Creed and Credibility

The Faith may be ever-ancient, ever new, but calls for it to be amended or abridged are nothing new. Always there are clarion calls that the Church is dying out, and that she must adapt her teachings or face a slow death. A variety of heresies and challengers rise up in every age demanding to be heard and addressed, yet after the last acolyte or adherent of these alternative views have faltered and fallen—or fractured and splintered into many little sects—the old creeds are repeated unchanged as the foundations for right-belief.

The creeds are our banner—the flag under which we march as Church militant—the symbol and summary of our Faith. The creeds are a pledge, and even an oath, to defend the Faith and to conform our lives to it: “Whoever says, ‘I believe,’ says, ‘I pledge myself to what we believe'” (CCC 185). Indeed, the Roman Catechism notes that the Apostles themselves call the profession of Christian faith and hope a “Symbol,” and for two reasons:

“Either because it as made up of various sentences, which each contributed respectively towards its completion, or because they might use it as a common sign or watchword, by which they might easily distinguish ‘false brethren,’ deserters from the faith, ‘unawares brought in’ (Gal. ii. 4) who adulterated ‘the word of God’ (2 Cor. ii. 17), from those who would really bind themselves by an oath of fidelity to the warfare of Christ” (RC I.I.3).

Each time that we recite the creed as a Church during the liturgy, we are taking an oath to defend and uphold the Faith that this creed symbolizes—and to live it out in our lives. One part of the Rite in which a convert to the faith participates is the handing on of the creed—the unbaptized catechumens are dismissed prior to the creed during the  Mass. This, symbolically, is a handing on of the Faith. In times of greater physical peril to the members of the Church, only the known and initiated members of the community were present for this portion of the liturgy: the creed was a secret, a “watchword” indeed.

There is, however, another important part of the Rite which is easy to miss, and which brings out the fullness of this oath taken during the recitation of the creed. Each convert is asked a series of questions, among which is whether he accepts as true all that the Catholic Church teaches as part of the deposit of Faith. He typically answers in the affirmative. And just as the sign of the cross is a reminder of our baptism, the creed becomes a reminder of our confirmation—and a renewal of this vow to accept as true all that the Magisterium teaches as doctrines of faith or morality. This renewal occurs whether we are converts or cradle Catholics—we are in effect taking our very lives into our hands and pledging to order those lives according to the Faith.

To conform our lives to the Faith is not only an intellectual exercise. We must accept and affirm the teachings of the Church, which is itself an intellectual exercise. But the intellect ought to govern the will, to govern our very actions, and this is how we actually embrace those teachings. Embracing the creeds means to joyfully live them out. This is ultimately what our religion is about—the right relationship with God in our thoughts and words and deeds. We are told to “pray unceasingly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), which can become possible when our lives a reflection of prayer.

In his Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, the future Pope Benedict XVI notes that orthodoxy rightly understood includes orthopraxy. That is to say, right thinking underlies and leads to right actions, and right actions presuppose right thinking:

“Whence do I derive right action if I have no idea what is right? The collapse of the Communist regimes resulted directly from the fact that they had changed the world without knowing what was good for the world and what was not; without knowing in what direction it must be changed so as to be better. Mere praxis gives no light.

This is the point at which the concept of orthopraxy must be critically investigated. The older history of religions had established that the religions of India knew nothing, in general, of any orthodoxy but that they did have orthopraxy; it is probably from this that the concept crept into modern theology. But it has quite a different meaning in describing the religions of India: people were trying to say that these religions had no generally binding teaching and that belonging to them is therefore not defined by acceptance of a given creed. Yet these religions do have a system of ritual actions that are regarded as being necessary for salvation and that distinguish the ‘believer’ from the unbeliever. He will be recognized, not by any particular intellectual content, but by the conscientious following of a ritual that embraces the whole of life. What orthopraxy means, what ‘right action’ is, is quite precisely determined: a whole code of rites. In any case, the word ‘orthodoxy’ originally had almost the same meaning in the early Church and in the Eastern Churches. For in the ‘doxy’ part of the word, doxa was of course not understood in the sense of ‘opinion’ (correct opinion)–in the Greek view, opinions are always relative: doxa was understood rather in the sense of ‘glory,’ ‘glorifying’. To be orthodox, therefore, meant: to know and to practice the right way in which God wishes to be glorified. It refers to worship and, on the basis of worship, to life.”

Orthodoxy [1], therefore includes “right living,” and “right relationship” to God and to men, to Christ and His Church [2]. Thus, the credibility of the creeds lies not only in the words they contain—though those are true—but rather in the manner of our lives. Our way of living becomes our way of preaching, or of evangelizing and even of catechizing.

Hence the importance of Tradition, sometimes called “oral Tradition” because it was passed along mouth to mouth long before being written down. The apostles, after all, spent years with our Lord, not only listening to His sermons and parables—and the explanations of those sermons and parables—but also observing His actions, being, in effect, catechized not only by what the Lord said publicly or even privately, but also by what He did. All these things could not be contained in many books (John 21:25).

A few decades later when St Paul was writing his many epistles, he took time to praise the Corinthians for and exhort the Thessalonians to be holding fast to the things he had taught them (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15), and the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 13:7) similarly exhorts us to emulate the lives and examples of our religious leaders (the bishops; the saints). Thus is it that our Holy Father could write that the lives of the saints are the most vivid examples of the gospels.

Moreover, it is far easier to verify whether we do this, than to verify the truth of the words themselves. This is for many people the greatest stumbling block towards conversion, more so than any one doctrine. It is in part why sin is so damaging to the community. When we sin, we often give public scandal, which itself becomes an easy objection to the Faith, even as such scandal generally fails as an actual refutation of any particular teaching. The beauty of the Church is often hidden and almost secret, but the ugliness of sin is too often very public.

On the other hand, the great stumbling block is paradoxically also one of the great opportunities for evangelizing. A common note about Catholics is that we don’t spend much time or effort evangelizing. It seems as though the average Protestant (let alone an adherent to such sects as the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses) is comfortable with “witnessing” as an attempt to produce conversion.

Witnessing is important, it is true, and these attempts at proselytizing can be important, but they fall well short of true evangelizing, true “witness.” Unfortunately, all too often so do we. The greatest evangelizing for our Faith, the greatest witness to our creed, is to joyfully live these things out. Here Audry Hepburn had it right:

Don’t talk of stars, burning above
If you’re in love, show me
Tell me not dreams, filled with desire
If you’re on fire, show me
Never do I ever want to hear another word
There isn’t one, I haven’t heard
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream
Say one more word and I’ll scream
Sing me no song, read me no rhyme
Don’t waste my time, show me
Please don’t implore, beg on the seats
Don’t make all the speech, show me

How do we evangelize people? We show them the beauty of the Faith, just as a lover might make manifest his love by not only telling his beloved, but showing her, that he loves her. With regards the Faith–and for that matter, our Lord Who Is at the center of that Faith–we do this by first becoming virtuous, and then becoming saintly. Then does the creed becomes credible to those who see and hear us: then does our credo truly mean “I believe.”


[1] In Greek and eventually scholastic philosophy, there was a clear distinction between opinion and knowledge. In his book How to Think About the Great Ideas, Professor Mortimer J Adler explains the difference between knowledge and opinion. He says (the book is a transcript) that

“Knowledge consists in having the truth and knowing that you have it, because you know why what you think is true is true. Whereas opinion consists in not being sure that you have the truth, not being sure whether what you say is true or false. And even if what you say happens to be true, you aren’t sure because you don’t know why it is true.”

[2] We therefore see than any dichotomy set up to oppose a “personal relationship with God” against “religion, ritual, dogma” is a false dichotomy. The false dichotomy is based on a poor understanding of what religion is, what dogma does, and what rituals are for, or alternatively on a dismissal of “right relationship” in favor of the more nebulous “personal relationship” or (worse still) “being spiritual but not religious.”

JC Sanders is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He has earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a visiting assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep South. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers, with a three year commitment to the Order. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”