By a Feeneyite I mean one who holds that to be in a state of grace it is necessary not just to have an explicit faith in Christ and the Holy Trinity but also to be right about what visible society is the Church founded by Christ (if any follower of Fr Feeney should chance to read this, I apologise if I have characterised his position wrongly.) The passages in St Thomas that raise this question come in his treatment of the virtue of faith, and in particular whether one who disbelieves one article of faith can have supernatural faith in another article. The statement that perhaps most strongly supports the Feeneyite position is in the De Caritate, article 13 ad 6 :-

The formal object itself [formalis ratio obiecti] in faith is the first truth manifested by the teaching of the Church, just as the formal object of a science is the proofs that establish the conclusions; and so just as someone who knows by heart some geometrical conclusions doesn’t have the science of geometry if he doesn’t assent to the conclusion on account of the arguments that prove them… so the one who holds things that belong to the faith while not assenting to them on account of the authority of Catholic doctrine does not have the habit of faith.

The discussion in the Summa 2a 2ae q. 5, a. 3, apparently written a year or two later, is slightly different, though very similar:-

The formal object of the faith is the first truth insofar as it is manifested in sacred Scripture and the doctrine of the Church. Thus, whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and divine rule, to the doctrine of the Church which proceeds from the first truth manifested in sacred Scripture does not have the habit of faith, but  holds those things which are of faith by some means other than by faith [he then gives the same illustration about knowing the conclusion of a science and not the proofs.]

The difference is that the treatment in the Summa introduces the Scripture into the discussion of the formal object of faith. That might seem to provide room for one who wanted to argue that for St Thomas it was possible for some person to have faith without explicitly adhering to the Catholic Church; they don’t have the whole ‘rule of faith’, but they have enough of it – the First Truth revealed in Scripture – to make an act of faith.

The problem with this is that a formal object is indivisible. The whole point of talking about formal objects is that they are what make an act a certain kind of act rather than another kind of act. If you could take something away from the object and still have the same kind of act – in this case, an act of faith – then clearly the original object wasn’t the formal object at all. And whenever St Thomas speaks of the formal object of faith, whether or not he mentions Scripture, he always mentions the Church. You can’t take away inhering to the Church as to an infallible rule and still have an act of faith, for St Thomas (in theory you could, but not in the actual order of things willed by God.)

And yet, according to the Holy Office, an implicit desire for membership of the Church can be enough to ground an act of faith. Are these two positions reconcilable? Can someone who is not a Catholic and who has not resolved to become a Catholic nevertheless be adhering to the Catholic Church as to an infallible rule?

I think he can, provided that he admits that the Church founded by Christ is infallible and that it still exists, even though he is confused about where it is. Similarly, one can have trust in the veracity of one’s mother even if one should be unsure which of two identical twins is one’s mother (unlikely, I know, but that doesn’t lessen the force of the analogy.) It is sufficient if one has a definition of one’s mother that per se distinguishes her from every other person (e.g. ‘the woman who gave birth to me’), even if at the moment it does not allow one to pick her out here and now. If both twins make the same statement, for example about when one was born, and one believes it, then one can be said to be believing it on account of the veracity of one’s mother even though one doesn’t know who one’s mother is. On the other hand, if they make contradictory statements, it would not be reasonable to accept either of them for as long as one remained in doubt as to which woman was one’s mother; one would be running the risk of disbelieving one’s mother; one could no longer be said to be adhering to her words as to an infallible rule.

To apply the analogy to Christendom. If someone adheres to a doctrine taught by the Catholic Church and by various separated bodies, it seems possible that one is adhering to it on account of the infallible authority of the Catholic Church, even if one cannot empirically identify the Catholic Church. On the other hand, where the Catholic Church and the other bodies make contradictory statements, if someone assents to the statement made by the non-Catholic body, he cannot be said to be adhering to the Catholic Church as to an infallible rule, and therefore, according to St Thomas, he cannot have faith. John Henry Newman in 1840 wanted to believe everything taught by the Church founded by Christ, only he wasn’t sure where that Church was. But I think it very likely that he had supernatural faith.

Criticisms welcome.

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