21 April 2010

Dealing with Doubt

How can I overcome doubt?

Why do I doubt?

Is doubt dangerous for my spiritual health?

The answers to these question are, in order:  Yes, Depends, and Not Necessarily.

There's not a soul on the planet who hasn't entertained a doubt or two about his/her faith.  The apostles, great saints, popes, theologians, philosophers, even ordinary folks have had and have doubts about the most basic insights of our faith.  In some ways, being a Christian is the easiest thing on earth to be.  But when it comes to truly understanding what it means to follow Christ is all about, the doubts can rack up fast.

Let's start by defining "doubt."  Here's the definition from the Cambridge Dictionary of American English"a feeling of not knowing what to believe or what to do, or the condition of being uncertain."  Good basic definition.  Let's leave alone for now what it means "to feel that one doesn't know."  The key here is that there is some sort of confusion about the correctness of a belief, or some uncertainty about what one ought to do in a given situation.  We could add to the defintion: a lack of faith, an absence of conviction, a spirit or habit of questioning.  Synonyms would include: ambiguity, disbelief, distrust, dubiety, faithlessness, hesitancy, incertitude, incredulity, indecision, irresolution, perplexity, qualm, reluctance, skepticism, suspicion, and wavering. You get the idea.  

With these definitions and synonyms it is easy to see why most of us think that doubt opposes faith and why doubting would be dangerous to one's faith.  But not all doubt is created equally.  Not all doubt is a foil to faith.  The Catechism is clear on this point:  "Voluntary doubt [VD] about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt [ID] 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"(n. 2088).  VD is the willful act of rejecting a truth of the faith.  ID arises out of intellectual dissatisfaction with how the truth of the faith is taught and defended.  ID can become VD if it is "deliberately cultivated."  Notice the two essential qualifiers that make doubt sinful:  voluntary and deliberately.  In order for doubt to lead to "spiritual blindness," your uncertainty about a truth of the faith must be chosen as a result of deliberation. 

To reinforce this distinction the CCC goes on to define incredulity "Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it"(n. 2089).  Incredulity has three ugly children:  heresy, apostasy, schism.  These three are what happens when you choose VD and act on it:  you knowingly and willfully believe/teach error; renounce the faith; and separate yourself from the Body of Christ.  Obviously, for a Catholic, VD is serious business.  Most of us do not entertain this level of doubt.  If we did, we wouldn't be all that worried about how to overcome the temptations to doubt the faith.

Most of our anxieties about doubting the faith arise involuntarily.  A family member sends a link to an anti-Catholic website that lists the gross sins of the Roman papacy.  A friend reports on a book that reveals the occult origins of the Mass.  A pamphlet left on the windshield at church interprets the Book of Revelation in a way that demonstrates that the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon.  The circumstances of our involuntary doubt are probably more personal than this. I don't feel the presence of God.  Do I really believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass?  Why did God allow my child to commit suicide?  My son is gay and I'm told that I should reject him, but I can't.  My sins are so bad that not even God can forgive them.  These are all doubts I've heard expressed before.  Real doubts that real Catholics experience and threaten to undermine their faith.

So, what can be done?  

First, don't panic!  Having a doubt about the faith is something akin to suffering from acne.  Even when you are past the worst of it, it will occasionally pop up again.  Don't do anything drastic as a cure.   Put your heart and mind in prayer and wait.  Just wait. 

Second, separate your emotions from our thinking.  Emotions are pretty fine, perfectly natural.  But in times of crisis, emotions can lead to imprudent action.  What you need immediately is a clear picture of exactly what it is that you are doubting.  How we think and feel are intimately bound together.  Anxious feelings lead to anxious thinking and vice-versa.  The process of teasing out how you feel from how you think is helped along by a spiritual director, friend, pastor, etc.  

Third, try to get a clear idea of what it is that you are doubting.  It helps to distinguish between intellectual doubts and emotional doubts.  Intellectual doubts arise when the logic or reasoning of your faith is challenged.  For example, an atheist friend points out a flaw in how you understand the power of prayer.  Or, you discover the often unpleasant history of the Church.  Emotional doubts arise when you encounter rejection, abuse, or some other distressing event in your faith life.  For example, a priest refuses you communion b/c you are divorced.  Or, you are angry at your bishop for his confessed role in covering up your pastor's history of sexual abuse.  Doubts arising out of strong emotions are the most difficult to deal with b/c they do not readily submit themselves to rational evaluation and treatment.  

Fourth, once you are certain about the nature of your doubt, take action to address it with the best tools you have available.  If your doubt is intellectual in nature, assume that you are misunderstanding the teaching you are having doubts about and begin to do some research.  Check facts.  Make the proper distinctions.  Consult those who may know more.  Suspend judgment for as long as possible. If you are too quick to accept as true the objections made to the faith, you might want to evaluate your motivations for doing this.  Has your friend given you an easy out, and you're taking it because you find the teaching too difficult to live with?  Sometimes it is just more convenient to move into voluntary doubt and incredulity than it is to seek out the truth.  If you doubt is emotional in nature, sit down with someone and talk it out.  Be as angry as you need to be.  God is a big boy and he knows your heart.  The Psalms are not exactly free of angry outbursts directed at God!  Get to the bottom of your feelings by being honest.  Most of the time, I've found that people who are angry with the Church over some issue are really angry about something else entirely.  The event that they claim to be angry about turns out to have been a trigger.  The woman who is angry about the way the Church treats divorced Catholics is really angry about her family's rejection of her new husband.  It's just less complicated to cuss at the Church.  This doesn't mean that your emotion response is always about displacement; it means that your doubt cannot be overcome if you cannot be honest about what it is that's bugging you.

Fifth, all of the steps above assume that you are committed to resolving your doubts, regardless of their cause and nature.   If, even in the face of the worst possible doubt, you remain committed to resolving the problem, then you can be at peace b/c that commitment alone speaks volumes to the strength of your faith.  If you are not committed to resolving your doubts, then you won't do any of the above steps and your doubt won out long before you gave it much thought.  So, what happens if you are absolutely committed but cannot resolve the doubt?  I will answer that question with a question:  what is motivating your commitment even though you have failed to resolve your doubt?  

Probably the most important thing to remember about the faith is this:  we believe in order to understand.  Modernist culture has flipped this and made understanding a prerequisite for belief.  If you wait around for absolute understanding before believing, you will be waiting long past your funeral.  Faith is the good habit of trust.  Trust is a risk.  For us, to believe, to trust, to have faith are all gambles.  We trust our kids to daycare.  We believe that our CPA won't steal us blind.  But we know that the daycare could hire a molester and that the CPA could be an embezzler.   Fortunately, our faith is given to One Who has never failed, never lied, and will always keep His promises.  There is no gambling here, no risk.  We may feel that we are risking everything and we may think that we are gambling everything, but where there is no chance of failure, there is no danger of losing. 



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8 comments:

  1. This one really spoke to me, at a time when the Church is coming under so much fire and my non-Catholic friends keep bringing up the difficult issues.

    You're quite right--you can't resolve your doubts without acknowledging them.

    Thanks for writing this!

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  2. I agree with Maria Raphael. This post is a keeper.

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  3. If we believe in order to understand, does that mean the belief has no foundations that can be understood? How does one distinguish between Catholic belief and Mormon belief- are they equally valid starting points? Aren't the foundational beliefs necessary for understanding a lot more basic than the complex set of beliefs that make up Catholicism? Aren't they more like "there is an external reality", "Our senses tell us true things about this external reality", and etc? It seems to me that you are taking a truth- that we must have foundational beliefs in order to understand anything, and expanding it in an unwarranted fashion to include beliefs that are not foundational. It seems to me that belief in itself is not necessary to understanding, but only certain beliefs. The question then is whether or not Catholic doctrine is in that group of foundational beliefs. I suspect that it is not, although Aquinas may be right that one can deduce the Catholic faith from foundational beliefs through natural law.

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  4. Hes,

    "If we believe in order to understand, does that mean the belief has no foundations that can be understood?"

    No, it doesn't. The Catholic tradition is not fideistic--belief only. Our understanding of the faith is first grounded in belief and then understood. A purely rational understanding of faith is not really faithful. Being faithful requires more than just knowledge; it also requires experience, a will to trust, etc.

    "How does one distinguish between Catholic belief and Mormon belief- are they equally valid starting points?"

    Assuming that both Catholic and Mormon beliefs are equally valid, I guess you would distinguish them by comparing their relative truth claims. Of course, I don't assume that they are equally valid starting points.

    "Aren't the foundational beliefs necessary for understanding a lot more basic than the complex set of beliefs that make up Catholicism?"

    Yes, but the more complex beliefs are generally arrived at through a series of acts of understanding the more basic beliefs. With the initial belief in the gospel, one then uses reason to tease out an understanding of the faith.

    "It seems to me that you are taking a truth- that we must have foundational beliefs in order to understand anything, and expanding it in an unwarranted fashion to include beliefs that are not foundational."

    The expansion of a foundational belief into other sorts of beliefs should proceed according to experience and reason. Whether a non-foundational belief is an unwarranted expansion of a foundational belief is determined by the use of right reason and, when necessary, tradition and the magisterium. Consistency and non-contradiction among various levels of truths is key. "Jesus is the Christ" is foundational. "Green is the color for Ordinary Time" is not. But the second is not inconsistent with the first.

    "It seems to me that belief in itself is not necessary to understanding, but only certain beliefs."

    Not sure I follow you here. For Christians, faith is foundational. We do not come to Christ through a process of reasoning. The truths of the faith can be taught and defended by reason, but to follow Christ involves the whole person not just the intellect.

    "The question then is whether or not Catholic doctrine is in that group of foundational beliefs. I suspect that it is not, although Aquinas may be right that one can deduce the Catholic faith from foundational beliefs through natural law."

    There's a difference btw noting that Catholic doctrine is reasonable and believing that it is true. Presumably, if you believe that Catholic doctrine is true, you believe that it is reasonable. But being reasonable doesn't make it true. Jesus said, "Follow me." He didn't say, "Assent to any reasonable conclusion properly deduced from true premises."

    Thanks for the questions!

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  5. Thanks, Father. This helps but I still struggle with apostasy. I'd have to say I'm definitely in the Voluntary Doubt camp, and have been so for about 3 years now. God and Catholicism seem so unreal to me now. I still practice the faith externally out of deference to my wife and children, but it all seems so patently false to me, like Mormonism, for example. Certainly Catholicism is much more intellectually rigorous and can be glorious in its worship in the extraordinary form, and sometimes rarely in its ordinary form, so the comparison with Mormonism should only be seen in terms of whether their historical and basis in reality claims are equally false. The ideas of complexity and "design" arising out of order and regularity that have been explored with modern science seem to provide a satisfying explanation of how things came to be as they are, and seem to not require a personal God. I think one can make an argument for Deistic God, or a God of the Philosophers/ Stoics, but even then I have trouble seeing what such a God would mean to me. I don't want to tie up your comboxes with my own struggles, so will just leave it at that. I envy you your studies at the Angelicum- I was there in 1985 for a semester and it was a wonderful experience. I miss the faith I had then.

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  6. Hi,

    My name is Rev Robert Wright, Editor for Christian.com, a social network made specifically for Christians, by Christians. We embarked on this endeavor to offer the entire Christian community an outlet to join together and better spread the good word of Christianity. Christian.com has many great features like Christian TV, prayer requests, finding a church, receiving church updates and advice. We have emailed you to collaborate with you and your blog to help spread the good word of Christianity. I look forward to your response regarding this matter. Thanks!


    Rev. Robert Wright
    rev.robertwright@gmail.com
    www.christian.com

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  7. great post!
    thanks. the last paragraph in particular!

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  8. Hes, send me your email in a comment if you would like to correspond. I won't publish it.

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