The Critical Difference Between Faith and Belief


Faith. What is it really?

It’s commonly believed that religious faith is, essentially, whatever one chooses to make it, whatever is agreeable to the individual personally. In this sense, one person’s faith might not include the existence of hell or Purgatory because the idea is too offensive to their sensibilities. Someone else’s faith may hold to the existence of God but think He is not intimately involved in the daily lives of the human race. Still another’s faith may involve rejecting the concept of God, but still believing that angels and other types of spirits are real.

And because we’re talking about religion/spirituality, it seems obvious to many that there can be no objective debate on the matter. Therefore, what do we assume would be the basis for evangelization? How can we rationally suppose that one set of beliefs can “prevail” over another? How dare any of the rest of us suggest that our own religion is “true,” but someone else’s is “false”?


And yet, in imitation of Jesus Christ who said “No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6), the Catholic Church has always dogmatically maintained that there is no salvation, no hope of eternal life, apart from the Church (CCC 845- 848).

An embarrassing and thoroughly misguided assertion? A pompously arrogant one?

Or something else?

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. (Inigo Montoya, Princess Bride)

Many “Faiths” or Just One?

Consider: If I were to bring a stranger to you and ask you to write a short biography for them, right then and there, how accurate do you suppose your work would turn out to be? Not very. Right? A few things about the stranger might quickly be evident. You could readily describe them as tall or short; male or female; young or old; etc. There might be something about them that a “sixth sense” may pick up. They may quickly seem “really nice” or “sketchy.”

As for what they do for a living, what makes them laugh or cry, angry or inspired, what types of people they like to hang out with, how large or small their family is, what some of the worst and finest moments in their life have been, and so on, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we would have no idea at all until this stranger revealed these things to us in their words and deeds.

Just how arrogant would it be, indeed, to assert to the stranger that he’s an accountant, loves basketball, has no sense of humor, and really enjoys jogging when, in reality, let’s say he is a chef, hates all sports, is very witty, and also detests doing anything that makes him break a sweat? Especially after the stranger reveals his true self to us. How offensive would it be to then continue insisting that this person is someone very different from who he has revealed himself to be? How charitable (let alone rational) is it to insist that someone is something or someone who, in fact, they are not at all?

It is only our own spirit within us that knows all about us; in the same way, only God’s Spirit knows all about God. (1 Corinthians 2:11, GNT) 

As it is with respect to coming to know other human beings, so it is with God. None of us can ever possibly hope to truly know God without Him first disclosing Himself to us in the things He says to us and does.

Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. (CCC 35)

The True Nature of Faith

The obedience of faith implies acceptance of the truth of Christ’s revelation, guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself: Faith is, first of all, a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. (Pope Benedict XVI, Dominus Iesus, 7)

What is faith? Rather than us deciding what we want to believe about God and the rest of spiritual reality, authentic faith is us taking God at His Word; receiving from Him, with both docility and vigor, what He has passed on to us. (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23) Believing with our minds what God says and does and acting like it with our lives.

The Nature of Belief

So, if faith is “assent to what God has revealed”, what is “belief” then? Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, explains:

For this reason, the distinction between theological faith and belief in other religions must be firmly held. If faith is the acceptance in grace of revealed truth, which “makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently”,21 then belief, in the other religions, is that sum of experience and thought that constitutes the human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration, which man in his search for truth has conceived and acted upon in his relationship to God and the Absolute.22

This distinction is not always borne in mind in current theological reflection. Thus, theological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself. This is one of the reasons why the differences between Christianity and other religions tend to be reduced at times to the point of disappearance. (Dominus Iesus, 7)

In best case scenarios, “belief” is a human guess or intuition about something that happens to turn out to be true. (cf. Acts 17:22-31, Romans 1:18-22) In worst case scenarios, belief ends up being the enemy of faith. It’s the obstinate refusal, in worst case scenarios, to accept what someone else is revealing to us in favor of our own inaccurate whims instead.

This is the critical difference between Catholicism and all other religions in the world. To be a little bit simplistic about the subject for a moment, all the other religions of the world are manifestations of man picking and choosing what they believe about spiritual reality, doing our best to figure it out on our own; while orthodox Judeo-Christianity is essentially God saying to the human race, “Allow Me to Introduce Myself to you…”

Understood in this way, it should be quite clear as to why the Church would dare make the claim to be the one true religion in the world in contrast with all the others. She does this not out of arrogance but out of humility. Out of appreciation for the fact that when God speaks and acts, He deserves to be adhered to, well over and above our own personal musings and random convictions.

Faith Must Be Lived

By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God (CCC 143).

As I noted in February, the Church is, in one sense, very simple, even unifaceted. In another sense, it’s a massive and complex mix of official teaching, unofficial teaching, reflections by her Saints, cultural influences, and so on. So, while the essence of the Church will always stay the same, it’s easy and even common for the non-essentials to morph over time, for the “accent” in the Church to lean too far in one direction and then eventually too far in the opposite, and so on.   

Those who identify as “conservative” Catholics need to appreciate a common bias in conservatism toward the intellect. Rather than appreciating the need to adhere to God’s revelation fully, not just with one’s mind but with one’s actions as well, the preference tends to be toward mental assent. Yes, many conservatives recognize, it’s nice to do good things for people and all that, but what really, truly matters most is that all our theological i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. As long as they are, all the rest can wait, too many think, not so much explicitly as subliminally.  

No Theological Tests on Judgement Day

But note carefully that there will be no theology quizzes on Judgment Day. Whether you can quote Aquinas, the Bible, or even the catechism in full, in part, or even not at all won’t matter to God at all, except to the extent that your “head knowledge” has led you to pour your life out in sacrifice to others. In fact, in more than one place in the gospels, Jesus is explicit about the fact that knowledge simply results in more exacting judgment. “If you were blind,” he says in John 9:41, for example, “you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”

As James 2:19-20 starkly highlights, “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?” Demons are some of the finest theologians in the universe. And what good does knowing all the in’s and out’s of the Catholic faith to them in the end?

What we believe in our minds plays an important role in our lives because we tend to act according to our beliefs. But actions speak louder than words. If we say we believe in God but regularly steal, lie, and refuse to care for the needs of others, obviously we are grossly deceiving ourselves. “They claim to know God,” says Titus 1:16, “but by their deeds they deny Him.” Conversely, those who suggest they don’t believe in God but spend their lives living in integrity, self-sacrifice, and other benevolent ways may be lying as well.

“Liberals” Must Be Cautious Also

On the other hand, “Anyone who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son,” warns 2 John 1:9.  

While it’s more important to do the right thing than it is to think the right thing (if we’re forced with an either/or scenario), again, what we think has a tendency to influence what we do. And so if it’s important for conservative Catholics to appreciate the inherent bias in conservatism toward the intellect, it’s important for so-called “liberal” Catholics to appreciate the bias inherent in liberalism toward feeling. Feelings can be very deceptive. And so it is that we must rely on God’s revelation to govern our actions so that we do not drift into behaviors that might feel good or like they’re the right thing to do in the moment, but which, in reality, are offensive to God or just plain imprudent.

“Sometimes a way seems right,” says Proverbs 14:21, “but the end of it leads to death!” That’s why Proverbs 3:5-6 exhorts us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence do not rely; In all your ways be mindful of him, and he will make straight your paths.”

The Proof is in the…?

It’s necessary to believe God when He reveals Himself to us and to act on that belief. But of course, there is the question of how we know. If spiritual things, by definition, are not immediately perceptible to our five senses, then we might think it too presumptuous to arrive at a decisive judgment about which religion is truly God’s revelation and which others are not. How do we know for sure that Catholicism specifically is God introducing Himself to the human race and, say, Islam or Hinduism is not?

God willing, we’ll answer that question next month.

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5 thoughts on “The Critical Difference Between Faith and Belief”

  1. Pingback: Science Has Proven Faith - Catholic Stand

  2. Greg: It might not be so simple. When the apostles wanted an individual to stop casting out demons because he was not part of the apostolic group, Jesus said “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50).
    The Bible was compiled by the apostolic office, but it can now be read apart from it. It wasn’t this easy in apostolic times to separate the message from the organization.
    It may not be preferable; but does God withhold His revelation and His power from those who can read the message for themselves even on the internet just because they are not members of the organization that compiled it? I’ll let God figure this out.

    1. Greg Chrysostom

      Hi Peter,

      “…but does God withhold His revelation and His power from those who can read the message for themselves even on the internet just because they are not members of the organization that compiled it? I’ll let God figure this out.”

      If I may be so bold as to speak on the Almighty’s behalf for a moment… 🙂

      No, He doesn’t. But all that Revelation does is point back to the Church. The Church points to the scriptures and the scriptures point to the Church. I guess I’m having a hard time figuring out why you seem to need to divorce the two from each other. One can’t without doing violence to God’s integrated revelation.

      As is beautifully illustrated in Acts 8:26-31, yes, anyone that wants to can read the scriptures for themselves. But reading doesn’t guarantee understanding. That’s what the apostolic office (symbolized by Philip in that situation) is for. This is further and very amply demonstrated by the literal thousands of different Christian denominations that exist in the world today, all “based on the Bible.” 1 Cor 14:33 tells us God is not a God of confusion but of peace. Which is why, from the beginning, he didn’t hand His people a book to follow on their own, He gave them a man who “would be to the people as God. (Ex. 4:16)”

      The Lord bless you.

  3. Nowadays, we can have teachings of the true church easily accessible in a book called the Bible, without the necessity of hearing the teachings only from the organization that compiled the Bible in the fourth century. Back then, the Catholic Church consisted of more apostolic churches than just the Roman Church. This further complicates the matter.
    Is it possible to glean the instructions for salvation from the Bible apart from membership in the Roman Church? I don’t believe that there are any simple answers for Roman Catholics.

    1. Greg Chrysostom

      Hi Peter,

      The Catholic Church still consists of more than just the Roman Catholic Church.

      But I don’t know why you think that complicates things. It’s the same exact faith, just approach from 23 different angles, as it were.

      “Is it possible to glean the instructions for salvation from the Bible apart from membership in the Roman Church?” Sure. Anyone can go to their local bookstore and buy and read a Bible. But a significant part of what the Bible teaches is that its the apostolic office that Jesus deputed to ensure the protection of his revelation. (cf. Luke 10:16, Acts 8:26-31, Gal 2:1-2, 6) So, divorcing the Bible from the apostolic office is like divorcing Jesus from His Church. Which clearly, the Lord taught Paul – and through him, the rest of us – we cannot do.

      Peace be with you.

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