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.
John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865), 264–265.
Blessed John Henry Newman spoke of having difficulties with the Church, but that this never led him to doubt. I think his distinction is a good one: We can have difficulties on understanding a Church teaching, the actions of the Church, or the behavior of a churchman without falling into doubt about the authority of those who lead and teach. I have defended St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. But this does not mean I openly praise everything they have done. There are some things I wish they handled differently. But those actions have never led me to doubt that the Holy Spirit guides and protects the Church from teaching error, or to doubt the Church teaching on the authority of Popes.
For example, I wish Saint John Paul II had not elevated certain individuals to bishoprics, I wish he had not kissed that Quran, I wish he had treated Assisi 1986 like a conference. I wish Benedict XVI had not used the example of “a gay prostitute with AIDS” in the Light of the World interview, and had not lifted the excommunications of the SSPX bishops. I wish Pope Francis would put a moratorium on press conferences, and I wish he would address conflicting interpretations of Amoris Lætitia. All of these things led to confusion in the Church. However, these difficulties have never led me to doubt their orthodoxy. Nor have they led me to doubt or explain away their authority when they exercised it differently than I preferred.
I think this is the difference: The person with difficulties may struggle at times when a Pope does something that seems disruptive. But he doesn’t reject the Pope in some degree, or seek to deny his authority at some level. However, the person with doubts does allow himself to do these things. That doesn’t mean the doubting Catholic is a schismatic—though doubt can lead there. But the doubting Catholic thinks the action of the Pope cannot be reconciled with his own understanding of what the Church should be, and seeks a solution to justify setting aside Church teaching or obedience to the Pope.
I think another insight from Blessed John Henry Newman fits here:
I will take one more instance. A man is converted to the Catholic Church from his admiration of its religious system, and his disgust with Protestantism. That admiration remains; but, after a time, he leaves his new faith, perhaps returns to his old. The reason, if we may conjecture, may sometimes be this: he has never believed in the Church’s infallibility; in her doctrinal truth he has believed, but in her infallibility, no. He was asked, before he was received, whether he held all that the Church taught, he replied he did; but he understood the question to mean, whether he held those particular doctrines “which at that time the Church in matter of fact formally taught,” whereas it really meant “whatever the Church then or at any future time should teach.” Thus, he never had the indispensable and elementary faith of a Catholic, and was simply no subject for reception into the fold of the Church. This being the case, when the Immaculate Conception is defined, he feels that it is something more than he bargained for when he became a Catholic, and accordingly he gives up his religious profession. The world will say that he has lost his certitude of the divinity of the Catholic Faith, but he never had it.
John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates, & Co., 1870), 240.
I think he makes a good point that goes beyond converts to the Church. The Catholic who recognizes the divinity of the Catholic faith, established by Our Lord and passed on to us by the Apostles, recognizes that it remains the same Church in AD 33, AD 117, AD 1057, AD 1517, and AD 2017. Our understandings of the Faith deepens over time, which can lead the magisterium to make new definitions or change how teachings are best applied to carry out the Great Commission.
I think his point about the Catholic who accepts what the Church teaches up to this point and the Catholic who will accept the authority of the Church whenever she teaches or changes discipline is vital in recognizing the difference between difficulty and doubt: Do we believe that Our Lord, who established the Church and promised to be with her always, continues to do so? Or do we think the problems we have with the Church means the Church has gone wrong to some extent? I think we must recognize that if we reach the point where we think the Church, in exercising her authority, is wrong or can’t be trusted, we have gone from difficulty to doubt about God protecting His Church.
When facing things that trouble us, we have an obligation not to let our difficulty become a doubt. As the Catechism puts it:
2088 The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. There are various ways of sinning against faith: (157)
Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 506–507.
We’ve had, at this point, 266 Popes. A handful of these have been morally bad. A couple may have privately held error. But despite the existence of bad Popes—and I deny Pope Francis is one—they never taught error. We need to ask ourselves why. Popes like John XII show we can have Popes who care nothing for serving God and the Church. But they didn’t issue any decrees exempting themselves from keeping mistresses or nepotism. How are we supposed to believe that 265 Popes avoided teaching error, but suddenly Pope Francis broke that streak?
Doubts that try to make that argument actually undermine the Church they hope to protect. If one argues Pope Francis is a bad Pope who teaches error, that person will have no reply—without resorting to the Special Pleading fallacy—to the challenge, “How can you say previous Popes did not teach error?” If one argues (and I have encountered some who do), “Francis refused to accept God’s guidance,” then that one has to answer how Benedict IX, John XII, Liberius, Honorius I, etc., managed to accept God’s guidance despite acting wrongly elsewhere. But if God did protect the Church from our acknowledged bad Popes, then the doubter must explain why He chose not to with Francis. It is only when one says, “God always protects the Church from teaching error,” that they can avoid this dilemma.
This is why I have said it is more plausible to believe the Pope’s detractors have it wrong, than it is to believe that the Pope is teaching error. To believe the Pope teaches error, one must doubt Jesus protects the Rock on which He built His Church. That doesn’t mean we won’t have difficulties with what Popes do. There will be gaffes and misunderstood actions. God protecting Popes from teaching error when they use the teaching office doesn’t mean God protects them from sinning or being a bad administrator of the Church. We don’t have to defend the dark spots in the history of the Papal States, or ill-advised concordances. But when the Pope acts in teaching, or administrating the Church, we are bound to give assent (see CIC 747-754). The only way to avoid refusing obedience or fearing the Church can bind us to accept error, is to work to overcome doubts.
We should consider the words of Monsignor Ronald Knox, who pointed out the underlying point that addresses our problems:
Here is another suggestion, which may not be without its value—if you find yourself thus apparently deserted by the light of faith, do not fluster and baffle your imagination by presenting to it all the most difficult doctrines of the Christian religion, those which unbelievers find it easiest to attack; do not be asking yourself, “Can I really believe marriage is indissoluble? Can I really believe that it is possible to go to hell as the punishment for one mortal sin?" Keep your attention fixed to the main point, which is a single point – Can I trust the Catholic Church as the final repository of revealed truth? If you can, all the rest follows; if you cannot, it makes little difference what else you believe or disbelieve.
(In Soft Garments, pages 113-114. Emphasis added).
And that is the ultimate question: Can I trust that the Church is this final repository? Can I trust that God will protect the Church, under the current Pope, from teaching error? If we can, we can trust God to protect the Church with each Pope. But if we doubt these things, the rest which we profess to believe is on shaky ground indeed.