We are all called to ask questions
One of the most frequent conversations I have as a parish priest is with a parishioner who worries that they have started to doubt their faith.
It could be that they have encountered a crisis in their life and wonder why God has allowed something bad to happen to them. Sometimes they have simply started to think about their faith for the first time and they’ve started to realize that they can’t understand certain aspects to their Catholic religion. This prompts a crisis in their faith, and they often begin to feel guilty for their negative feelings.
I then try to explain the difference between doubts and difficulties.
The English Cardinal and theologian, Blessed John Henry Newman wrote, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” What he means is that there is a difference between a doubt and a difficulty.
We wouldn’t be thinking through our faith with much depth or attention if we didn’t have some difficulties. After all, the things we propose as true in the Catholic faith stretch the human mind and heart.
The way to distinguish between a doubt and a difficulty is that the person with a difficulty says, “How can that be so?” whereas a person who doubts says, “That can’t be so!” The first statement expresses difficulty, but willingness to believe. The second statement expresses cynicism and unwillingness to submit to the Church’s teachings. The person with difficulties says, “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief!” The person with doubts says, “I don’t believe Lord, and don’t bother to help my unbelief!”
A difficulty arises when we confront some teaching of the Church — either a moral precept or a doctrine — and honestly find it hard to accept. In his Parochial and Plain Sermons, Newman wrote, “The use of doubts and difficulties is obvious … our faith is assailed by various doubts and difficulties in order to prove its sincerity.”
We experience trials in the faith for three reasons: to strengthen us, to clarify our beliefs, and to help us proclaim the Gospel.
So, doubt is out, but difficulties are in. The person with difficulties may be struggling, but he is struggling to understand more fully and completely.
This is the first reason for a difficulty: It strengthens our faith. Just as an athlete or musician trains and practices and sweats to attain the goal, so the believer (if his faith is to be worthwhile) must face difficulties and overcome. Just as the athlete or musician is strengthened by the experience of perfecting his skill, so when we work through our difficulties, we emerge purer and stronger in our faith.
The second reason for difficulties is so that our faith might be clarified. How can you expect to get the right answers unless you ask the right questions?
It’s the same in our faith. We come to understand more by facing the difficulties and asking the right questions. Whether we are struggling with a matter of Catholic doctrine or some aspect of Catholic moral teaching, it is by inquiring with an open heart and alert mind that we come to a fuller and deeper understanding of our faith. Most often, the difficulty was caused by some misunderstanding, and by asking questions, we come to understand more fully.
The third reason for difficulties is to help us proclaim the Gospel with compassion and insight. Each of the baptized are called to help share the Good News, but if none of them had difficulties, how would they understand and sympathize with all those who need to hear the truth but face great difficulties in belief? By going through the difficulties, we understand what others face, and by finding the answers, we are prepared to share them with others.
After “Doubt” and “Difficulties” there is another “D” which is disobedience. This is when a Catholic openly and unapologetically not only disagrees with church teaching, but willfully disobeys what they know to be true. This is a condition of open rebellion, and the reason the Catholic Church is so weak and helpless in the face of the world’s onslaught today is because a huge proportion of her children are living in open disobedience.
Finally, it is so difficult to believe because it is so difficult to obey. Later on in the same sermon, Cardinal Newman writes, “To those who are perplexed in any way, for those who seek the light but cannot find it, one precept must be given — obey. It is obedience which brings a man into the right path. It is obedience which keeps him there and strengthens him in it.”
Obedience seems outrageous in a world of individualism and self-judgment, but the call to obedience is what makes the Catholic faith a “sign of contradiction.” It is in obedience that your faith will live and your difficulties will be resolved; but it is in your disobedience that your difficulties will turn into the doubts which will eventually destroy your faith.”
This does not mean that Catholics should be like mindless robots. Instead we are called to an open-minded and openhearted obedience–like little children in a loving and trusting relationship with the Father. We are also called to ask questions, to be curious and to seek to learn more. We are called to be open about our difficulties, because although they may feel negative they are simply the way we ask the questions in order to find the answers.
We follow the Way with our hearts on fire and our minds alert. If we would find, we must seek, and if we wish the door to be opened to us, we must knock.
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