf. Romans 1:18-23; Wisdom 13:1-19). Materialists fail to see in nature what the greatest minds have always discovered in it, viz., “ratio cujusdam artis; scilicet divinae, indita rebus, qua ipsae res moventur ad finem determinatum” — “the manifestation of a Divine plan whereby all things are directed towards their appointed end” (St. Thomas, Lect. xiv, in II Phys.). Similarly, the vagaries of Humanism blind men to the fact of man’s essentially finite character and hence preclude all idea of faith in the infinite and the supernatural (cf. “Naturalism and Humanism” in Hibbert Journal, Oct., 1907).
Faith is necessary
“He that believeth and is baptized”, said Christ, “shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16); and St. Paul sums up this solemn declaration by saying: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). The absolute necessity of faith is evident from the following considerations: God is our beginning and our end and has supreme dominion over us, we owe Him, consequently, due service which we express by the term religion. Now true religion is the true worship of the true God. But it is not for man to fashion a worship according to his own ideals; none but God can declare to us in what true worship consists, and this declaration constitutes the body of revealed truths, whether natural or supernatural. To these, if we would attain the end for which we came into the world, we are bound to give the assent of faith. It is clear, moreover, that no one can profess indifference in a matter of such vital importance. During the Reformation period no such indifference was professed by those who quitted the fold; for them it was not a question of faith or unfaith, so much as of the medium by which the true faith was to be known and put into practice. The attitude of many outside the Church is now one of absolute indifference, faith is regarded as an emotion, as a peculiarly subjective disposition which is regulated by no known psychological laws. Thus Taine speaks of faith as “une source vive qui s’est formee au plus profond de l’ame, sous la poussee et la chaleur des instincts immanents” — “a living fountain which has come into existence in the lowest depths of the soul under the impulse and the warmth of the immanent instincts”. Indifferentism in all its phases was condemned by Pius IX in the Syllabus Quanta cura: in Prop. XV, “Any man is free to embrace and profess whatever form of religion his reason approves of”; XVI, “Men can find the way of salvation and can attain to eternal salvation in any form of religious worship”; XVII “We can at least have good hopes of the eternal salvation of all those who have never been in the true Church of Christ”; XVIII, “Protestantism is only another form of the same true Christian religion, and men can be as pleasing to God in it as in the Catholic Church.”
The objective unity and immutability of faith
Christ’s prayer for the unity of His Church the highest form of unity conceivable, “that they all may be one as thou, Father, in me, and I in Thee” (John 17:21), has been brought into effect by the unifying force of a bond of a faith such as that which we have analysed. All Christians have been taught to be “careful to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, one body and one spirit, as you are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:3-6). The objective unity of the Catholic Church becomes readily intelligible when we reflect upon the nature of the bond of union which faith offers us. For our faith comes to us from the one unchanging Church, “the pillar and ground of truth”, and our assent to it comes as a light in our minds and a motive power in our wills from the one unchanging God Who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Hence, for all who possess it, this faith constitutes an absolute and unchanging bond of union. The teachings of this faith develop, of course, with the needs of the ages, but the faith itself remains unchanged. Modern views are entirely destructive of such unity of belief because their root principle is the supremacy of the individual judgment. Certain writers do indeed endeavour to overcome the resulting conflict of views by upholding the supremacy of universal human reason as a criterion of truth; thus Mr. Campbell writes: “One cannot really begin to appreciate the value of united Christian testimony until one is able to stand apart from it, so to speak, and ask whether it rings true to the reason and moral sense” (The New Theology, p. 178; cf. Cardinal Newman, “Palmer on Faith and Unity” in Essays Critical and Historical, vol. 1, also, Thomas Harper, S.J., Peace Through the Truth, London, 1866, 1st Series.)
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I. Patristic. — The Fathers in general have never attempted any analysis of faith, and most patristic treatises De fide consist of expositions of the true doctrine to be held. But the reader will have already noticed the precise teaching of ST. AUGUSTINE on the nature of faith. Besides the gems of thought which are scattered throughout his works, we may refer to his two treatises De Utilitate Credendi and De Fide Rerum quae non videntur, in P.L., VI, VII.
II. Scholastics. — The minute analysis of faith was worked out by the theologians of the thirteenth century and onwards they followed mainly the lines laid down by St. Augustine. ST. THOMAS, Summa, II-II, QQ. i-vii; Quaest. Disp., Q. xiv; HOLCOT, De actibus fidei et intellectus et de libertate Voluntatis (Paris, 1512); SUAREZ De fide, spe, et charitate, in Opera, ed. VIVES (Paris, 1878), XII; DE LUGO, De virtute fidei divinae (Venice, 1718); JOANNES A S. THOMA, Comment. on the Summa especially on the De Fide, in Opera, ed. VIVES (Paris, 1886), VII; CAJETAN, De Fide et Operibus (1532), especially his Commentary on the Summa, II-II, QQ i-vii.
III. Modern Writers. — The decrees of the Vatican Council, a handy edition by McNabb (London, 1907); cf. also Coll. Lacencis, VIII; PIUS X, Syllabus Lamentabili Sane (1907); id., Encyclical, Pascendi Gregis (1907); ZIGLIARA, Propaedeutica ad Sacram Theologiam (5th ed., Rome, 1906), 1, xvi, xvii; NEWMAN, Grammar of Assent, Essay on Development, and especially The Ventures of Faith in Vol. IV of his Sermons, and Peace in Believing and Faith without Demonstration, VI; WEISS, Apologie du Christianisme, Fr. tr., V, conf. iv, La Foi, and VI, conf. xxi, La Vie de la Foi; BAINVEL, La Foi et l’acte de Foi (Paris, 1898); ULLATHORNE, The Groundwork of the Christian Virtues, ch. xiv, The Humility of Faith; HEDLEY, The Light of Life (1889), ii; BOWDEN, The Assent of Faith, taken mainly from KLEUTGEN, Theologie der Vorzeit, IV, and serving as an introductory chapter to the tr. of HETTINGER, Revealed Religion (1895); MCNABB, Oxford Conferences on Faith (London, 1905); Implicit Faith, in The Month for April, 1869; Reality of the Sin of Unbelief, ibid., October, 1881; The Conceivable Dangers of Unbelief in Dublin Review Jan., 1902; HARENT in VACANT AND MANGENOT, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, s.v. Croyance.
IV. Against Rationalist, Positivist, and Humanist Views. — NEWMAN, The Introduction of Rationalistic Principles into Revealed Religion, in Tracts for the Times (1835), republished in Essays Historical and Critical as Essay ii; St. Paul on Rationalism in The Month for Oct., 1877; WARD, The Clothes of Religion, a Reply to Popular Positivism (1886); The Agnosticism of Faith in Dublin Review, July, 1903.
V. The motives of faith and its relation to reason and science. — MANNING, The Grounds of Faith (1852, and often since); Faith and Reason in Dublin Review, July, 1889; AVELING, Faith and Science in Westminster Lectures (London, 1906); GARDEIL, La crédibilité et l’apologétique (PARIS, 1908); IDEM in VACANT AND MANGENOT, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, s.v. Crédibilite.
VI. Non-Catholic writers. — Lux Mundi, i, Faith (10th ed. 1890); BALFOUR Foundations of Belief (2nd ed., 1890); COLERIDGE, Essay on Faith (1838), in Aids to Reflection; MALLOCK, Religion as a Credible Doctrine (1903), xii.
VII. Rationalistic Works. — The Do We Believe correspondence, held in the Daily Telegraph, has been published in the form of selections (1905) under the title, A Record of a Great Correspondence in the Daily Telegraph, with Introduction by COURTNEY. Similar selections by the Rationalist Press (1904); SANTAYANA, The Life of Reason (3 vols., London, 1905-6); Faith and Belief in Hibbert Journal, Oct. 1907. Cf. also LODGE, ibid., for Jan., 1908, and July, 1906.
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APA citation. (1909). Faith. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved February 4, 2022 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05752c.htm
MLA citation. “Faith.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 4 Feb. 2022 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05752c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Gerard Haffner.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.