We go through this every year: the Christian Festival, I mean. Christmas is over and so, in the middle of Lent, we await Easter. Maybe because I am growing older and have gone through the liturgical cycle many times, it strikes me that sometimes we go through the motions, but the cycle does not have much human meaning. Sure, it connects with our family and our culture; it does actually mean something. But what I am talking about is the religious, spiritual meaning. Is this an interesting part of our background as 21st century American Catholics, or does it have the visceral impact of truth? In a sense, does it really matter?
I remember a great scene in the film ‘A Man for All Seasons’. Richard Rich is thinking of betraying St. Thomas More to Thomas Cromwell, an agent of King Henry VIII. In the night, he meets Cromwell in a tavern and protests that More is his friend and that he would never do anything to hurt him. Cromwell, sensing Rich’s insincerity asks if he really meant that. At first, Rich says he does really mean that. But when Cromwell, with even more emphasis, asks “really?” Rich confesses that it all depends on what he is offered to do it.
What Cromwell knew was that there are two levels to something when we say we believe it. One is the theoretical and one is the practical, or real, level. Rich was theoretically a friend of More, but when it came to action, he was not really a friend.
Cardinal Newman, in his landmark book ‘The Grammar of Assent’ used the terms ‘Notional Assent’ for the theoretical acceptance of a truth and ‘Real Assent’ for the actual acceptance of a truth and the willingness to act on it even if it costs one dearly. This movement from the head to the heart has been termed the greatest distance known to humankind! This is because, while some truth abides in the notional realm of the mind, we sincerely believe that we completely accept it. Its theoretical nature does not seem apparent. But while something is on a notional level of acceptance, practical results of that belief do not usually come about.
But when some truth enters the heart, it cannot help but be true that there are practical results from that belief.
Take for example the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. A Catholic can have a purely notional acceptance of that teaching. Such a person will not bother to pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament or attend a Holy Hour in front of this Great Mystery. Nor do they receive this Holy Communion with any sensible degree of devotion. It is just there. You contrast that with the behavior of the saints who had made a real assent—St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was converted to Catholicism when she observed the devotion of people in Italy to the Eucharist at a Corpus Christi procession. When she established her convent in Emmitsburg, Maryland, she wanted her room as close to the chapel as possible so she could be close to the Divine Presence. There were practical effects of her beliefs: conversion to Catholicism (which cost her dearly!) and a bedroom on the first floor of the convent near the chapel.
Therefore, when we examine our own beliefs, we need to investigate whether or not they are real or notional beliefs. The proof comes in the evidence that this belief makes a difference in our lives, a practical difference. If we say that we believe that the poor are blessed and that helping the poor is a work that God asks us to fulfill, we should be able to go to our checkbooks to see how much we have given to charity in the last year. If it is zero, then our belief is completely notional. If it is a small amount, then our belief is real, but still has room to grow. Faith can be measured in the acts we commit or don’t commit in proving the reality of our beliefs. Recall the words of St. James, “Indeed someone may say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (James 2: 18).
So the question that we began with ‘Does it really matter?’ cannot be answered in words. We must investigate carefully and frankly our behavior and show clearly and honestly whether we truly are Christians, or whether it is a wish on our behalf.