Friday, February 17, 2017

Thoughts on Difficulties and Doubt

Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of religion; I am as sensitive as any one; but I have never been able to see a connexion between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate. There of course may be difficulties in the evidence; but I am speaking of difficulties intrinsic to the doctrines, or to their compatibility with each other. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is or is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer, or that a particular answer is the true one. Of all points of faith, the being of a God is, to my own apprehension, encompassed with most difficulty, and borne in upon our minds with most power.


John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865), 264–265.


Let’s begin with a personal anecdote: Sometimes I come across difficulties with parts of Scripture and theology. I ask myself How does THAT work? Whether it’s some harsh passages of the Old Testament, or when a Pope or a Saint says something that seems different from my understanding of how things fit together, it can be jarring. Then there’s always the example of Catholics behaving badly throughout history, I have an ideal on what the Church should be, and I compare that to the real life example if actual Catholics, and find that even heroic Catholics have done troubling things.

But while I have difficulties at times, I have never had any doubt about the authority of Church teaching or Our Lord’s protecting the Church from error. So I submit to the teaching of the Church, trusting  that however God might judge an issue, it will be done in a way that reflects His justice and mercy both. I would certainly resent any accusations that I denied or doubted the teaching of the Church because of my difficulties on comprehending how a teaching works. Why? Because I do not reject the teaching as I try to understand it better.

I believe that if I were to doubt the mercy of God or the teaching of the Church on a matter, I would soon find myself at odds with both God and His Church. I would be making myself the arbiter of what should be where I presume to pass judgment on things I have no right to do so. I think those paying attention to what goes on in our faith are aware of the factionalism arising in the Church. We’ve been seeing the anti-Francis attacks since the day he became Pope which assumes what he does differently is “heretical.” Sadly, we’re seeing an emerging position that declares all persons who oppose the Pope must be “schismatic.” I think both of these movements confuse difficulty and doubt, either in their own minds or in the behavior of others, and we need to discern the real difference to avoid the twin dangers of losing faith by harboring doubts, and the rash judgment of assuming another’s difficulty is a doubt.

Doubt from Ourself

I think we harbor doubt when what we see something we do not understand and assume something must be wrong with it because we’re not comfortable with how it sounds. If we’ve invested in a certain opinion or school of thought, then a shift of emphasis sounds like “error” instead of a legitimate change of how we approach something. If we take this difficulty and assume the Church must have gone wrong, we are harboring a doubt in the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error. In a similar way, when we try to find reasons to deny that a teaching we dislike is actually a teaching, we are harboring doubts about the authority of the Church to bind and loose.

These and similar attitudes to these lead to doubting that what the Church teaches is done with God’s authority and with His assurance that He will not permit the Church to teach us error. Once we embrace this doubt, we will replace trust in God with trust in ourselves, thinking that if the Church does not act as we see fit, she must be in error.

Assuming Doubt in Others

On the other hand, some assume that a difficulty with a teaching automatically equals a rejection of that teaching. A person who voices their concern with how people might misinterpret a Church teaching (while accept the validity of that teaching) is not doubting. Yes, we want to avoid legalism in following Church teaching, but one can wrestle with understanding what the teaching means and one’s limited capacity to understand (and by being human, we do have a limited capacity).

One example I see with this, is in the recent attacks on Cardinal Burke in Social media comments. I have seen some Catholics treat him with the same abusiveness that anti-Francis Catholics direct at the Pope. But, regardless of what thinks about how he’s handled things or how his supporters have used/misused his words, much of what he says and does seems based on difficulties in reconciling the teaching authority of the Pope with his understanding on the Church teaching on marriage—but he does not doubt either one. While I don’t approve of how he handled the issue of the dubia, he denies the Pope is in heresy, and should not be treated as a schismatic that rejects the authority of the Pope along the lines of Canon 751.


I think we need to remember our limitations. The fact that we have difficulties reconciling two teachings of the Church does not mean one must be false. But, if we try to downplay one in the name of defending our conception of the Church, that is a warning that we are harboring a doubt. At the same time, when we see people expressing a misgiving, we should be certain they are actually harboring a doubt before accusing them of doing so. They just might be trying to accept the truth but are having trouble in understanding how to do so. We must be careful in not being the stumbling block that turns their difficulty to doubt.

So let us avoid turning difficulty to doubt by remembering that while our own knowledge and power are finite, God’s knowledge and power are not—and He can and will protect His Church. And let us avoid accusing a fellow Christian of doubting if all he is doing is working his way through a difficulty. If such a one submits to the authority of the Church while struggling to understand, we should help them, not attack them.

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